This year sees only two Proudly South African Nissans contesting the race, with reigning champion Hannes Grobler and co-driver Francois Jordaan, currently leading the championship, and Cox and Ralph Pitchford in the second vehicle.
With three wins from the first four races this season, the red Nissans are favourites to win the mountainous Maseru-based event. Cox and Pitchford, third last year in a near-standard class D Hardbody, are revelling in their first year in the top class and have already won the Toyota 1 000 Desert Race and the recent Sun City 400 back to back.
Grobler and Jordaan, in their first season together, won the Nissan Dealer 400 in the Western Cape in April after finishing second in the season-opener in KwaZulu Natal. But bad luck has dogged them since, with mechanical problems restricting them to fourth and sixth in the last two events following heroic chases from the back of the field.
However, they still lead the overall championship standings in the production vehicle category at the season’s halfway mark with 66 points, 16 ahead of team-mates Cox and Pitchford and 22 ahead of Gavin Cronje and Robin Houghton (Toyota Hilux).
Grobler and co-driver Richard Leeke, with whom he went on to win the 2004 championship, were forced out of last year’s Lesotho 400 while lying second behind Vos and co-driver Hennie ter Stege when a power steering pipe pulled out of its fitting on the first of the two 170 km laps that made up the race.
Jordaan, champion with De Villiers in 2001, described the return of national championship off-road racing to Lesotho last year as the toughest off-road race he had ever contested in Southern Africa. “It was so rough we were in first and second gear for about 60% of the race. The fact that it took us almost seven and a half hours to complete 340 km gives a good idea of just how difficult the terrain was,” he said.
Only seven production vehicles out of 25 starters completed the grueling 340-km event across the ‘Roof of Africa’ and the first three of these were all Nissan Hardbody pickups built and prepared by Nissan Motorsport.
“Yes, we had a good run in Lesotho last year, but now we’re faced with a brand new challenge and we’ve completely rebuilt the two Nissans for this year’s event,” says Nissan Motorsport general manager Glyn Hall.
“This will, however, be the last time the current cars will compete in the Absa championship as it has been agreed the new Super Production class pickups will make their debut in round six in Polokwane in September.”
The official Nissan Motorsport team will again be backed by an enthusiastic contingent of Nissan privateers who helped Nissan secure five of the top six finishers places and six of the top 10 in last month’s Sun City 400.
Brothers Jurie and Andre du Plessis are having an excellent season in their Coca Cola-backed BB Auto Hardbody and are currently 10th in the overall championship and fifth in class D, 18 points behind class leaders Henri Zermatten and Bodo Schwegler (Mitsubishi Pajero).
Arnold du Plessis and John Knox, in the second Coca Cola BB Auto Hardbody, had their best result of the year in the Sun City 400, finishing a remarkable third overall and second in class D. Their championship chances have been hurt by two non finishes in the first four events and they are currently seventh in class D, 24 points behind the leaders.
Motoring journalist Deon Schoeman and Jan Sime finally got themselves on the points board with their excellent third in class in the Sun City 400, their first finish of the year, and will be aiming at another good result in the Autopage/Du Pont/Topcar Hardbody.
Coetzee Labuscagne and Johan Gerber also broke their points duck at Sun City, bringing their Raysonics Nissan Hardbody home 10th overall and seventh in class D. They too will be working hard to be among the finishers in what is expected to be another tough Lesotho Sun 400.
The only privateer Nissan to not make the finish at Sun City was the Barden Tyre Services Hardbody of Thomas Rundle and Stavros Yiannakis. The two newcomers to off road racing have endured a tough baptism so far, showing great promise but so far not managing to complete an event. They hope to have better luck in Lesotho and beat the mechanical gremlins that have plagued their season so far.