Former South African production vehicle off-road champions Giniel de Villiers and Francois Jordaan led home Nissan Motorsport team-mates Hannes Grobler and Richard Leeke in their Proudly South African Nissan Hardbody pickups at the end of a punishing Toyota Dealer 400, round seven of the Absa Off Road Championship, in Mpumalanga Province on Saturday. The two Nissans were separated by 3 min 32 sec after 400 km of racing. Third, a further 5 min 01 sec in arrears, was the Ford Ranger of former champions Neil Woolridge and Kenny Skjoldhammer.
Nissan has now won all seven of this year’s races and extended their dominance of South African off-road racing to 25 wins from 31 races since 2001.
The Nissan team-mates kept the thousands of spectators along the route enthralled with a fighting display of high-speed dirt road driving that lasted the entire event. Starting just seven seconds apart, the two red Nissans dominated the event throughout with the gap between them ranging from five to 30 seconds almost to the finish. A puncture 20 km from the finish saw Grobler and Leeke drop back at the finish, but they were not in any danger from the Ford throughout the event.
De Villiers, bidding for his second off-road title after winning four consecutive touring car circuit racing titles, led from start to finish after winning Friday’s prologue. “It was a tough event and you had to be very careful not to hit a rock and puncture a tyre. We had to push really hard because Hannes kept the pressure on all the time. We knew it would be difficult to pass in the thick dust so we just concentrated on not making any mistakes and not hitting any rocks and puncturing a tyre.
”In fact, we were lucky. About 30 km from the start we took a wrong turn and were only just able to regain the route ahead of Hannes and Richard. If we hadn’t, I think it would have been us who finished second. Both our cars are very evenly matched and overtaking a team-mate is always difficult!”
Grobler and Leeke, bidding for a second successive title after winning six events last year, are now just two points behind De Villiers and Jordaan in the standings with one event to go, the Carnival City Casino 400 on November 19 and 20. Woolridge and Skjoldhammer are still in with a mathematical chance, trailing the leaders by 37 points.
Although disappointed to have surrendered a championship lead he and Leeke have held since winning round two of the championship, the Nissan Sugarbelt 400 in KwaZulu Natal in April, Grobler praised the organisers for an excellent route and said he thought the close battle between him and De Villiers was good for the sport.
“We put on a good show and kept the pressure on each other all the time,” said Grobler, who remarked how difficult it is to win if you don’t start in the front. “Both cars performed faultlessly. Although I prefer to win, I enjoyed the race very much. We gave it everything we had. Now it’s a case of winner take all at Carnival City.”
Fourth overall and first in class D was the Toyota Hilux of Mark Cronje and Chris Birkin, who finished 10 min 10 sec ahead of fifth-placed Manfred Schroder and Jack Peckham in their class D Ford Ranger. Despite only finishing 14th overall and sixth in class after five successive class wins, after experiencing propshaft problems on their Arnold Chatz Cars Nissan Hardbody, Alfie Cox and Ralph Pitchford still lead class D by 16 points from Cronje and Birkin with one race to go.
Highest placed Nissan privateers were brothers Jurie and Andre du Plessis, who finished 11th overall and third in class E in their BB Auto Hardbody, behind first-time class winners Gavin Cronje and Robin Houghton in a Toyota Hilux and class championship leaders Hugo and Jaap de Bruyn (Toyota Hilux).
It was a good result for the Nissan pair as they were slowed when they lost their windscreen and rearranged the balance of their BB Auto Hardbody after hitting a ditch.
Hein Grobler and Gerhard Prinsloo finished 12th overall and fourth in class T in their GBS Racing Hardbody despite suffering two punctures and losing half an hour when the wheel studs sheered off. Team-mates JP Augustin and Roelof van Heerden finished 15th overall and fifth in class T in spite of breaking both rear leaf springs on their Hardbody.
Johan Gerber and Willie van Straaten, in the third GBS Racing Hardbody competing in class D, failed to finish after problems with the engine management computer.
Arnold du Plessis and George Baker, competing in class T, damaged the diff on their BB Auto Hardbody in Friday’s prologue, when they hit a piece of concrete on an old bridge at speed. They were having a good run after late night repairs to the diff, but it finally packed up and they were forced to retire.