Young Mark Cronjé had another blistering performance in only his second South African championship off-road event finishing fourth overall in the gruelling Nissan Sugarbelt 400 held in KwaZulu-Natal on Saturday (May 10, 2003). -

- Cronjé and Birkin, racing the competitive Castrol Toyota Hilux 2700i 4x4 in Class E, lost out on their second class victory by a mere 10 seconds – mostly because of the fact that the whole event was run against the clock as opposed to a flat-out race for the line. However, they are second in the overall national production vehicle championship and Class E leaders after two rounds in the 2003 title chase - an amazing achievement for a driver having only started off-road racing in March, after years of circuit racing successes. -

- A lot had depended on Toyota’s young karting world champion and his experienced navigator, Chris Birkin, after the Castrol Toyota Land Cruiser of Apie Reyneke and Robin Houghton crashed out of the pre-race on Friday with a damaged front axle. They certainly lived up to the trust placed in them. -

- This "F1 style qualifying" for starting positions, with the competitors racing a short 60 km section against the stopwatch to determine the grid positions for the main race was stopped after some sugar cane fields caught fire on Friday afternoon. By the time the fire was extinguished it was too late for the remaining competitors to complete the prologue in daylight, so it was cancelled. -

- Cronjé and Birkin had excellent support from Class E team-mates Kassie Coetzee and Ockie Fourie in their diesel-powered Hilux 3,0 KZ-TE with the veteran driver fighting a lone battle, way down the seeded starting order. Their Hilux also had a troublefree run to finish fifth overall and third in Class E. Coetzee and Fourie also lie third in the overall production vehicle championship. -

- First off the line on Saturday morning had been the two Nissan Motorsport entries of Giniel de Villiers/Francois Jordaan and Hannes Grobler/Richard Leeke, followed, in the absence of the Castrol Toyota Class T entry of Reyneke and Houghton, by the new Ford Ranger V6 of local crew Neil Woolridge and Kenny Skjöldhammer who were looking forward to a good event on their home turf in their new-specification off-roader. -

- The field set off for the first of three 130 km loops in extremely dusty conditions with early fog on Saturday morning complicating matters even more, but it was the two Nissans with De Villiers showing the way leading the race after the first lap. -

- A tight battle ensued in Class E with the three four-cylinder 4x4 bakkies of Cronjé/Birkin, Coetzee/Fourie and Manfred Schröder/Jack Peckham (Ford Racing Ranger 2500 turbo-diesel) completing the first loop in a quicker time than any of the expectedly faster Class D six-cylinder machines. This included the Castrol Land Cruiser of Piet Haasbroek and Freddie Scheepers that suffered steering problems that eventually led to their demise before the end of the first loop. -

- The Class E trio were followed by local two-wheeler hero Alfie Cox who was racing a Nissan Hardbody with the help of navigator Hennie ter Steege, and vast experience from numerous previous motorcycle races on the Sugarbelt helped Cox in only his second production vehicle event to attack the race carefully with only one goal in mind – to finish the race. -

- This was also the aim of Cronjé, who had been told by Toyota Motorsport Manager Whammy Haddad to forget about winning, but making sure they get to the finish, learning the challenging ways of off-road racing along the way. -

- This was nearly shattered on the pre-race prologue when Cronjé's Hilux, turning into a sharp right-hander with an obscured jump in the road, was flung wide hitting a tree with the left rear bumper. -

- “This hooked our vehicle and the Hilux was whiplashed around and flung in the air, rolling down a steep mountainside where it landed on its side amongst some very thick and strong trees,” a very shaken Cronjé said on Friday night. -

- It took his service crew almost four hours to free the vehicle, but damage was minimal and Cronjé could concentrate on Saturday’s race. -

- “We never really knew where we were in our class because of the format of racing against the clock until the finish where race times would be calculated to determine the winner. We were very frustrated to learn we missed out on a class victory by a mere 10 seconds,” explained Birkin whose job was not only to find the route, but also to coach Cronjé on handling the changing conditions during the race/-

- “Mark caught on quickly, reading the road and understanding the route markers, making it easier for him to concentrate on racing the vehicle,” Birkin said. -

- With Cronjé and Schröder already at the finish, they had to wait for the arrival of the Coetzee/Fourie Hilux turbo diesel before they could be sure who won Class E. Coetzee and Fourie were 2 min. 55 sec. Behind Cronje and Birkin on corrected time. They were, therefore classified third in class and fifth overall after being second in class and fourth overall in the opening round of the championship, the Nissan Dealer 400, in the Western Cape. -

- Top 10 production vehicle category results in the 2003 Nissan Sugarbelt 400 were: -

- Hannes Grobler/Richard Leeke (Nissan Hardbody; Class T winners) -

- Duncan Vos/Mike Griffith (Nissan Hardbody; 2nd Class T) -

- Manfred Schröder/Jack Peckham (Ford Ranger; Class E winners) -

- Mark Cronjé/Chris Birkin (Castrol Hilux; 2nd Class E) -

- Kassie Coetzee/Ockie Fourie (Castrol Hilux; 3rd Class E) -

- Alfie Cox/Hennie ter Steege (Nissan Hardbody; Class D winners) -

- Cliff Barker/Vic Campher (Land Rover; 3rd Class T) -

- Neil Woolridge/Kenny Skjöldhammer (Ford Ranger; 4th Class T) -

- Hein Grobler/Gerhard Prinsloo (Nissan Hardbody; 2nd Class D) -

- A van Vuuren/T van Vuuren (Nissan Hardbody; 4th Class E) -

- Highlights of the event will be broadcast on May 20 on Supersport (High-Octane at 20:30). -

- Photographic material including high-resolution action photographs is available from Motorpics at www.motorpics.co.za.