The Castrol Toyota Off Road Team’s 2005 Absa Off Road Championship campaign got off to a troubled start on the season opening Nissan Sugarbelt 400 in Eston, Kwa-Zulu Natal today.
There were great expectations for 2004 Class D Production Vehicle Championship runners-up Mark Cronje and Chris Birkin, Gavin Cronje and Robin Houghton and Paolo Piazza-Musso and Ockie Fourie in the Class D Castrol Toyota Hilux 2.7’s but a series of problems, some minor, put paid to their chances of qualifying high up the starting order.
Cronje and Birkin set a blistering pace in the 31km Prologue and looked set to out qualify the rest of the Class D field but a puncture eight kilometres from the finish saw them drop down the order and they had to settle for 10th overall and second in class.
Piazza-Musso and Fourie were on the pace until a right front drive shaft sheared, which forced them to ease their pace. An accelerator cable broke 15km into the Prologue and they limped home in 55th place.
Cronje and Houghton, who moved from Class E to Class D, were in fine form until a cooling fan stopped working five kilometres into the race. They continued for a further 18km with an overheating engine and elected to stop and hot wire the fan, which cost them considerable time. The pair will start 65th, which is ten positions up on their 2004 starting position.
The team’s lone entry in Class E, Zane Pearce and veteran rally navigator Peter Chadwick, took it easy because it was the first time Pearce had raced a petrol engine off road vehicle and the first time that Chadwick had competed in an off road event. The Durban based crew qualified 30th overall and fourth in Class E.
“We may have had some problems today but we’re confident of a good showing by our Class E and Class D teams,” said Wammy Haddad, Toyota Motorsport manager. “The 400km main event is what it is all about and all the drivers have shown in the past that they can come from behind and succeed.”