The Castrol Toyota team is making an all-out effort to give last year’s class E off-road racing champions, Mark Cronje and Chris Birkin, the best possible chance of collecting the 2004 Class D title in the final race of the year, the Carnival City 400, on November 19-20. Mark, who made the switch from circuit racing to off-road racing at the beginning of 2003, trails Dakar motorcycle hero Alfie Cox by 16 points after seven races – 177 points to161 - so it is “down to the wire” at Carnival City.

Besides the team providing Mark and Chris with the Hilux in the best possible condition for the title-decider, the second Castrol Toyota entry in Class D, Paulo Piazza-Musso and Rod Hering, will be under instructions to go all out to finish ahead of Cox and his co-driver, Ralph Pitchford, as well.

Toyota’s efforts on the local off-road racing scene are paying off this year, in spite of the fact that in Class D the team has to campaign bakkies powered by smaller, four-cylinder engines compared to the larger capacity six-cylinder power units of the competition from Nissan, Ford and Isuzu.

Brothers Mark and Gavin Cronjé, who were stars on the race tracks of South Africa before switching to off-road racing, drive similar Toyota Hilux pick-ups in Classes D and E respectively and now have all eyes on them after winning both classes on the last event, the Toyota Dealer 400 in Lydenburg. (This could be the first time that brothers had each won their class in an off-road race).

Mark Cronjé, after dominating Class E in his first season last year, bravely tackled the higher-spec Class D competition this year. Although he has had only one class win, he has been a consistent finisher and has scored points in six of the seven races held so far, including four second places. Importantly he is also placed a most impressive fifth overall in the overall production vehicle championship.

“The only real difference between my 2003 Hilux and my new bakkie for this year, basically comes down to different stickers on the doors to show that I am now taking part in the higher class,” said Cronjé, who won the Class E championship in his very first season of off-road racing.

“But things have been a lot different this year in terms of competition. We have to race the six-cylinder Nissan Hardbodies and Ford Ranger in our class with a big difference in engine capacity - the Nissans have a 3,3-litre V6, while the Ford V6 is a 4-litre, compared to the 2,7-litre four-cylinder engine of the Hilux,” he said.

However, the outcome of the previous event saw an encouraging result for Toyota, with a Hilux ahead of the competition in both Class D and E.

“The secret has been a season long plan that has finally come into play,” said Cronjé, careful not to divulge any team secrets for the coming event. We worked all year long on several ideas to improve the performance of our Hiluxes, but could only try the latest idea for the first time in the Toyota Dealers 400 in Mpumalanga. As you know, it proved to be extremely successful.

“The Hilux was measurably quicker, and it had nothing to do with the dusty conditions in the race itself. The whole year we qualified close to the Nissans in the pre-race prologue, but this time we were faster than them – 20 seconds quicker than the Ford and 30 seconds ahead of Alfie Cox in the top Class D Nissan,” Cronjé explained.

In the race itself he quickly pulled away from his main rival, and after Cox had suffered a driveshaft setback, the Ford closed in on the Hilux, but the Hilux had enough in reserve to easily keep the 4-litre V6 Ford at bay.

“Now we have to repeat the process at Carnival City!” said a determined Mark Cronje.

The Class E title has already been won by a Toyota Hilux, with the father-and-son team of Hugo and Jaap de Bruyn taking the crown in the same bakkie that Mark Cronje and Chris Birkin drove to win the 2003 championship. However, the champions-elect can expect a tough challenge from the Castrol Toyota entries of Gavin Cronje/Robin Houghton (2700i Hilux) and KwaZulu-Natalians Zane Pearce/Hennie Vosloo (3-litre KZ-TE turbo diesel).

Carnival City, on the East Rand, will be the place to be for top class off-road racing on November 19-20.