Toyota Motorsport go into the Carnival City Casino 400, final round of the 2003 SA Off-Road Championship, with no pressure as far as any of its class championships are concerned.
Mark Cronjé and Chris Birkin neatly wrapped up their Class E Championship in the recent Toyota Dealers Mpumalanga 400 with their 5th Class E victory of the season, allowing them to focus on an unprecedented but very possible overall race victory.
Hannes Grobler and Richard Leeke (Nissan Hardbody) quietly clinched the 2003 championship after winning the previous event, the Toyota Dealer 400, but this does not mean Toyota teams will be sitting back for the last event without going all-out for some of the limelight as well.
Cronjé and Birkin have finished among the top three or four vehicles across the finish line all season long – except in the Mafikeng event and will be going all-out to do their best, even if that includes an overall victory.
“We know that is not a very likely scenario, but if anything happens to the Nissan guys, we will be there to pick up the pieces and run for it,” an elated Cronjé said after winning his first Class Championship in his very first season of racing off-road.
Toyota’s hopes for an overall victory to force Grobler/Leeke into making mistakes will again be on the shoulders of Apie Reyneke and Robin Houghton in their Castrol Land Cruiser 4,5 EFi. They had more than their fair share of bad luck this year, with race conditions mostly to blame as opposed to technical problems or driver/navigator error.
“We have nothing to lose, so we’re going all-out for victory,” said Reyneke after the disappointment of leading the recent Toyota Dealers Mpumalanga 400, but finishing 3rd overall.
“We had a reasonably good start in 4th behind the Nissans of Grobler/Leeke and their team-mates Duncan Vos and Mike Griffith, with Neil Woolridge and Kenny Skjöldhammer in 3rd in their Ford Ranger V6. But the dust – especially in the first of the event’s three 120 km loops – was a huge problem,” said Houghton who managed to gain an unexpected navigational advantage when the three cars ahead of them all took a wrong turn.
“I saw they overshot a turn-off and told Apie to turn where the others went straight. It takes a lot of confidence, and sometimes you get it right,” Houghton said.
Their advantage saw them shooting past the pits at the end of the first loop leading the rest of the field, but a puncture shortly after the start of the second loop allowed the Nissans and the Ford to pass them again.
“After that we moved up to third when the Ford dropped out of the race at the end of the second loop while leading, and we managed to stay there until the finish.
“Now it is all or nothing – we have nothing to lose, so we’re pulling all the stops for what might be our first and only all-out victory of the 2003 season,” said Houghton.
Reyneke will have to put his money where his mouth is after stirring feelings in the other half of the off-road championship – that of the Special Vehicle Category.
“The days of the Specials are numbered,” he predicted after the Mpumalanga event where Production Vehicles totally outperformed the normally more agile Special Vehicles, with the top three positions in the race taken by Production Vehicles.
Overall Production Vehicle Championship standings:
1. Hannes Grobler/Richard Leeke (Nissan Hardbody; 2003 Class T and overall Production Vehicle Champions) 234 points
2. Mark Cronjé/Chris Birkin (Castrol Toyota Hilux; 2003 Class E Champions) 199 points
3. Kassie Coetzee/Ockie Fourie (Castrol Toyota Hilux; 2003 runners-up Class E) 157 points
Original article from Car