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ABSA 2009: Vos/Pitchford favoured for Highveld 400 Victory.

There are no prizes for guessing which team will be installed as pre race favourites in the Production Vehicle category at the Highveld 400, round six of the South African Absa Off Road Championship, at Carnival City on August 28 and 29. With four wins in five starts under their belts and a whopping 60 point lead in the championship, the Donaldson Nissan Navara pair of Duncan Vos and Ralph Pitchford are the obvious team to beat. Vos and Pitchford have almost perfected the art of combining pace with the ability to stay on the track, and not make the mistakes that sideline other crews who have put themselves in line to win events.

The Highveld 400 returns to Carnival City after a one-year break and Donaldson Nissan team will be looking to make it six wins in six starts this season. The other victory this year went to veteran Hannes Grobler and Juan Mohr who are currently third in the championship behind Ivar Tollefsen and Quin Evans in a third factory entry.

The trio give Nissan a powerful hand but previous Carnival City based events were not entirely kind to Nissan. The 2006 event was won by Bevan Bertholdt and Robin Houghton in a Castrol Toyota Hilux and in 2007 former South African champions Neil Woolridge and Kenny Skjoldhammer won in a factory Ford Racing Ranger.

Nissan’s privateer back-up has been a little thin on the ground with Terence Marsh and Pieter Groenewald flying the flag in the Regent Racing Navara. But Nissan get a massive boost with an entry from off road legend Alfie Cox and Jurgen Schroder in a new PS Laser Nissan Navara built by Glynn Hall and team in Midrand.

Cox and Schroeder will use the Highveld 400 and Toyota Dealer 400 events as shakedowns for the Dakar Rally next year. The 2010 event will also be held in Argentina. It goes without saying that both Toyota and Ford would love repeats of recent history. For Toyota the need to widen a tenuous 15 point lead over Nissan in the SA Manufacturers Championship is another reason for a good showing.

For Toyota and Ford recent form offers contrasts. Toyota had a good Toyota 1000 Desert Race and a disappointing Sun City 400 while Ford, after an unhappy Botswana trip, bounced back with Woolridge and Skjoldhammer giving the new twin turbo diesel Ford Racing Ranger its maiden podium finish in the Pilanesberg. With the Ford squad looking to be ironing out all the little niggles that go with new race cars Woolridge/Skjoldhammer and Thomas Rundle/Stavros Yiannakis, in the second factory entry, will be high on confidence. The two works cars will also have solid back-up from the privateer ranks.

Kobus van Tonder and Riaan Guelpa (Uni Freight Ford Ranger) have been models of consistency and Graham Leith and Mike Lawrenson, in the Transcor Ford Ranger, have had two solid outings in a row. Pieter Ruthven/De Waal Boshoff are due a good run in the Ruwacon Racing entry, and after a baptism of fire at Sun City young Louis Weichelt and Maret Bezuidenhout will be looking for an easier passage in the Discovery Drilling Ford Ranger.

Toyota has this year flattered to deceive. Castrol Toyota Hilux crews Anthony Taylor/Robin Houghton and Hein Lategan/Chris Birkin have led various events at various times but have not followed through. Pressure is now mounting on the squad and what is needed from either Taylor/Houghton or Lategan/Birkin is a repeat of the 2006 result.

Toyota also have a strong privateer back-up with Gary Bertholdt and Andre Vermeulen (Atlas Copco Toyota Hilux) coming off a strong second place at Sun City. George and Sharon Barkhuizen (AIM Toyota Hilux) also had a good Sun City outing and that will be a boost for the Bloemfontein husband and wife team, while Hugo and Jaap de Bruyn (Micaren Exel Toyota Hilux) are always top five candidates.

Young Christiaan du Plooy and Henk Jansen van Vuuren, in the RFS Toyota Hilux, are probably the most improved crew in off road at the moment and will be looking for another encouraging result. Team-mates Chris Visser and Japie Badenhorst, after a good start to the year, have a different task in that they will want to bounce back after a big Sun City crash.

On the Class D front Cliff Weichelt, now partnered by Johann Smalberger in the N1 4x4 Toyota Hilux D4D, still leads the driver championship – albeit with a reduced majority after two non finishes in a row. Weichelt is 10 points clear of Dewald van Breda and Johann du Toit (Northam Toyota D4D) with a third Toyota crew, Heine Strumpher and Hendrik van der Linde, in third place in the Micaren Exel Hilux.

The Toyota runners, however, face a stiff Nissan challenge. Coetzee Labuscagne and Johan Gerber will be full of confidence after a morale boosting win at Sun City. The win by Labuscagne and Gerber ended a run of four straight wins by Toyota crews. A good battle between the two marques is on the cards.

A run of Toyota wins in Class E also came to an end at Sun City with track start Leeroy Poulter and Rob Howie taking a maiden win in the Ferodo Nissan Hardbody. They are now in a position to take the fight to the lead Toyota crews and will also be full of confidence.

Pikkie Labuschagne and Rikus Erasmus have opened up a 13 point lead over Megaworld 4x4 team-mates Deon Venter and Ian Palmer with reigning champions Jannie Visser and Joks le Roux (RFS Toyota Hilux) now also part of the mix. It adds up to a competitive race with Louw de Bruin and Riaan Greyling (Ruwacon Ford Ranger) also coming off a strong showing at Sun City making it a three-way fight between Toyota, Nissan and Ford.

Race headquarters, the start/finish and designated service point will be at Carnival City with the route a spectator friendly one with vantage points within easy reach of home base. The prologue to determine grid positions will start at 12:15 on August 28 and the race at 08:00 on August 29.

2009/08/24 | 14:51 CET | Editor: MR/HS/Charmaine Fortune

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