Reigning South African off-road racing champions Nissan are aiming for a fourth successive championship win when the eight-event 2004 season gets underway in the Darling area of the Western Cape with the Nissan Dealer 400 on March 19 and 20.

Winners of the 2003 manufacturers’ championship as well as the overall production vehicle driver and co-driver championships, with a dominant seven overall wins out of eight events, Midrand-based Nissan Motorsport will be fielding three Proudly South African Nissan Hardbody double cab pickups in the premier Class T for modified ‘super trucks’.

Last year’s winning works team remains intact with the exception of one co-driver. Reigning national champions Hannes Grobler and Richard Leeke will be looking to extend the extraordinary dominance they enjoyed in 2003, when they won six of the eight events.

Former champions Giniel de Villiers and Francois Jordaan, fresh from their success in the grueling Dakar Rally in January, where they finished the 11 000-km 18-day marathon in a credible seventh overall, will be hoping to repeat their 2001 national championship success, when they took the driver and co-driver titles respectively.

2002 driver champion Duncan Vos will be paired with Hennie ter Steege this season following the retirement of regular partner and 2002 champion co-driver, Mike Griffith.

Backing the official Nissan team will be a strong group of privateers in Nissan Hardbody pickups in classes D (for near-standard six-cylinder production vehicles) and E (for near-standard four-cylinder production vehicles).

The GBS team will start the season with three of the Hardbody pickups they successfully campaigned in class D in 2003 and are hoping to add a fourth Hardbody in time for the second round of the championship, the Nissan Sugarbelt 400 on April 23 and 24.

Defending the class D championship they won last year are Hein Grobler and Gerhard Prinsloo, who will again be supported by Coetzee Labuschagne and Johan Gerber (third in last year’s championship) and husband-and-wife team JP and Linda Augustin.

Multiple national off-road and enduro motor cycle champion Alfie Cox will be back in the class D Hardbody co-driven by Ralph Pitchford and entered by Arnold Chatz Cars of Craighall, Johannesburg.

The KwaZulu-Natal-based Cox, who distinguished himself with a fighting fourth place overall on a works KTM in the Dakar Rally in January, will miss two of the eight rounds of this year’s championship because of racing commitments to the KTM team. He will compete in several rounds of the FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup as part of KTM’s preparations for the 2005 Dakar Rally.

“The Du Plessis brothers and their BB Auto team are back to contest class D with the six-cylinder Hardbody of Arnold du Plessis and George Baker and class E with the four-cylinder Hardbody of Jurie and Andre du Plessis.”

Also contesting class E in their Hardbody, as they did last year, are husband-and-wife team Neels and Zelda van der Walt.

Nissan is expecting a tougher challenge this year with new regulations designed to reduce the overall speeds of the production vehicles. Performance induction restrictors will be fitted to petrol and diesel-engined production vehicles. This has been done for safety and cost reasons and to equalise the engine performance of the vehicles and level the playing field.

“We’ve been working on our 3,5-litre V6 engines to make the most of the new regulations,” says Nissan Motorsport team manager Glyn Hall. “We have enjoyed the benefit of having the most powerful engine so far, and now we will have less power, so it will be tougher for us to win this year.

“But we know we have a very good, strong engine – it comes from the same family of engines that power the international Formula Nissan in Europe and the Nissan 350Z that competes in the All-Japan GT Championship – so we are confident we can extend our championship-winning record,” adds Hall.

Nissan will be fielding completely stripped and rebuilt Hardbody pickups this year. “We’ve made a few changes here and there, but there wasn’t much we could do to improve them,” says Hall. “They were pretty good last year, winning seven of the eight events and finishing 1-2 on five occasions.”