It was another 1-2 for Nissan Motorsport after their 1-2-3 in last year’s event, with reigning off road champions Hannes Grobler and Francois Jordaan coming home second in their Proudly South African Nissan Hardbody, 38 minutes behind their team-mates after more than seven hours of driving over two days in the lowlands and Maluti mountains of Lesotho. They in turn were 57 minutes ahead of the third-placed production vehicle and class D winners, Mark Cronje and Chris Birkin in a Toyota Hilux.
Together with 8th-placed Jurie and Andre du Plessis, who were fourth in class D in their Coca Cola-backed BB Auto Nissan Hardbody, Cox and Grobler also won for Nissan the manufacturers’ team prize for the event.
The event, successor to the famed “Roof of Africa Rally”, was the toughest of the five championship rounds held so far this year and once again proved to be a gruelling test and man and machine, with just 22 of the original 46 starters among the combined special and production vehicles completing the two-day race. Nine out of 20 production vehicles finished, while there were 13 survivors among the 26 specials.
Cox and Pitchford were quickest of the production vehicles in both Friday’s 8-km short circuit race, which entertained thousands of excited spectators at the Pope’s Podium in Maseru, and the 48-km prologue held in the Matsieng area to determine Saturday’s starting order.
Grobler and Jordaan were second quickest in the short circuit race, just 11 seconds slower than their team-mates, but experienced electrical problems in the prologue when their Hardbody stalled and then refused to restart when they were just 15-km into the route. They were towed back to the designated Service Point by their team and the fault was identified and fixed in time for Saturday’s race. Their misfortune, however, dropped them down to 35th in the starting order and 16th among the production vehicles.
Cox and Pitchford, experienced off-road bikers (Cox has won nine Roof of Africa rallies on two wheels), led Saturday’s race from start to finish in an impressive demonstration of their combined skill and the Nissan Hardbody’s toughness and powerful performance.
Grobler and Jordaan, who have been forced to come from behind in each of the last three championship events, turned in another of their trademark charges through the field. Despite having to drive in the dust of the other competitors for much of the race, they managed to catch and pass all but their team-mates by the time they reached the finish
There was misfortune and hard luck stories among the Nissan privateers. Apart from the fine performance of the Du Plessis brothers in finishing 8th overall and fourth in class D, none of the others was destined to reach the finish.
Leading class D contenders Deon Schoeman and Jan Sime didn’t make the start of Saturday’s race after their Topcar Hardbody developed problems with the engine management system and they were unable to secure a replacement ECU.
Thomas Rundle and Stavros Yiannakis were forced out at the end of the first of the three 125-km laps on Saturday when the engine mountings of their Barden Tyre Services Hardbody broke and the engine fell on to the sump, damaging it. They had been an impressive fourth fastest in the prologue and were comfortably leading class E when they retired.
Arnold du Plessis and John Knox were second in class D in the Coca Cola-backed BB Auto Hardbody when their good run came to an abrupt end with a broken clutch 15 km into lap two.
Regular class D competitors Coetzee Labuscagne and Johan Gerber withdrew their Raysonics Hardbody before the event after Gerber’s daughter was involved in a quad bike accident.