COMFORTABLE WIN: Leeroy Poulter and Rob Howie (Toyota Hilux) comfortably won their category in the opening round of the SA Off-Road championship. Image: Supplied
HARRISMITH, Free State - In boxing parlance Team Castrol Toyota scored a points win over Ford Performance in the Production Vehicle category factory battle on the RFS Endurance, the opening round of the South African Cross-Country championship on March 28.
Leeroy Poulter and Rob Howie (Toyota Hilux) romped to victory and at the finish were a more than comfortable 11min51 ahead of the Ford Ranger in the hands of Lance Woolridge and Ward Huxtable.
The podium was completed by current South African champions Anthony Taylor and Dennis Murphy (Hilux) who started from pole after winning the qualifying race.
It was Poulter's first victory in the premier Class T. His previous success was in an entry-level Class E vehicle at the beginning of a cross-country career that has since seen him twice finish the Dakar Rally.
Poulter said: “I made a few mistakes on the first loop but everything went well on the second lap. We never had to get out of the car and that makes a huge difference when it comes to winning races.
"It’s nice to get a Class T win at last.”
Poulter and Howie started to move clear of Woolridge/Huxtable and Taylor/Murphy after the compulsory 20 minute service break at the end of the first 251km lap.
The Ford crew, who missed the 2014 season while Woolridge recovered from back surgery, were hampered by a misfire that prevented a late challenge on Poulter/Howie.
“The misfire was frustrating but second was a good result for us and the team,” Woolridge said. “It was just nice to be back in action.”
Woolridge and Huxtable ran out of fuel on the finish line but for Taylor/Murphy a litany of problems created a tough day at the office. Locked gates, no driver to co-driver communications and being stuck in a mudhole were compounded by a broken driveshaft late in the race.
Woolridge and Huxtable stopped to help extricate them from the mud but the tow rope broke and the job was completed by Woolridge’s younger brother Gareth and Boyd Dreyer making their Class T debut in another Ranger. The younger Woolridge and Dreyer soon afterwards also fell by the wayside when they hit gatepost and Taylor and Murphy were happy to rescue third place.
There was a noisy finish-line celebratiowhen North West youngsters Jason Venter and Vince van Allemann (Hilux) put the finishing touches to a hard-earned fourth. On the second lap they moved ahead of former SA champions Chris Visser and Japie Badenhorst in the second works Ford Ranger. They were hampered throughout by a windscreen-washer malfunction – a major drawback in the extreme muddy conditions that characterised the race - and electronic throttle problems.
Harrismith brother and sister Jacques and Lizelle van Tonder (Ranger) kept the local flag flying with a workmanlike sixth. They had just more than a minute in hand over Johan van Staden and Mike Lawrenson (Nissan Navara) who had an adventurous day.
The same wheel fell of twice on the first lap and they limped into the designated service point. Loop 2 saw them stuck in a mudhole for around 30 minutes before Portuguese team mates Rómulo Branco and co-driver João Serôdio and Sean Reitz and Gerhard Schutte, in another Navara, arrived to lend a helping hand.
The Portuguese pair had an interesting introduction to the championship. They failed to finish the qualifying race and started the day from the back of the field.
With Class S crews, including qualifying race winners Deon Venter and Jaco van Aardt (Hilux) dropping out regularly Branco and Serôdio moved up the field to an unlikely victory first time out.
Behind them Sean Reitz and Gerhard Schutte were also rewarded for perseverance as the last of the classified finishers and second in Class S.
The next event on the National Off-Road calendar will be the Sugarbelt 450 sprint at Eston, near Pietermaritzburg, over May 8/9 2015.