The Proudly South African Nissan off road racing team notched up its fourth successive victory in the Nissan Sugarbelt 400, round two of the Absa Off Road Championship, which ended in Eston near Pietermaritzburg on Saturday.
Reigning Production Vehicle Champions Hannes Grobler and Richard Leeke started second in extremely dusty conditions and soon made their way to the front of a star studded Class T field, which included team mates Giniel de Villiers and Francois Jordaan and Duncan Vos and Hennie ter Stege and Team Ford Racing’s Neil Woolridge and Ken Skjoldhammer.
Grobler and Leeke finished 2m 10s ahead of Woolridge and Skjoldhammer who led the race at one stage when the other Class T contenders wrong slotted in the choking dust or picked up the odd puncture. The Team Ford Racing pair had a flawless run and finished 26s ahead of Nissan Dealer 400 winners de Villiers and Jordaan, who celebrated his 50th birthday on the event.
De Villiers and Jordaan qualified on pole in Friday’s Prologue and lead from the start but 40km into the race a wheel rim split when they hit a rock, which delayed them and dropped them to fourth overall. A puncture, helping teammates Vos and ter Stege out of a donga and a bout of motion sickness on the part of de Villiers delayed them even further and they settled for third.
Vos, like de Villiers suffered from motion sickness and he and ter Stege finished fourth, 14m 7s behind de Villiers and Jordaan.
Pietermaritzburg based Alfie Cox and Ralph Pitchford dominated Class D in the Arnold Chatz Cars Nissan Hardbody. They out qualified the rest of the Class D field in Friday’s prologue and went on to lead the class from start to finish in the main event.
Manfred Schroder and Jack Peckham were sixth overall and second in Class D in the Team Ford Racing Ranger, which was fitted with an automatic transmission for this race, and trailed the class winning Nissan by 8m 47s.
Hugo and Jaap de Bruyn continued their domination of Class E and brought their slightly battered Castrol Toyota Hilux 2.7i home seventh overall and first in Class E. The Vryburg based father and son crew won the class on the Nissan Dealer 400 and are now serious contenders for the overall and class championship.
Husband and wife Neels and Zelda van der Walt finished eighth overall and second in Class E in their Nissan Hardbody TD and were followed across the line by reigning Class E champions Mark Cronje and Chris Birkin in the Class D Castrol Toyota Hilux 2.7i.
Henri Zermatten and Bodo Schwegler rounded out the top ten in the Master Craft / Playstation Mitsubishi and were happy to finish third in Class D.
Team Ford Racing’s development team, Baphumze Rubuluza and Khulile Vakalisa, who are both Pietermaritzburg based, finished third in Class E for the second event in succession and gave notice that in time they will be serious contenders for victory in a hotly contested class.
Only fifteen of the 36 Production Vehicle starters managed to complete the Nissan Sugarbelt 400, which was regarded this year as being the toughest in the history of the event.
The Special Vehicle category attracted a huge entry with 66 lining up for the start on Saturday morning.
Competition amongst the 21 Class A crews was expected to develop into an all out war between the locally built BAT’s and the American imports.
Brandon Harcus and Achim Bergmann, Clint Gibson and Mike Brown, Philip Vosloo and Evan Hutchinson, Mark Corbett and Gavin Kelsey, Bevan Bertholdt and James Kennerley and Nic Harper and Andrew Chalupsky spearheaded the BAT challenge.
The formidable American imports were represented by Atang Makgekgenene and Mike Stangl (Total Jimco), John Weir-Smith and Geoff Minnitt (Kopanong Hotel Superteam Jimco), Shameer Variawa and Nadeem Dudhia (Oven Fresh Biscuits Porter), Terence Marsh and Michael Whitehouse (Nashua Mobile Jimco) and Frikkie Botha and Blackie Swart (Procoat Jimco).
Variawa and Dudhia lead from the start but their race came to an early end when they were hit from behind by Harcus and Bergmann in the Adrenalise Corporate Entertainment BAT, which destroyed the power steering pump fitted to the rear of the Porter’s gearbox. Variawa’s race was run but Harcus was able to continue.
Corbett and Kelsey in the Century Property Developments BAT took advantage of this mishap and nipped into the lead with Gibson and Brown in the Praesidium Financial Services BAT in close pursuit.
Bertholdt and Kennerley were in contention until the gearbox on the BAT gave problems and they decided to retire rather than destroy the gearbox completely.
Nissan Dealer 400 winners Makgekgenene and Stangl started 83rd after not completing the Prologue and had a lot of ground to make up as did Weir-Smith and Minnitt who started stone last after the fuel pumps on their Jimco failed shortly before the start. Hasty repairs got them underway again but the problem recurred and they were forced into early retirement.
Corbett and Gibson swapped the lead throughout the race with Harper and Marsh involved in a battle for third place.
Makgekgenene and Stangl were carving their way to the front of the field when tragedy struck. The Total Jimco rolled down a mountainside and came to rest on trees. Stangl attempted to get out of the car, which upset the balance and it rolled further down the mountainside trapping him under the vehicle. Stangl died at the scene.
Mark Corbett and Gavin Kelsey went on to win the Nissan Sugarbelt 400 in a time of 7h 17m 33s and were followed 20m 27s later by Clint Gibson and Mike Brown.
Gary Campbell (Mighty Mag) finished third overall and first in Class B with Nic Harper and Andrew Chalupsky fourth overall to make it a Class A 1-2-3 for BAT with all three vehicles powered by Audi V8 engines.
Piet Retief based Johan van Jaarsveld and Marlene Lindeque lead Class B for much of the race but eventually finished fifth overall and second in class in the Ysco. Marsh and Whitehouse lost over an hour due to a variety of mechanical problems and also helping competitors stuck in one of the many river crossings and were happy to finish sixth overall and fourth in Class A after nearly nine hours in the cockpit.
Marcus Taylor and Marc de Chalain lead Class B at one stage but had to settle for third in class and seventh overall. Will Battershill and Reg Sutton did well to finish eighth overall and fourth in Class B in their new JRE.
Class B winners on the Nissan Dealer 400, Adri Roets and Deon de Kock (Global DAD WPP) kept their championship hopes alive by finishing ninth overall and fifth in Class B.
Harcus and Bergmann were the last placed finishers but were excluded from the results for a technical infringement.
The Nissan Sugarbelt 400 will be best forgotten by the 56 Special Vehicle crews who failed to complete the tough event.
The next round of the Absa Off Road Championship, the Toyota 1000 Desert Race, takes place in Botswana from June 13 to 15, which gives crews some time to repair their vehicles and nurse their wounded egos.