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ABSA 2009: Production Vehicle battles continue at Toyota Dealer 400.

The major prize may have been settled, but the fight for other titles up for grabs in the Production Vehicle category will continue at the Toyota Dealer 400, penultimate round of the South African Absa Off Road Championship, in Mpumalanga on October 2 and 3. The Donaldson Nissan Navara pair of Duncan Vos and Ralph Pitchford have wrapped up the overall and premier Class SP championships. With four wins in the six events run so far Vos and Pitchford have been the dominant force and romped away with the championship.

It is a different story in Classes D and E where some tight battles have developed. Only two points separates the top crews in Class D and just eight points separate the top three teams in Class E. There is also a terrific scrap being waged for the runners-up spot in the overall stakes. Here Gary Bertholdt, in the Atlas Copco Toyota Hilux, leads Donaldson Nissan driver Ivar Tollefsen by a single point.

Among the co-drivers there is a turn around. Quin Evans, who sits alongside Tollefsen, leads Bertholdt’s co-driver, Andre Vermeulen, by 11 points after the Atlas Copco man missed the Toyota 1000 Desert Race in Botswana. Bertholdt and Vermeulen ended a run of five Nissan victories in a row when they won the recent Highveld 400 based at Carnival City. The pair will fancy their chances this time around and, after a second and a win, are the form team.

Although they have the championship in the bag pride will motivate Vos and Pitchford. Tollefsen and Evans have their battle with Bertholdt/Vermeulen to think about and there is plenty of motivation for Hannes Grobler and Juan Mohr, in a third Donaldson Nissan Navara. The veteran Grobler will part company with Nissan at the end of the season, after more than 30 years, and would love nothing more than to go out in a blaze of glory. Grobler and Mohr provided the Nissan squad with their other win this season, and are sure to be fired up.

There is also plenty of motivation - and a little extra pressure - on the factory Castrol Toyota Hilux teams of Anthony Taylor/ Robin Houghton and Hein Lategan/Chris Birkin. After a disappointing season when the two teams have, at some stage or other, led every event bar one a win on a Toyota sponsored event would be a huge bonus. There is no doubt the Toyota pair have the pace. What has been lacking is the ability to turn race winning situations into victories.

Two podiums in a row also elevate the factory Ford Racing pair of Neil Woolridge and Kenny Skjoldhammer to a position among the pre-race favourites. Development niggles on the turbo diesel Ford Rangers appear to be a thing of the past for the Ford squad, and Woolridge and Skjoldhammer will be eyeing a maiden victory.

Thomas Rundle and Stavros Yiannakis, in the second factory Ford Ranger, go into the race under a little pressure. After a string of disappointing results the pair needs a strong finish this time around.

Where privateer support is concerned Toyota have a numerical advantage. Crews like Chris Visser/Japie Badenhorst (RFS Toyota Hilux), Chris du Plooy/Henk Jansen van Vuuren (RFS Toyota Hilux), Hugo and Jaap de Bruyn (Micaren Exel Toyota Hilux) and George and Sharon Barkhuizen (AIM Toyota Hilux) have all come to the party at one stage or another.

Back-up for the Donaldson Nissan teams will come from off road legend Alfie Cox and German co-driver Jurgen Schroder, in the PS Laser Nissan Navara, and Terence Marsh and Pieter Groenewald in the Regent Racing Navara. Cox and Schroder will be giving the new Navara a final shakedown before the Dakar Rally, with Marsh and Groenewald coming off a podium finish on the Highveld 400.

The consistent Kobus van Tonder and Riaan Guelpa (Uni Freight Ford Ranger), Pieter Ruthven/De Waal Boshoff (Ruwacon Ford Ranger), Louis Weichelt/Maret Bezuidenhout (N1 4x4 Ford Ranger) and Graham Leith/Keith Lawrenson) provide the Ford back-up. Weichelt will be having only his third outing as a driver and, after starting the season co-driving for father Cliff in the N1 4x4 Toyota Hilux D4D, has so far impressed.

Weichelt’s father, however, is under a bit of strain after being overtaken in the Class D championship by Dewald van Breda and Johann du Toit in the Northam Toyota Hilux D4D. Weichelt has followed three wins in a row with three non finishes and now trails van Breda by two points in the driver stakes.

By contrast Coetzee Labuscagne and Johan Gerber (Raysonics Nissan Hardbody) started the season with four did not finish results. This was followed with wins at Sun City and the Highveld 400, but the pair are still 20 points off the championship pace. Heine Strumpher and Henri Hugo (Micaren Exel Toyota Hilux) have also had a string of non finishes and will be looking to bounce back. Also keen for a good result will be Johan and Werner Horn, in the Malelane Toyota Land Cruiser, for whom this is a ‘home’ event.

With only eight points separating the top three crews, the Class E fight will be interesting. Pikkie Labuscagne and Rikus Erasmus (4x4 Megaworld Toyota Hilux) currently lead reigning champions Jannie Visser and Joks le Roux in the RFS Toyota Hilux. Two points behind the champions are Deon Venter and Ian Palmer, in the second 4x4 Megaworld Toyota Hilux, with the three Toyota crews having won five of the six events. The other win went to Leeroy Poulter/Rob Howie (Ferodo Nissan Hardbody) who have the pace to run away with the class.

The two Ford Ranger crews, Bappy Rubuluza and Khuliele Vakaliza, in the factory entry, and Louw de Bruin and Riaan Greyling (Ruwacon Ford Ranger) also pose a threat. De Bruin and Greyling, in particular, are strong contenders for a podium place. For all the Toyota teams there is a little added pressure. Toyota currently leads Nissan by 34 points in the prestige South African Manufacturers Championship, and a rich haul of points could settle the issue.

The prologue to determine grid positions for the race will start from the Lydenburg Rugby Club at 12:30 on Friday, October 2 and will finish at the Toyota Spectator area on the R540 to Dullstroom. The race will start at 08:00 at Lydenburg Toyota with the designated service point and the finish at the Toyota Spectator Area on the R540 to Dullstroom.

2009/09/28 | 10:30 CET | Editor: MR/HS/Charmaine Fortune

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