But maybe even bigger news is that Nissan’s 11-race stranglehold on the off-road championship was finally broken by another marque, after the Navaras had a less than ideal outing in the Brakpan-based event.
Privateers Gary Bertholdt and Andre Vermeulen (Atlas Copco Toyota Hilux V6) broke the drought for Toyota, beating the factory entries of Nissan, Ford and even Toyota to the finishing line. It wasn’t all plain sailing though.
First initial leaders Hannes Grobler/Juan Mohr (Donaldson Nissan Navara) fell by the wayside courtesy of a bent rear axle. Castrol Toyota Hilux crew Anthony Taylor and Robin Houghton, who inherited the lead after Grobler’s Nissan was sidelined, then retired with a broken steering system. This left Bertholdt and Vermeulen in the lead – but they were in the process of being hunted down by champion Duncan Vos in the Nissan Navara V6.
“The Hilux is as good as the Navara in the fast, open sections, but we know they have a big advantage over the rough stuff. So in the fast sections we went hard as we could, but in the rough sections we slowed it down to a safer pace, letting the dust do some work for us, and putting the pressure on the Nissan crew to make their move,” says Bertholdt.
Vos and Pitchford did eventually make their move.
“The Toyota was charging very hard, but I realised that the Navara was quicker over the rougher jumps. So when one of those big contour lines came up, I decided to take the risk, even with a wall of sand masquerading as dust in front of us. Instead of braking, I floored the Navara V6, took a different line than the Toyota Hilux, and went flying. But we landed on a rock, which broke the right front suspension, shearing off some bolts. From there on we could only manage a top speed of about 40km/h, with the right front wheel that could have sheared off at any time,” explains new champion Vos.
The Nissan Navara limped home in fifth place in the Super Production (SP) class, but bagged enough points to win the championship.
At the front of the field though, Berthholdt and Vermeulen drove a flawless race to win ahead of Ford Racing’s Neil Woolridge and Kenny Skjoldhammer, in the ever-improving turbodiesel Ranger TDCi. Privateers Terence Marsh and Pieter Groenewald (Regent Racing Nissan Navara) managed to salvage the last podium position for Nissan.
For Vos, the pressure of winning the championship is now a thing of the past.
“Now we can concentrate on going as quickly as possible. And winning, of course,” he says.
With the championship wrapped up, the focus shifts to the battle for second place. This is now a hotly contested affair, with privateer Bertholdt leading international driver Ivar Tollefsen (Donaldson Nissan Navara) by a single point. The never-say-die Grobler follows in fourth, only 16 points behind his team-mate Tollefsen.
Indeed, Vos may have won the war, but there are still two royal battles on the menu.
Read the full Highveld 400 report in the October issue of Leisure Wheels.
The Toyota Dealer 400 takes place on 2 and 3 October, around the town of Lydenburg. For more information on the 2009 Absa Off-road championship, visit www.saoffroadracing.co.za