The Castrol Toyota off road racing team certainly didn’t have lady luck on its side on this past weekend’s Absa Off Road Championship opening Nissan Sugarbelt 400 in Kwa-Zulu Natal.
The team was brimming with confidence prior to the start of the event with much expected of its three Class D crews – Mark Cronje and Chris Birkin, Gavin Cronje and Robin Houghton and Paolo Piazza-Musso and Ockie Fourie – and its lone Class E entry of Zane Pearce and Peter Chadwick but the 31km Prologue on Friday was but the start of a series of problems.
Mark Cronje and Chris Birkin were confident of being the top Class D qualifiers but a puncture 8km from the finish of the Prologue cost them dearly and they had to settle for 10th place and second in Class D behind Manfred Schroder and Alec Harris in the Ford Ranger.
To make matters worse Gavin Cronje and Robin Houghton had to stop 18km into the Prologue route to hot wire a radiator cooling fan, which dropped them down to 65th starting position. Like last year, when they started 75th, they would be faced with an almost impossible task of overtaking slower vehicles in the dust.
Paolo Piazza-Musso and Ockie Fourie, who previously navigated for Kassie Coetzee, had a torrid time. First an accelerator cable broke 15km into the Prologue and then the right front drive shaft sheared but they elected to limp home and not incur any additional penalties for not completing the Prologue. Like teammates Cronje and Houghton they would have to safely move from 55th to a class winning position with dust being their biggest threat.
Zane Pearce and Peter Chadwick had a trouble-free run in the Castrol Toyota Hilux 2.7i and qualified 30th overall and fourth in Class E.
Race day dawned and ahead of the crews lay two laps of a 210km route that included deceptively rough sugar cane fields, forests and open land, which have historically resulted in a high attrition rate.
By the end of the 91km East Loop Cronje and Birkin had closed to within 58-seconds of Schroder and Harris and were second in Class D while Pearce and Chadwick were 19th overall and third in Class E. Piazza-Musso and Fourie had made up 22 places in their Castrol Toyota Hilux 2.7i. Cronje and Houghton were on a roll and despite a puncture after colliding with a Class B car had gained 33 places and were 7th in Class D.
The 119km West Loop wasn’t kind on the Castrol Toyota crews.
Cronje and Houghton hit a jump 110km into the route, which upset the balance of the vehicle, and they collided with a tree that damaged the steering on the Hilux. They continued to the designated service point where technicians worked feverishly to repair the damage and were able to resume the race without losing position to the Class D leading Ford. Unfortunately the steering idler arm collapsed 95km from the end of the race and they were reduced to being spectators. Piazza-Musso and Fourie were forced to retire 50km into the West Loop when the spark plug leads chafed through after being caught between the engine and a suspension brace.
Mounting bolts on the front differential on Cronje and Houghton’s Castrol Toyota Hilux 2.7i sheared 70km from the end of the West Loop, which technicians were unable to repair at the designated service point. The pair soldiered on and finished in a creditable eighth overall in the Production Vehicle category and fourth in Class D.
Zane Pearce and Peter Chadwick had a clean run in the Class E Castrol Toyota Hilux 2.7i with Pearce’s only complaint being that he had to get used to driving a petrol engined vehicle after two years of competing in a diesel engined vehicle. The pair finished seventh overall in the Production Vehicle category and second in Class E.
Privateer crews brought home the bacon for Toyota with father and son Cliff and Louis Weichelt finishing fourth overall and second in Class D in the Bosal N1 4x4 Toyota Hilux V6 and reigning Class E champions Hugo de Bruyn and his father Jaap finishing fifth overall and first in Class E.