There are a number of factors likely to see the Production Vehicle category dominate the Toyota Dealer Sugarbelt 400, round three of the Donaldson Cross Country Championship, at Eston in KwaZulu-Natal on May 17 and 18.
For a start it is home territory for the championship leading Ford Racing squad based in nearby Pietermaritzburg with Neil Woolridge’s team looking for a hat-trick of wins this season. The event also provides Toyota the opportunity of backing an event close to their Prospecton manufacturing plant, but the Castrol Toyota Hilux factory team go into the race in a far different situation than their Ford rivals.
The Ford Ranger crews of former South African champions Chris Visser and Japie Badenhorst and Lance Woolridge and Ward Huxtable have each picked up a win this season. Visser and Badenhorst have also bagged a second place and take into the race a handy 13 point lead at the top of the overall and SP Class championships.
By contrast it has been a hugely disappointing start to the season by the Castrol Toyota team. Between them reigning champions Duncan Vos and Rob Howie and Anthony Taylor/Dennis Murphy have a lone podium finish this season.
Vos and Howie finished third ahead of Taylor/Murphy on the Nkomazi 400 in Mpumalanga, but both factory teams were upstaged by privateers. Adding insult to injury were Gary Bertholdt and Siegfried Rousseau (Atlas Copco Toyota Hilux) who came in second behind Visser and Badenhorst.
Taylor/Murphy and Vos/Howie lie fourth and fifth in the championship with both crews already more than 20 points adrift of Visser/Badenhorst. Both works teams are also trailing Bertholdt/Rousseau and North West privateers Malcolm Kock and Johan Burger (Kock and Sons Toyota Hilux) in the championship and there is huge pressure on the Castrol Toyota team on a Toyota sponsored event.
Given their form on the first two events Visser and Badenhorst have to be installed at the top of the betting boards. Team-mates Woolridge and Huxtable will be looking to put Nkomazi 400 disappointment behind them and the local crew would love a win on home turf.
The Castrol Toyotas will have to bring their A game to proceedings in a highly competitive category where no prisoners are taken. There is no shortage of crews who will be scrambling for top five finishes, and after a dreadful start to the season Christiaan du Plooy and Henk Janse van Vuuren (RFS BMW X3) will be looking to convert pace and potential into a meaningful result.
Bertholdt and Rousseau (Atlas Copco Toyota Hilux) will be full of confidence and there are signs that team-mates Johan van Staden and Mike Lawrenson, also in a Toyota Hilux, are starting to come to terms with the switch from the Special Vehicle category. Kock and Burger will want to keep the momentum going and former SA champions Jannie Visser and Joks le Roux (Toyota Hilux) and Deon Venter/Ian Palmer (Trysome Toyota Hilux) will be looking to kick start their seasons.
A powerful Regent Racing squad will also aim at picking up meaningful results. Terence Marsh/Gerhard Schutte and Mike Whitehouse/Mathew Carlson have back-up from Thomas Rundle/Juan Mohr and Jurgen Schroder and stand in navigator Mike Abramson, with the entire squad aiming at top five finishes. Also racing under the Regent banner is the Imperial Automotive Nissan Navara crewed by Archie Rutherford and celebrity co-driver Stefan Terblanche, with the former Springbok utility back getting a second taste of cross country racing.
Privateer back-up for Ford comes via the two car UniFreight team of Kobus van Tonder/Freddie Kriel and Jacques/Lizelle van Tonder, Free State crews Louw de Bruin and Riaan Greyling and Gerald le Roux/Hendrik Badenhorst in Ruwacon Rangers, local pair Rowan Lamb and Lyle Parker in the Force Fuel Ranger and Graham and Trevor Leith (Transcor Ford Ranger) in the first works car built by Ford Racing. Lamb and Parker, in particular, will be aiming at a good result.
Also looking for a hat-trick of wins will be North West youngsters Jason Venter and Vincent van Allemann in the Trysome Toyota Hilux. The pair look to have got it all together this season but face tough opposition from Mpumalanga brothers Johan and Werner Horn in the Malalane Toyota Land Cruiser.
Lurking in the wings will be former champions Jack and Sarel Oosthuizen (LMC Land Rover) who use consistency as a championship weapon. It has paid dividends with the pair only two points behind Venter and van Allemann.
Once again there are no prizes for guessing who will be favoured to win Class E. Reigning champions Dirk Putter and Koss Claassens, after two outings in the ex factory Ford Ranger, will be back in the Toyota Hilux in which they won the 2012 championship. The pair will be looking for win number 14 with 15 consecutive finishes behind them.
Opposition comes from two other Toyota Hilux teams. Douglas Fear/Kurt de Villiers team up in the Brytons Removals Hilux and Luke Botha and Kevin Durston in the Force Fuel Hilux.
Race headquarters and the designated service park will be at the Beaumont Eston Farmers Club with the event again spectator friendly with numerous viewing points within 15 kilometres of home base. Public entry into these areas is free with spectator guides also available from Toyota dealers and the Midlands Mall.
The prologue to determine race grid positions starts at 12:30 on Friday, May 17 and the race at 08:30 the following day.