Nissan Motorsport’s Duncan Vos and Hennie ter Stege won their first national championship off-road race of the year when they drove their Proudly South African Nissan Hardbody to a hard-earned victory in the Lesotho Sun 400, fifth round of the Absa SA Off Road Championship, which ended near Maseru on Saturday afternoon.
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. Vos and ter Stege won class T (for modified production vehicles) ahead of second-placed team-mates Giniel de Villiers and Francois Jordaan. Third were Alfie Cox and Ralph Pitchford, who won class D (for near-standard six-cylinder pickups) in their Arnold Chatz Cars Hardbody for the fourth race in a row.
Nissan has now won all five of this year’s races and extended their dominance of South African off-road racing to 23 wins from 29 races since 2001. All three of Nissan Motorsport’s teams contesting the championship in their class T ‘super trucks’ have now tasted victory.
De Villiers and Jordaan, champions in 2001, won the first and fourth rounds, while reigning champions Hannes Grobler and Richard Leeke won the other two. Grobler and Leeke were forced out of the Lesotho event while lying second behind Vos and ter Stege when a power steering pipe pulled out of its fitting on the first of the two 170 km laps that made up Saturday’s race.
Despite not finishing and scoring no points, Grobler and Leeke still lead the championship with 150 points, but now with a single point advantage over De Villiers and Jordaan. Cox and Pitchford move up to fourth overall with 131 points, just one point behind Ford’s Neil Woolridge and Kenny Skjoldhammer, who didn’t race their class T works Ranger on Saturday after Skjoldhammer fell ill on Friday night.
Vos was delighted to post his first outright win since graduating from class D after his championship-winning season in 2002. “I’m relieved to finally get my first win and have to thank my team for preparing a great car. We had no problems whatsoever and Hennie made some great calls in the co-driver’s seat. It was a close race with Giniel and Hannes in the beginning and Giniel was always a threat right to the end. It was a really tough race and the conditions had to be seen to be believed.”
De Villiers, champion with Jordaan in 2001, described the return of national championship off-road racing to Lesotho as the toughest off-road race he has 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.
“It’s a tribute to the toughness of the Nissan Hardbody and the thorough preparation by our technical team that we completed this demanding event without a single mechanical problem,” he added.
De Villiers and Jordaan were fastest in Friday’s 40 km prologue and led for the first 20 km or so before making a wrong turn and losing a couple of minutes. With Grobler and Leeke making a similar error after leading the event into the first Designated Service Point, about 80 km from the start, Vos and ter Stege, who had started third after a navigational error in the prologue, took the lead and were not headed to the finish.
Former multiple off road and enduro motorcycle champion Cox was elated with his and Pitchford’s fourth successive class D win. “To finish a tough event like this was an achievement; to win class D again and to come in third overall is really great. I can’t praise the team enough. The car was perfect and the reliability is just incredible – four wins from four starts!” enthused Cox. He and Pitchford finished over an hour ahead of the second-placed class D vehicle, the works Toyota Hilux of Mark Cronje and Chris Birkin.
Nissan Motorsport manager Glyn Hall was full of praise for his team’s performance: “It was a great team effort. We knew it would be a tough event. We didn’t do anything special. We went through all the cars with a fine tooth comb after the Sun City race last month, which was also very tough. Duncan and Hennie thoroughly deserved their win. The problem Hannes and Richard had was unfortunate. A proprietary part unusually failed and it was not something we could fix or replace in the circumstances.”
Nissan’s loyal band of privateers battled on this occasion and were unable to complete the event. Arnold du Plessis and George Baker came closest in their class D BB Auto Hardbody, recovering from early problems with a faulty computer and lack of engine revs only to be time-barred during the second lap. “We had to replace a broken torsion bar bracket at the first DSP, which took two hours, and then we lost another 45 minutes fixing the engine problem, where we couldn’t rev above 2 000 r/min. In the end we were just 30 minutes short of qualifying as finishers,” said a disappointed Du Plessis.
Coetzee Labuschagne and Gerhard Prinsloo, competing in class T in their GBS Racing Hardbody, broke a stub axle and retired within the first 10 km of the race after also breaking a stub axle during the prologue. Team-mates Johan Gerber and Wiley Harrington didn’t last much longer, going out of the event shortly before the end of the first 170-km lap with a blown engine.
Husband and wife Neels and Zelda van der Walt were forced to retire on the first lap with a broken upper control arm on their class E (near standard four-cylinder production vehicles) diesel Hardbody. Jurie and Andre du Plessis had a good run for almost three-quarters of the event, leading class E at one stage in their BB Auto Hardbody, before going out when a stone holed the radiator halfway through the final lap.