After three rounds of the Absa South African Off-Road Championship, Hilux bakkies lead both classes being contested by Castrol Toyota Off-Road teams this season.

Privateer and official Castrol Toyota Motorsport works teams are also third and fourth in the overall driver’s and navigator’s championships.

After an excellent start to the 2004 championship winning overall class honours in each of the events so far this season, 2002 Class E champions Hugo and Jaap de Bruyn, of Vryburg, have moved into a strong third position in the overall standings. Only five points separate the father and son team, in the Castrol supported Hilux 2,7i, from the second placed Class T Ford Ranger of Neil Woolridge and Kenny Skjöldhammer.

Although they had to replace the Hilux’s gearbox after the first 500 km of the recent Toyota 1000 Desert Race and had to complete the last 250 km in rear-wheel drive, they took class honours for the third consecutive time and finished a brilliant fifth overall.

Now racing in Class D, reigning Class E champions Mark Cronjé and Chris Birkin, in the Castrol Toyota Hilux 2.7i, clashed with multiple motorcycle off-road champion Alfie Cox and Ralph Pitchford (Nissan Hardbody) on the Toyota 1000 to take their third podium position of the season by finishing second in Class D. Both teams led the Class D field at some stage or other, with Cronjé/Birkin having to drop back a mere 60 km from the finish with only rear-wheel drive.

As if this was not enough, they also suffered a puncture. This allowed Cox and Pitchford to break away and, after two days of racing, only seconds separated the two crews at the finish.

Cronje, however, was satisfied with the progress he and Birkin have made so far this season, keeping in mind they are racing the same specification Class E Castrol Toyota Hilux they ran in last year’s championship. For the switch to Class D only a few adjustments have been made with some extra reinforcing.

Cronjé said he was looking forward to the Sun City 400 – mostly because it is a much shorter race than the grueling Toyota 1000. Cronje also favours the format where competitors complete the same route twice.

“After the first loop you know what to expect and can adjust the pace accordingly,” he said.

Cronje’s younger brother Gavin, like his sibling a former Rotax Max World Kart champion, finished his first off-road event on the Toyota 1000 - but it was an ordeal for which he was completely unprepared. Cronjé and experienced navigator Robin Houghton, also in his first Class E race after five overall championships with Apie Reyneke in the top classes of off-road racing, brought their Castrol Toyota Hilux 2,7i home for a well-deserved finish.

Cronjé suffered from motion sickness on the first day, but recovered on the second day to increase his pace and even completed the event without a single puncture! The Toyota 1000 result saw Cronje and Houghton move into fifth place in Class E, after only one event, and the Sun City 400 format should also suit the rookie driver.

After a Class D win in the opening round of the 2004 Absa Off-Road Championship, the Toyota 1000 was a huge disappointment for Paolo Piazza-Musso and Rod Hering in their Castrol supported Hilux. Engine bearings decided to call it a day with the finish in sight and the de Bruyn’s towed them across the finish.

The pair was then excluded from the results, but Piazza-Musso has put this behind him, and is looking forward to the Sun City 400 – an event he has seen before from behind the wheel of an off-road racing vehicle. Also with experience in karting, Piazza-Musso is highly experienced and should be up with the frontrunners.

Durbanites Zane Pearce and Hennie Vosloo, in the Toyota Hilux 3,0 KZ-TE with Castrol support, at last made their mark with points on the leader boards in Class A and the overall standings after completing the Desert Race for their first success of the season. They are currently fourth in Class E and five points ahead of Gavin Cronjé/Houghton. The 2004 event was the second Toyota 1000 Desert Race they successfully completed.