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ABSA 2009: So near yet so far for Toyota in South Africa.

It was another case of so near and yet so far for the Castrol Toyota Hilux team at the Toyota Dealer 400, the penultimate round of the Absa Off Road Championship, in Mpumalanga over the weekend. For the sixth time in seven events this season Toyota led the race only for a win to again slip away. As it was the Castrol Toyota Hilux team had to settle for two top five finishes in the Premier SP Class and a return to winning ways in Class D.

Hein Lategan and Chris Birkin, in their best performance of the season, finished second overall and in Class SP. Prologue winners and early race leaders Anthony Taylor and Robin Houghton eventually had to settle for fourth place in a thrilling finale that saw the first eight cars finish within six minutes of each other. Taylor and Houghton won the Friday prologue, to determine race start positions, by 46 seconds. An early puncture, however, saw the pair relinquish the lead to eventual winners Duncan Vos and Ralph Pitchford in a Donaldson Nissan Navara.

Taylor and Houghton fought back to put pressure on the race leaders in what was shaping up t be a grandstand finish. Then a second puncture put paid to their challenge. “It was a do or die situation,” said Taylor. “We decided to attack on a rocky section where there would be no dust. The puncture was unfortunate. It allowed Hein and Chris to get ahead and then we lost another place when the car would not start.”

Lategan and Birkin then took up the chase but ran out of race distance. They crossed the line just 14 seconds adrift of newly crowned SA champions Vos and Pitchford. A steady drive took Chris Visser and Japie Badenhorst, in the RFS Toyota Hilux, into eighth place with the pair back in action after missing the Highveld 400. Behind them in ninth place were Hugo and Jaap de Bruyn (Micaren Toyota Hilux) who battled with a propshaft vibration.

Highveld 400 winners Gary Bertholdt and Andre Vermeulen (Atlas Copco Toyota Hilux) ran into a string of problems but held on to finish 11th. Right behind them were Christiaan du Ploy and Henk Jansen van Vuuren who also overcame niggles to finish 12th.

It was a disappointing first outing for George and Sharon Barkhuizen in a new AIM Toyota Hilux. Mechanical problems finally forced the Bloemfontein couple to call it a day.

Toyota returned to winning ways in Class D with championship leaders Dewald van Breda and Johann du Toit (Northam Toyota Hilux D4D) edging out Mpumalanga pair Johan and Werner Horn (Malelane Toyota Land Cruiser) by just 11 seconds. With one event to go the result saw van Breda and du Toit edge closer to the title.

Early championship leader Cliff Weichelt (N1 4x4 Toyota Hilux D4D) salvaged valuable driver championship points, Weichelt, now partnered by Johann Smalberger after son Louis’s move to the SP Class as a driver, overcame a disastrous prologue to finish fourth and keep alive his championship hopes.

There were only two classified finishers in Class E with second place enough to take reigning champions Jannie Visser and Joks le Roux (RFS Toyota Hilux) to the top of the championship for the first time this season. The pair edge ahead of the 4x4 Megaworld Toyota Hilux teams of Deon Venter and Ian Palmer and Pikkie Labuschagne and Rikus Erasmus.

Venter/Palmer were forced out with front differential problems while a broken steering put Labuschagne and Erasmus out of the running. With only the RFS 400 left on the calendar the championship is headed for an exciting finish.

2009/10/09 | 18:47 CET | Editor: MR/HS/Lebo Nku

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