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ABSA 2009: Nissan under attack on Toyota 1000 Desert Race.

Ford and Toyota, and the latter in particular, will be desperate to end Nissan’s domination of the Production Vehicle category in the South African Absa Off Road Championship at the Toyota 1000 Desert Race in Botswana from June 19 to 21. The Botswana outing is the fourth round of this year’s championship and Donaldson Nissan Navara crews have won the three rounds to date. On top of that Nissan will be aiming for their eighth successive victory on the only marathon event on the off-road calendar.

Ford and Toyota, with the Japanese manufacturer having a healthy numerical advantage in the premier SP Class, will be hoping they can summon up enough firepower to stop Nissan in their tracks. They will also be looking for a little help from the law of averages.

Nissan throw three factory entries into the fray with reigning drivers champion Duncan Vos looking for a hat-trick of wins after 2007 and 2008 triumphs – both with replacement co-drivers. This year, however, Vos will have the services of regular co-driver Ralph Pitchford and will be a major threat.

Grobler, now partnered by Juan Mohr, won last time out on the Nissan Sugarbelt 400 and is always a major threat on a race he has won five times. Ivar Tollefsen and Quin Evans, in the other factory Nissan Navara, have grown in stature since finishing fourth on the Dakar Rally and will also be in contention.

Toyota, who would love nothing better than to win this race, is well armed with the two factory Castrol Toyota Hilux entries supported by a bevy of privateers. Anthony Taylor and Robin Houghton, who has four Desert Race wins to his credit, will fancy their chances while Hein Lategan and Chris Birkin look to be welding into a formidable team.

In only his fourth race Lategan faces a test of character. So far he has stood up well to the rigours of off road racing, and in the two works crews Toyota have the weapons to finally bag a Desert Race win.

The factory Ford team also has reason to approach the race with a fair amount of optimism. Teething problems aside, the Ford Ranger TDCi twin turbo diesels have shown plenty of potential and could be well suited to Botswana conditions. In former winners Neil Woolridge and Kenny Skjoldhammer they have a hugely experienced crew and on a race like this that is a precious commodity.

Thomas Rundle, in the second factory Ford Ranger TDCi, will be reunited with co-driver Stavros Yiannakis. After a disappointing Nissan Sugarbelt outing Rundle will be keen to bounce back, but also faces a stiff challenge in his first season in the SP Class.

On the privateer front Nissan will be supported by Terence Marsh and Pieter Groenewald in the Regent Racing Navara. The pair has found it tough going so far this season, but the Toyota 1000 Desert Race is their kind of event.

Toyota is represented by a formidable array of privateers, a couple of whom look to be capable of podium or top five finishes. Among them are Hugo and Jaap de Bruyn (Micaren Excel Toyota Hilux), who also revel in Botswana conditions, the consistent Chris Visser and Japie Badenhorst (RFS Toyota Hilux) and former Special Vehicle crew Gary Bertholdt and Danie Stassen in the Atlas Copco Toyota Hilux.

George and Sharon Barkhuizen (AIM Toyota Hilux) are also experienced, young Christiaan du Plooy and Henk Jansen van Vuuren (RFS Toyota Hilux) are improving with every outing and Jaco Swanepoel and Keith Solomon (IDM Cement Toyota Hilux) have also settled into life in the SP Class.

On the Ford front Kobus van Tonder and Riaan Guelpa (Uni Freight Ford Ranger) look to be the pick of the bunch and, like their Toyota counterparts in Visser/Badenhorst, produce consistent results. Pieter Ruthven and Dewaal Boshoff, after campaigning in the Special Vehicle category, are still settling into the Ruwacon Ford Ranger and Graham Leith and Mike Lawrenson (Transcor Ford Ranger) will be looking for a solid performance.

Class D will see Cliff and Louis Weichelt (N1 4x4 Toyota Hilux D4D) start firm favourites to clinch a fourth straight win this season. The Weichelt’s are another crew ideally suited to Toyota 1000 Desert Race conditions and lead a strong Toyota challenge.

Dewald van Breda and Johann du Toit (Northam Toyota D4D) have the potential to upset the Weichelt applecart and Heinie Strumpher and Hendrik van der Linde will be brimming with confidence after a good result on the Nissan Sugarbelt 400. Johan and Werner Horn will give the Malelane Toyota Land Cruiser another outing.

The lone Nissan in Class D is the Raysonics Hardbody of Coetzee Labuscagne and Johan Gerber who so far this season have had a miserable time of it. The Toyota 1000 Desert Race would be a good event for the crew to hit back from three did not finish results.

Toyota crews have also dominated Class E this season with wins for the 4x4 Megaworld Hilux crews of Deon Venter and Ian Palmer and Pikkie Labuschange and Rickus Erasmus who grabbed a maiden win last time out. The favourites, however, are likely to be reigning champions Jannie Visser and Joks le Roux (RFS Toyota Hilux) who are Desert race specialists.

Diederik and Danie Hattingh (Transcor Toyota Hilux) would also like to put an end to some disappointing results, and have the potential to produce a steady result. In the opposition ranks track star Leeroy Poulter, partnered by Rob Howie in the factory Ferodo Nissan Hardbody, faces a baptism of fire.

Ford’s challenge is in the hands of Bappy Rubuluza and Khuliele Vakaliza in a factory Ford Ranger and Louw de Bruin and Riaan Greyling in the ex factory Ford Ranger. The pair is likely to be in the thick of a highly competitive Class E dogfight.

At the front of the field there is both quality and quantity. More often than not the Toyota 1000 Desert Race produces a sting in the tail and this year’s race could see more late drama.

2009/06/15 | 10:07 CET | Editor: MR/HS/Charmaine Fortune

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