The Sasol SA Rally Championship 2005 has all the hallmarks of being a classic season, with a new top class and an ultra-competitive field in most of the classes being contested. The eight round Sasol championship gets underway with the NMCC-run Hitachi Power Tools Tour Natal Rally, on 4 and 5 March, in KwaZulu Natal.

The new top class is Super 2000, which replaces class A8. Super 2000 is an FIA homologated class and will see the two factory teams from Toyota and Volkswagen go head-to-head for championship honours throughout the year.

Super 2000 sees the introduction of two-litre, non-turbocharged four-wheel drive machines with a minimum weight limit of 1150kg and the introduction of one-make gearboxes and differentials from the French firm Sadev. The cars feature mandatory crash protection on the sides and the front and rear of the vehicle are fitted with a 70-litre fuel tank that must have a carbon and glass fibre crash-proof box and a steel cover for added safety.

The two-litre engines feature a single butterfly inlet manifold of 64mm and a rev limit of 8500rpm has been imposed. This is expected to reduce the maximum power output of the cars, but crucially, will offer more torque. With better braking, cornering and acceleration, the Super 2000 cars are expected to be faster over a given stage than the outgoing A8 cars.

Heading the 2005 entry is the defending championship pairing of Serge Damseaux and Robert Paisley in their Team Castrol Toyota RunX RSi. Damseaux is chasing his record-equaling 11th title, while Paisley is going for a hat trick of titles. Damseaux currently has 66 rally victories to his credit, a record he shares with Sarel van der Merwe and will make the record his own during the 2005 season.

The second works-built Toyota RunX is that of Team Total's Etienne Lourens/Andre Vermeulen, who have an identical machine to that of Damseaux. Lourens won rallies in his class A7 Corolla two seasons ago and is brimful of confidence for the year ahead.

Volkswagen has changed from the Golf 4 bodyshell to the Polo for the BP-supported team in 2005. Four-times champion Jan Habig returns alongside his regular co-driver Douglas Judd, while the second BP Polo is earmarked for Enzo Kuun/Guy Hodgson. A delay in Volkswagen Racing's build programme means that the Super 2000 Polos won't be ready for the opening round, and the Volkswagen squad will have to rely on their Golfs one more time, suitably modified to conform to the class A7 regulations.

One car running in S20, but at its full 2004 A8 homologation is the Topcar Hugo Boss BMW of Cliff Blackman/Johan Klaasen. The Rally Commission has given the Topcar team a dispensation to run and score points in class S2000 for four rallies in this guise and keeps the unique-to-South Africa BMW thrilling fans for a few more events.

Class A7 is set to become the most competitive of the championship with its biggest ever entry and will see the factory Volkswagen and Toyota teams in another classic confrontation.

Jean-Pierre Damseaux and Cobus Vrey have at their disposal Serge's championship-winning Toyota RunX RSi under the Team Total banner, slightly de-tuned to A7 regulations. The current class A7 champions should start the season as title-favourites with a known package of performance and reliability.

Stepping up to the top two-wheel drive class are Charl Wilken and Robin Houghton in a factory-entered Castrol Konica Minolta Toyota RunX RSi. Their learning curve will be steep, but Wilken already has ten motorsport titles to his name in various disciplines, while Houghton has eleven co-drivers' titles to his name, and neither is a stranger to power and speed.

Ranged against the Toyota pairings is a fleet of Volkswagens headed by Hergen Fekken and new for 2005 co-driver Pierre Arries in a brand new BP supported machine. In 2004, the BP Polo was arguably the quickest machine in the class but very fragile, recording just one class win and finish in six outings. The new BP Polo not be ready for the Tour, so Fekken will take the wheel of a third A7 Golf 4.

Volkswagen has bolstered the 2005 series entries in this class by making their 2004 Golf models available to a trio of loyal drivers: Tony Ball and Alan Bisset (Bulwer Park), Adrian Karth/Rikus Fourie (NetConnect) and Barry Grobbelaar/Mike Burrows (Sasol) each receive a Golf.

For this opening round, Ball will borrow Jan Habig's personal training Golf, while Karth has delayed the sale of his old Polo Playa. Grobbelaar has unearthed his 2003 Polo Playa and will run once again with Sasol support.

Stephan van Dyk/Mark Pym have bought the ex-works 2004 Volkswagen Polo and will hopefully find the funding to complete a full season, while Eric Storbeck/Jaco Koekemoer run an older Garden Pavilion Volkswagen Polo Playa.

There is more change afoot in class N4, the top Production Car class for four-wheel drive and turbocharged cars.

Fernando Rueda returns to the sport after a prolonged absence for health reasons, with a brand new Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 8 MR-RS. Martin Botha will be the co-driver and the team is fully branded in Sasol's new blue and yellow colour scheme, which promotes the well-known fuel and the sasol delight convenience store brand.

Also entered under the Sasol brand is the Capetonian pairing of Richard Behm and Grant St Clair in their Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 6. Behm rocked the establishment on round seven of the 2004 series leading the first day's activities and scored a maiden podium finish on the closing rally of the year.

Johnny Gemmell retains his L&J Plant Services Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 7, but now has Martie Olivier in the hotseat and continues to receive support from Sasol. Another brand new Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 8 will appear in ESPI Sports Nutrition colours in the hands of Japie van Niekerk and Johan Sieling. Van Niekerk made a sensational debut in rallying in 2004, winning his second ever rally and went on to fight tooth and nail for the MSA Northern Regions rally title.

Heading the Subaru line-up are Nicholas Ryan and Brian Carrihill in a brand new Bosal Impreza WRX ST, built locally to the latest N10 Prodrive specification. Ryan was the only driver to finish every event he started last year and is looking to capitalize on his 2004 performances and experience.

Visser du Plessis and Thilo von Westernhagen return with the same package as 2004, their Metmeister sasol delight Subaru Impreza WRX STi now fully sorted after a difficult season in 2004 and upgraded with a full competition gearbox. Another unchanged pairing is that of Mally Saville/Dean Redelinghuys in their Auto Services Subaru Impreza WRX STi. The elder statesman of rallying enjoyed his best ever year in 2004 and will look to reliability to repeat or improve on his third on the Production Car points table.

A popular young Subaru team returning for another season is the sasol delight Bosch Impreza WRX duo of Lola and Megan Verlaque, fondly dubbed the Rally Chicks. They had some solid results last year and embark on their 4th year in the sport with renewed confidence and a new yellow colour scheme.

Jacques Botha and Greg Gericke return to class N4 in a RallyStar Performance Subaru Impreza WRX STi. Botha has always built fast and reliable cars and he should be a championship factor from the start. He drives the car his father Leon took to class N4 honours in 2002, but Botha Jr has substantially updated the near-standard machine.

A second string to the RallyStar team is an exciting new development duo consisting of Sifiso Mahlangu and the world's first black woman navigator, Ntombi Masilela. This rookie pairing will be on a steep learning curve from the very first stage, with just a single regional rally under their belts by the time the Hitachi Power Tools Tour gets under way on 4 March.

The third entry under the RallyStar banner is the Motorsport Africa pair of journalists, Steve Mearns and Ciaran Nunan, running in a Subaru Impreza WRX Sportwagon. The unlucky duo endured an awful season last year in an "elderly" BMW and will hope to get some solid miles and add to their experience level with a reliable car.

Rounding out the N4 entry on the Tour Natal is the Pretoria-based Italian Panelbeaters Subaru Impreza GT of Jose Ferreira and newcomer Raymond Heenop, another teenager following in the footsteps of Miguel da Costa.

The current class A6 championship titleholders, KZN-based Craig Trott and John Costa, return with their familiar Team Total Toyota Corolla RSi to defend their crown against renewed attack from a host of title hopefuls. Schalk Burger Jr/Wimpie van Greunen head the chase in a Schalk Burger Motorsport-run Toyota Corolla RSi. Burger suffered a horrendous crash on the Sasol Rally last year that put the youngster in hospital and out of the season.

Two KZN teams are in the class mix as well: Richard and Natasha Vaughan have a brand new Hitachi Power Tools Toyota Tazz at their disposal, while the talented Stevan Wilken/Megan Stow run an older Toyota Conquest. Both teams know the championship trail well and are capable of causing a major upset during the year.

Andy Haigh Smith and Gerald Brace return for another season of fun in their Team REACT Toyota Corolla, hoping for better reliability than they had in 2004. This pairing has assumed the mantle of the oldest competitor pairing in the sport. Ken Westermeyer and Lloyd Curtis will have a one-off outing in their Transaxle Volkswagen Polo Playa.

A hotbed of ultra competitive machinery and drivers line up in class A5, the smallest-engined modified class. Defending champions Dolf Coetzee/Irma du Plooy (Toyota Tazz) again face their fiercest rivals Nkosinathi Nzimande and Gerhard Snyman in the works BP Volkswagen Chico. The title fight in 2004 went down to the wire, with the crown going to Coetzee in the dying moments of the NPS Great North event.

Track racer Philip Kekana and Rod Hering make their debut in a Sasol Toyota Tazz after Kekana impressed former rally driver Keith Coleman during a test session last year. The "Township Tornado" has an experienced co-driver in Hering, is a quick learner, and should be up to speed by the middle of the year.

Bryan and Keith Heine return with a season of development behind them in their Penny Pinchers Volkswagen Chico, while Gary Swemmer/Peter Davison are moving up from class N1 with a factory-built Gary's Workshop Volkswagen Chico. Swemmer will run his N1 car in class A5 on the Tour, as his new car won't be ready in time.

Michael Houghton and Bryn Doherty return for a full national season of rallying after a two-year hiatus with Motorola support for their Toyota Tazz. Similar Tazzes are fielded by Hylton Belitzky/AN Other (BNS Workshop LUK Tazz - another returnee) and another newcomer to the class, Etienne Malherbe/Hennie Botes in an EOS FIN Tazz. Malherbe has years of rallying experience in rear wheel drive historic cars to his credit.

Vusi Mabanga and new co-driver Eugene Lourens (Etienne's brother) return in a Team Total Toyota Tazz after a disappointing season last year plagued by mechanical unreliability.

Class N3 is an all Toyota affair. No less than four identical RunX RSi's are set to entertain fans. The class champion, Rodney Visagie/Carolyn Swan return in their Team Total RunX to defend their crown against their teammates Chris de Wit/Patrick Yende in a similar, but newer RunX. De Wit and Yende won class N2 last year and step up to the bigger class with continued support from Team Total.

De Wit's N2 rivals from 2004, John/Douglas Williams, have also stepped up a notch with a Trident Press Toyota RunX RSi, so the renewed rivalry can be expected to continue into the new season.

Adding spice and a dash of extra excitement to the class is the entry for Claudio Piazza Musso and Janine Labuschagne in a Sasol RunX RSi. The younger Piazza Musso is a multi-talented motorsportsman, having won five national karting championships, the first in 1987, before winning the Rotax World Finals in Malaysia in 2002. He also won the Formula Ford title in 1990, has competed in Formula Gti, off-road and the stadium superseries, as well as regional rallying in a potent 1600cc Fiat Uno.

The final class in the series, N2, consists of two new driver pairings, both stepping up from regional series and last year's Tour Natal class A6 winner Aggie Stroh. Stroh and co-driver Jurg Steyn have bought de Wit's championship-winning Toyota Corolla RSi and secured funding from NPS Oilflow for a full season. Joining the Polokwane residents is Kosta Koumantarakis/Barry White in a brand new (ex-track racing) Toyota Corolla, while newcomer Craig Baragwanath/AN Other also field the venerable Corolla RSi.

Rounding out the entry are a number of regional competitors running in the non-points scoring class S20. Included in the line-up is Wayne Westermeyer/ Alec Harris in their Transaxle Volkswagen Polo Playa and Michael Otto/Hannes de Beer, from Middelburg, in an Auto Doctor Toyota Conquest.

The Hitachi Power Tools Tour Natal Rally starts from the Scottburgh Pick n Pay at 11h00 on Friday 4 March and takes teams through four special stages before returning to the NMCC Clubhouse in Durban for the overnight halt.

The Servistar Superspecial (06h00) through the streets of Pinetown kicks off Saturday's activities, before the crews head back to the South Coast area for a run of six stages around Park Rynie, Esperanza and Ellingham. The podium and champagne ceremony take place at the NMCC Clubhouse in Umgeni Road, where the first car is due at 14h46.

Spectator guides for the rally will be available from the Wednesday before (2 March) at the Sasol Retail Convenience Centres in Durban and other (to be advised) locations, including Pinetown.

For further information on the Hitachi Power Tools Tour Natal Rally or any aspect of the Sasol SA Rally Championship 2005, log on to www.sasolracing.co.za or call 08-22-33-4321.