Castrol Toyota Motorsport Off-Road teams and Toyota privateers are out to fly the Toyota flag high in the Toyota 1000 Desert Race, round three of the 2004 Absa Off-Road Championship for Production Vehicles, in Botswana from 11 to 13 June.
With a full house of Class E wins for Hugo and Jaap de Bruyn in their Toyota Hilux 2700i, the father and son privateers have shown the works teams how things can be done.
In the opening event of the season Paolo Piazza-Musso and Rod Hering surprised friend and foe by taking the Class D honours in their brand new Castrol Toyota Hilux 2700i. They came in ahead of 2003 Class E champions Mark Cronjé and Chris Birkin, who have moved up to Class D for the 2004 season, racing a purpose-built Hilux 2700i straight from the factory.
Toyota then went to the second event of the season, the tough and challenging Nissan Sugarbelt 400, with high hopes for a team strengthened by former Rotax Max world kart champion Gavin Cronjé, paired with the experienced Robin Houghton, making his off-road debut.
Racing a new Toyota Hilux 2700i, sporting Castrol Motorsport colours in Class E configuration, the younger of the brothers from the successful Cronjé West Rand motorsport family, took to dirt racing much the same way as brother Mark last year. But, unlike the Cronjé success of 2003, Gavin and co-driver Houghton were forced out of the Sugarbelt event through mechanical problems.
"They were nothing more than teething problems," said Houghton afterwards.
A similar fate awaited Piazza-Musso and Hering who also did not complete the event. However, with all teething and other mechanical problems associated with new race vehicles out of the way, both Piazza-Musso and Gavin Cronjé – racing in his first marathon event ever – are confident of bringing their Hiluxes home this time around.
“It is my first marathon event, and only my second off-road race ever, but I am sure we will make it,” said Cronjé.
Cronjé Jr was scheduled to make his SASCAR racing debut last month, but the car would not start and he never got going. It would appear, however, that he might be trying again in the near future.
With Class D cluttered by a host of six cylinder bakkies from Nissan and Ford challenging the four-cylinder Hiluxes, Piazza-Musso and the elder Cronjé are confident of taking two of the three Class D podium positions for the Castrol Toyota Motorsport team.
“We had some unfortunate mechanical problems on the Sugarbelt that cost us a lot of time. But we managed to get going again to take third in our class,” Cronjé said.
Toyota Motorsport has tried to anticipate and prevent any other problems – big and small – and both teams are looking forward to the only marathon challenge of this year's Absa Off-Road series.
“Last year we were racing our Class E version of the Hilux 2700i, and our careful approach helped us to the finish and an unbelievable third overall and first in class,” said the older of the Cronje’s. “So far this year we have had less success and more than our fair share of bad luck.
"The Toyota Motorsport technicians have done a marvellous job to repair the faults from the first two races, and have also done a lot of work trying to prevent any other unsuspecting mishaps coming our way on the long Desert Race.
"With that in mind we are feeling very confident for a repeat performance of last year.”