Brian Joss – It was a cracking start to the 2019 South African Cross-Country Series season for Toyota Gazoo Racing South Africa, when the squad took first and second place on the Mpumalanga 400, which took place on March 15th and 16th, in the area around the sleepy town Dullstroom.
Giniel de Villiers and co-driver Dennis Murphy claimed the top step of the podium, after a tough battle with teammates Henk Lategan and Brett Cummings – both driving Class FIA Toyota Hilux vehicles that had competed at the Dakar Rally earlier this year. As a matter of fact, Lategan/Cummings found themselves piloting the very car that had won the world’s toughest automotive race in January, in the hands of Nasser Al Attiyah and Mathieu Baumel.
At the start of the race, it seemed as if that car had a notion to continue its winning ways – bear in mind that it had also won the Qatar Cross-Country Rally just weeks ago – as Lategan/Cummings set the fastest time over the Pirelli-sponsored prologue of the first round of the season.
Lategan, who had rookie navigator Cummings beside him in the Toyota Hilux for the first time, set a time of 51:41 over the 63 km-long qualifying loop, which was raced on Friday, March 15th. The purpose of the prologue is to determine the starting positions for the main race, and Lategan/Cummings clearly had the bit between their teeth. Their time was 26s faster than that posted by De Villiers/Murphy; while the Class T pole position went to the Horn brothers from Malalane Toyota, in their Class T Toyota Hilux.
“We were very pleased with the prologue,” said Lategan after completing the relatively short, sharp section. “Brett was really good on the notes, and even though we still need to get used to each other, we clearly clicked from the get-go. We did run into some dust halfway through the qualifier, which cost us some time. But even so, we’re pleased to have put the Toyota Hilux on pole.”
Winning the prologue meant that Lategan and Cummings would open the road for the main event, adding significantly more pressure to Cummings, and increasing his workload as there would be no tracks to follow beyond the 60 odd kilometres of the prologue.
“It was daunting, but there’s only one way to get through these things. I kept my head down and got on with the job,” said Cummings after completing the race. “Even so, we did suffer a number of overshoots, which unfortunately cost us some time.”
The pair also suffered a puncture on the opening loop of the race, while the second loop brought a second puncture as well as some niggles with the brakes – nothing too serious, but the margin to teammates De Villiers/Murphy were negligible throughout the weekend, and Lategan/Cummings couldn’t afford any hiccups.
As it turned out, the margins eventually swung in the favour of defending SACCS champions, De Villiers and Murphy. The pair ran in second place on the road, and suffered a puncture of their own, before pushing hard to the end.
Navigation also proved tricky for the second car on the road, but in the end it all came down to making the fewest mistakes.
When the final times were tallied, De Villiers/Murphy emerged victorious, pipping teammates Lategan/Cummings to the victory by just 34 seconds after 400 km of racing.
Shameer Variawa and navigator Juan Möhr found the change to the Toyota Hilux surprisingly easy, though the experienced racer took his time to start pushing in earnest. The pair opted for a cautious approach on the prologue, but then turned up the wick during the main race. They set very competitive times during the first race loop, but unfortunately fell foul to a mud hole when they ran wide in a corner during loop two, ending their race.
Class T initially saw the Horn brothers capitalise on their pole position, but problems with their GPS unit, which also affected the odometers in their car, cause navigational mayhem. The brothers lost precious minutes hunting for the route, and eventually finished sixth overall, fourth in Class T.
“It wasn’t the result we wanted,” said a rueful Johan Horn from the DSP in Dullstroom. “Last year we had a poor result here, and we were gunning for victory this time round. It started well, but then fell apart. But it is early days yet, and we have the rest of the championship to look forward to.”
The Class T victory went to Ford’s Lance Woolridge and navigator Ward Huxtable; with the second Ford of Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer taking second place. Gary Bertholdt and Phil Herselman, in the Atlas Copco Toyota Hilux, completed the Class T podium.
This, together with the performance of the two leading Class FIA Toyota Hilux crews, sealed the manufacturer’s award for Toyota.
“Finishing first and second in the first race of the season is just the start we wanted,” said Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Team Principal, Glyn Hall, after the race. “For a while there it looked as if though we might have a Toyota one-two-three result, but I’m not going to complain about anything at this point. It was also great to see Brett settling in with Henk. Now we look forward to the next round.”
Round 2 will take place on 17 and 18 May, in the foothills of the Drakensberg, with the race HQ set in the town of Winterton.
CAPTION: Winning ways: Giniel de Villiers and co-driver Dennis Murphy claim top spot. Picture: Motorpress