Castrol Toyota Hilux teams are out to dominate their respective classes again in the Production Vehicle Category of the Nissan Sugarbelt 400, second round of the ABSA Off-Road Championship to be held on April 23 and 24 in the Eston area near Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal.
After the very successful opening round to the 2004 season, Castrol Toyota Hilux teams are leading the Class D and E championships with Mark Cronjé and Chris Birkin on a mission to improve their Class D points after moving up to this six-cylinder class at the beginning of this year. The Castrol Toyota Hilux duo last year entered the off-road racing arena by winning the Class E championship in their very fist season.
However Cronjé and Birkin would like to forget their first Nissan Sugarbelt 400 event – Cronjé last year rolled the Class E Castrol Toyota Hilux 2700i in the prologue, but they still managed to clinch second in their class in the main event. The team had a good start to the 2004 season in spite of a misfiring engine and a broken front side-shaft that forced them to cover most of the thick sand sections in the first half of the race in only two-wheel drive.
They finished the race and crossed the 400 km line behind new teammates Paolo Piazza Musso and Rod Hering in a similar Castrol Toyota Hilux 2700i.
Piazza-Musso celebrated his return to off-road racing by taking the Class D victory ahead of Cronjé/Birkin, but not without their share of problems. The engine of their Castrol Hilux overheated because of mud blocking the radiator, but the team had an otherwise problem free run, finishing the event ahead of the whole Class D field.
The Nissan Sugarbelt 400 will be the second KwaZulu-Natal event for Piazza-Musso after completing the gruelling race in a Class T Super Truck a few years ago. He remembers how they took a wrong turn and ended in a riverbed and battled to retrieve the vehicle, and would also not like to see a repeat of that.
Off-road newcomer Gavin Cronjé, a former Rotax Max Karting World Champion, makes his long awaited off-road racing debut in the Sugarbelt 400 with experienced championship navigator Robin Houghton in a Class E Castrol Toyota Hilux. The vehicle could not be prepared in time for the opening round and Cronjé and Houghton were reduced to the status of spectators.
His first race ever in a Class E vehicle will be a huge adjustment for Houghton who has admitted he will have to come to terms with this part of off-road racing.
Houghton, who has navigated for many rally and off-road drivers, has spent nine years alongside off-road veteran Apie Reyneke and shared many championships, including no less than five consecutive overall production vehicle championships.
Houghton said the Nissan Sugarbelt 400 is one of the more technical events on the off-road racing calendar, but although he has never raced with the younger Cronjé, he has full trust in the karting world champion.
Some of their biggest opponents include Vryburg privateers Hugo de Bruyn behind the wheel of a similar Castrol Toyota Hilux 2700i in Class E drag, with his father Jaap in the navigator seat.
The De Bruyn’s had a brilliant opening round by taking the Class E honours in a brilliant fourth overall after a relatively problem free run, and they look set for a very competitive season after returning to off-road racing after a year-long break.
The De Bruyn’s will be in the sights of the Castrol Toyota Hilux LZ-TE works team of Zane Pearce and Hennie Vosloo who opted to withdraw from the opening race because of mechanical problems.
Toyota Motorsport have in the meantime sorted out all of the teething problems so common to the opening round of any motorsport season, while also getting the Cronjé/Houghton Hilux up to full racing spec.
Various privateer Toyota teams will support the works and semi-works teams in the Nissan Sugarbelt 400, including Cliff Weichelt and his son Louis in their new N1 4x4/Bosal Toyota Hilux powered by an Australian V6 engine in Class D.