Nissan Motorsport celebrated its fourth successive outright victory in the Toyota 1 000 Desert Race, round three of the Absa Off Road Championship, in Botswana last weekend. Alfie Cox and Ralph Pitchford dominated the event in their Proudly South African Nissan Hardbody V6 and finished 1h 21m 45s ahead of the Mitsubishi Pajero of Henri Zermatten and Bodo Schwegler.
Third, just 6,5s behind the Pajero after 1 000 km of high speed dirt road racing over two and a half days, were Gavin Cronje and Robin Houghton in their Toyota Hilux.
Cox, the first man to win the Desert Race on both two wheels and four, and Pitchford also won class F (for modified production vehicles), while Zermatten and Schwegler won class D for near standard six cylinder production vehicles. Nissan won the team prize ahead of Toyota with Cox/Pitchford, team-mates Hannes Grobler/Francois Jordaan (4th overall and second in class F) and privateers Arnold du Plessis/John Knox (5th overall and third in class D in their Coca Cola/ BB Auto Hardbody).
Cox and Pitchford won Friday’s 40-km prologue that determined the starting order of the race proper and, except for a brief period in the first hour of Saturday’s 475-km loop from Gaborone to the designated service point at Mantshwabisi and back to Gaborone, led the race throughout to record their first win on four wheels in the popular Botswana classic.
“We made the most of the fact that we had no dust to contend with at the start but lost the lead about 30 km into the race when we suffered a flat wheel in a very rocky section,” said Cox. “We regained the lead before the service point halfway through the loop and had a trouble-free run throughout the rest of the event.
“My job was made a lot easier by not having Hannes pressuring me. This was my 18th Desert Race and after four wins on motorcycles I’m proud to be the first person to win the event on both two wheels and four. My team prepared a great car for us this weekend and it ran like clockwork.”
Team-mate and reigning SA off-road champion Grobler started the main race on Saturday from Gaborone just 43,7s behind Cox, but lost all chance of winning his fourth successive Desert Race when he and Jordaan were forced to stop for repairs on Saturday after a front wheel fell into a deep hole in a particularly rough section, damaging the steering and front suspension.
After jacking up the Nissan and making temporary repairs, which took them 45 minutes, they were later forced to stop a second time when a front brake disc shattered. They again jacked up the car and removed the broken disc and calliper and carried on after another 45-minute delay. At the end of the first day they were in an unfamiliar 11th place, a distant 1h 22m 52s behind their team-mates.
The event was run in very hot and dusty conditions and Grobler had his work cut out on Sunday’s 475-km loop (the reverse of Saturday’s) passing the competitors who separated him from Cox. By the midway service point, where competitors were required to make a 15-minute pit stop, Grobler had moved up to second place on the road and sixth overall.
His characteristically determined fight back through the field had the thousands of excited local motor sport fans who almost swamped the many spectator points chanting his Motswanan nickname, Mantshwabisi.
“It’s a long time since I’ve had to fight back from so far behind, but it was a great race,” said Grobler. “I didn’t enjoy the dust, but the chase was exciting for us and I hope for the spectators too. The support we had from the fans out there was tremendous.”
Best of the Nissan privateers was Arnold du Plessis, owner of Polokwane Nissan dealer BB Auto, whose 5th place overall was his highest placing for some time despite a puncture on Saturday and having the gear lever pop out of its housing on Sunday.
He enjoyed a spirited tussle on the last day with his brothers Jurie and Andre in the second Coca Cola/BB Auto Hardbody, who finished 7th overall and 5th in class D after slowing towards the end with brake problems.
There was disappointment for the other privateers. Thomas Rundle and Stavros Yiannakis (Barden Tyre Services Hardbody) made it through the first day and a half in 18th place only to be forced out with shock absorber problems 100 km from the finish.
Motoring journalist Deon Schoeman and Jan Sime (Topcar/Autopage/Du Pont Hardbody) were running strongly in 11th place when fuel tank problems forced them to retire just 30 km from the halfway service point on Saturday.
Coetzee Labuschagne and Johan Gerber (Raysonics/GBS Racing Hardbody) were 10th overall on Saturday evening, but failed to make Sunday’s start when their Nissan developed oil pressure problems on the way to the start and then pumped out all its engine oil.