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ABSA 2009: Nissan Factory Team thorws down early gauntlet.

After just one event the factory Nissan team finds itself in familiar territory going into the Eastern Cape 400, round two of the Absa Off Road Championship, on April 17 and 18. The Donaldson Nissan Navara crews of Duncan Vos/Ralph Pitchford and Hannes Grobler/Juan Mohr came home first and second on the Adenco 400 in the Western Cape to give Nissan a flying start in this year’s Production Vehicle overall and Class SP title chases. The opposition is used to flying starts from Nissan, and it could have been a clean sweep of the podium positions had Ivar Tollefsen and Quin Evans not picked up a puncture 30 kilometres out.

That relegated the Norwegian and his Brit co-driver to fourth behind the RFS Toyota Hilux of Chris Visser and Japie Badenhorst, but sent out a clear message to the Ford and Toyota works and privateer crews. The early season form of the Donaldson Nissans is ominous and they will obviously start the early favourites on an event that has been shifted to the Jeffreys Bay area.

Support for the factory team will come from Terence Marsh and Pieter Groenewald in the regent racing Nissan Navara campaigned last year by Vos. Marsh is a former SA champion in the Special Vehicle category and the Adenco 400 saw the pair make a highly encouraging start in Class SP.

The Ford factory team missed the Adenco 400, but former champions Neil Woolridge and Kenny Skjoldhammer will be at Jeffreys Bay along with Thomas Rundle and Hennie ter Stege in the factory twin turbo diesel Ford Rangers. Rundle, who moves up from Class E, faces a huge learning curve but the Ford package looks to be a strong one with Woolridge and Skjoldhammer bringing to the party vast experience.

In the absence of the Ford factory teams in the Western Cape the solid pairing of Kobus van Tonder and Riaan Guelpa did a workmanlike job in the Uni Freight Ford Ranger. They will this time be out in the ex Ferguson works Ford Ranger, with the squad bolstered by Graham Leith and Mike Lawrenson in Transcor colours, and Pieter Ruthven and De Waal Boshoff in the Ruwacon Ranger.

The Castrol Toyota Hilux factory challenge will come from Anthony Taylor/Robin Houghton and Hein Lategan/Chris Birkin with both drivers having their first outing in the Eastern Cape. Taylor joined the Toyota squad after the corresponding race last year, while Lategan is a replacement for Mark Cronje, who has taken a sabbatical, and will be having only his second off road outing.

Cronje and Birkin won last year’s race – and Toyota will be desperately hoping for a repeat performance. That may be a bridge too far but Taylor and Houghton, in particular, will fancy their chances.

Visser and Badenhorst made a solid start to their campaign, and Hugo and Jaap de Bruyn (Micaren Exel Toyota Hilux) are capable of a top five result. Back injuries will keep Chris du Plooy and Ewald van Rensburg (RFS Toyota Hilux) out of action for an indefinite period, but Christiaan du Plooy and Henk Jansen van Vuuren in the second RFS Toyota will have been encouraged by their SP Class debut in the Western Cape.

The Toyota challenge could be further bolstered by a maiden appearance of a Hilux, in the hands of Gary Bertholdt and Andre Vermeulen, in Atlas Copco colours, the IDM Cement entry in the hands of Jaco Swanepoel and Keith Solomon and George and Sharon Barkhuizen in the Aim Toyota Hilux. Bertholdt was a flyer in the Special Vehicle category, and will also be facing a learning curve.

Adenco 400 winners Cliff and Louis Weichelt (N1 4x4 Toyota Hilux D4D) lead a powerful Toyota challenge in Class D. The experienced Weichelt’s will be supported by Dewald van Breda and Johan du Toit, the 2008 Rookies of the Year in the Northam Toyota Hilux D4D, and the husband and wife team of Ramon and Maret Bezuidenhout in the Botes Transport Toyota Hilux.

The Bezuidenhout’s are back in Class D after a brief foray into the Special Vehicle category and will be keen to get some points on the board. The same applies to veterans Coetzee Labuscagne and Johan Gerber, in the Raysonics Nissan Hardbody, who suffered terminal engine damage on the Adenco 400 prologue. A brave effort in the Western Cape saw Johan Fouche and Wentzel Pretorius on the Class D podium in the lone Mitsubishi Colt running in Class D. Dogged determination could again be their trump card.

Down in Class E the 4x4 Megaworld Toyota Hilux pair of Deon Venter and Ian Palmer will be keen to build on their win on the Adenco 400. They overcame a string of problems for a hard earned victory in a class that looks as though it is going to be highly competitive.

Louw de Bruin and Riaan Greyling (Ruwacon Ford Ranger) made an encouraging Class E debut in the ex Peckham Ford Ranger, and there was a typically dogged display from reigning champions Jannie Visser and Joks le Roux in the RFS Toyota Hilux. After problems in the prologue Visser/le Roux ground out a third place that could be significant at the end of the year.

Although he was among the non finishers in the Western Cape track and kart star Leeroy Poulter, paired with Rob Howie in a factory Ferodo Nissan Hardbody, did enough on debut to suggest he will soon be challenging for wins. Baphumze Rubuluza and Khuliele Vakalisa, in the factory Ford Ranger, will be looking for a good finish along with newcomers Heinie Strumpher (Micaren Exel Toyota Hilux) and Pikkie Labuschange and Rikus Erasmus in a second 4x4 Megaworld Toyota Hilux.

Race headquarters will be at the Mentorskraal Country Estate in Jeffreys Bay. Documentation will start at 10:00 on April 17 with the prologue scheduled to start at 13:00 and the main race at 08:30 on April 18.

2009/04/14 | 20:53 CET | Editor: MR/HS/Charmaine Fortune

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