Overall production vehicle champions for the fourth successive year, manufacturers champions for the fourth year in a row, class T and class D champions. This was the final score in Nissan’s successful season of off-road racing, which came to an end with the Carnival City Casino 400 in Gauteng on Saturday.
The final round of the eight-race ABSA Off Road Championship saw the end of Nissan’s seven-race winning streak in 2004, but reigning champions Hannes Grobler and Richard Leeke finished third overall and third in class T in their Proudly South African Nissan Hardbody pickup to take the championships for the second year in a row.
Disappointment at the retirement of former champions Giniel de Villiers and Francois Jordaan (clutch problems), who had led team-mates Grobler and Leeke by two points at the start of the weekend’s race, was tempered by Grobler and Leeke’s championship victory and also by Alfie Cox and Ralph Pitchford (Arnold Chatz Cars Nissan Hardbody) finishing winning the class D championship for near-standard six-cylinder vehicles.
But it was no easy task for either Grobler or Cox. Grobler won Friday’s prologue and led Saturday’s race until the start of the third and final lap of the 400-km route, when he was forced to stop with a broken front driveshaft. This allowed the Ford Ranger of former champions Neil Woolridge and Kenny Skjoldhammer to take over a lead they would not lose to the finish and enabling the pair to repeat their win of last year’s Carnival City 400.
Grobler coaxed the ailing car to the finish, traveling so slowly that at one stage co-driver Leeke had to get out and push the Nissan up a hill. They eventually finished third overall, behind the Hungarian pair of Sandor Kis and Pieter Czegledi, making a guest appearance in one of Nissan Motorsport’s class T Proudly South African Nissan Hardbody pickups.
De Villiers and Jordaan’s race was over shortly before the end of the second lap when the clutch failed while they were lying third behind Grobler and Woolridge.
Cox and Pitchford almost didn’t make the finish at all. After a good start, when they were lying a strong second behind eventual class D winners Mark Cronje and Chris Birkin (Toyota Hilux), they encountered overheating problems caused when the electric fan blew its fuses. They lost time at the designated service point at the end of lap one trying to cure the problem, only to be slowed further on lap two by an engine misfire and a puncture.
Then they damaged their suspension after hitting a rock and limped home to finish 10th overall and sixth in class, earning sufficient points to secure the championship. In fact, they ended the season on the same number of points as Cronje and Birkin but took the title on the basis of five class wins during the year compared to Cronje’s two.
Best of the privateer Nissans were 2003 class D champions Hein Grobler and Gerhard Prinsloo in their GBS Racing Nissan Hardbody, who overcame a broken CV joint on lap one, which necessitated changing a side shaft at the service point, to complete the final event of the season in fifth place overall and second behind Cronje and Birkin in class D.
Teammates JP Augustin and R van Heerden finished 10th overall and seventh in class D despite completing most of the route without four-wheel drive. Johan Gerber and Willie van Straaten in the third GBS Nissan was 12th overall and eighth in class D after losing an hour stuck in a ditch.
Jurie and Andre du Plessis (BB Auto Hardbody) started from the back of the 56-car field and did well to finish 13th overall and ninth in class D, despite running very low on fuel near the end and having to finish at a very slow pace, eventually running out of fuel altogether as they coasted across the finish line.
“We’re delighted with our achievements this season”, said Nissan Motorsport team manager Glyn Hall. “The team has worked very hard to achieve these results over a long and demanding off-road racing season. While we’re disappointed to see our winning streak come to an end, we are more than happy that we have achieved all the goals we set ourselves for the season.
“Our Proudly South African Nissan Hardbody pickups won seven of the eight races this year and we enjoyed four Nissan 1-2 finishes, with all three of our drivers (Hannes and Giniel three times each and Duncan Vos once) all tasting the fruits of victory.
“Nissan privateers also played their part, contributing handsomely to us comfortably winning the manufacturers championship from Toyota and Ford. Alfie and Ralph won their class five times and deserved to take the closely contested class D championship. A big ‘thank-you’ to all the Nissan privateers for their valuable contribution,” added Hall.