Brian Joss –
The RFS Endurance Harrismith, Round 1 of the Donaldson Cross-Country Championship, will be remembered for many things: not only was it the first so-called ‘endurance’ event, with a total race distance just shy of 700 km; but it was also one of the muddiest races in recent history. For Castrol Team Toyota’s Leeroy Poulter, however, the RFS Endurance will always be remembered as his maiden cross-country victory.
“It has taken longer than I had hoped,” smiled Poulter after spraying sparkling wine from the top step of the podium. “But I am extremely pleased with the way it all came together on race day.”
For Castrol Team Toyota the RFS Endurance started with a bang. The two Toyota Hilux race vehicles posted the fastest and second-fastest times during the prologue on Friday, covering the 196 km-long qualifying race in 02:40:11 (Anthony Taylor/Dennis Murphy) and 02:44:00 (Leeroy Poulter/Rob Howie) respectively. Poulter/Howie suffered one puncture during the prologue, and struggled to insert the jack into their vehicle’s jacking point, which had been damaged after impact with a rock. They lost around three minutes in the process, which allowed Lance Woolridge in a Ford to close to within just three seconds of Poulter’s qualifying time.
The route saw crews leave from the Designated Service Park (DSP) on the outskirts of Harrismith, and traverse a winding route through some of the most spectacular scenery South Africa has to offer. There was a multitude of river crossings, and rain earlier in the week ensured that the track was extremely muddy and slippery.
Defending champions Anthony Taylor and Dennis Murphy started the main race, consisting of two laps of 251 km each, with a lead of nearly four minutes. But for teammates Poulter/Howie it was a different story: They had the Ford of Woolridge just three seconds behind them.
“We weren’t too worried,” explained Poulter after the race, “but then we picked up a misfire shortly after the start. This made it tough for us to stay ahead of the Ford, but we managed to keep him at bay. Luckily we hit a big bump midway through the first lap, and the misfire cleared.”
Taylor/Murphy led comfortably until they reached the new part of the circuit – the qualifying loop consisted of 196 km of the race lap, leaving 55 km of virgin terrain to cover.
“There were many closed farm gates on this section, and we also had to find our way as there were no tracks to follow,” explained Taylor.
This allowed Poulter/Howie to take the lead – a position they held until the chequered flag came down after 697 km of frantic racing (including the prologue). Woolridge also managed to pass Taylor/Murphy, who were putting the Ford under pressure until a driveshaft on their race vehicle was damaged.
“At that point they just had to make sure they got home,” said Team Principal Glyn Hall of Taylor and Murphy’s race. “With the new regulations there can be no missed opportunities when it comes to scoring points, so Anthony and Dennis did exactly the right thing by making sure they cross the finish line.”
The conditions and race distance played a major role on the RFS Endurance, with only 10 of the 23 production crews who started the race making it to the end. In a highly sporting gesture, second-placed Ford driver Lance Woolridge stopped to assist Anthony Taylor and Dennis Murphy who got stuck in a deep mud hole, which saw the two teams swap places in the standings with Taylor/Murphy finishing third.
An important finish was that of Jason Venter and Vince van Allemann, in the 4×4 Megaworld Toyota Hilux. The pair not only finished 4th overall, but also won the Southern African round of the Dakar Challenge in the process. This annual event is open to all amateur crews who haven’t taken part in the Dakar Rally before. By winning the Dakar Challenge, Venter and Van Allemann receive free entry into the 2016 edition of the world’s toughest endurance motor race.
“Overall I am very pleased with our performance this weekend,” continued Hall. “First and third are excellent results, and Jason winning the Dakar Challenge in a Toyota Hilux just adds the cherry on top.”
Toyota also won the Manufacturer’s Prize, with four of the 10 finishing production vehicles bearing the Toyota roundel. The next round in the Donaldson Championship is the Eston 450, which takes place in KwaZulu-Natal on 8 and 9 May 2015.