Inclement weather in rocky and slippery conditions spelt disaster for some

Inclement weather in rocky and slippery conditions spelt disaster for some and a perfect starts for defending champions at the tricky Mpumalanga 400

The Mpumalanga 400, the opening round of the 2020 South African National Cross Country Series (SACCS) that took place in the Dullstroom area of Mpumalanga this weekend, threw everything at competitors in the Production Vehicle category. Bad weather combined with a tricky route that changed all the time due to the weather conditions as well as new team combinations and vehicles resulted in very interesting results and predicts an exciting season ahead.

While some teams will hurry back to the drawing board, the defending Production Vehicle and FIA Class champions Henk Lategan/Brett Cummings (Toyota Gazoo Racing Hilux) will be smiling. The pair escaped unscathed after hitting a tree with the chequered flag in sight and limped home to open their scorebook with the first full points of the season. After winning the 64km Qualifying Race on Friday,

Lategan/Cummings opened the road that was not only wet and slippery due to persistent rain the previous night, yet there were sections that still produced dust for some of the teams and complicated tyre choices.

Lategan/Cummings survived a few hairy moments and even colliding with a tree 25km before the finish did not keep them from controlling the lead from start to finish to win this event for the first time. They had to keep an eye on the former double winner, team-mate Giniel de Villiers and navigator Alex Haro, who started the main race on Saturday behind them. De Villiers/Haro lost valuable time on the first of the two 157km loops when they experience brake problems, but they fought back to finish two minutes and 29 seconds behind their team-mates in second place overall as well as second in the FIA Class.

The overall and FIA Class podiums were rounded off by the current Class T champion and newcomers to the FIA Class, Lance Woolridge and new navigator, Elvéne Vonk (Ford Castrol Cross Country Ranger) who started the main race in fourth place behind Chris Visser/Danie Stassen (Total Excellium Toyota Hilux). They caught up to Visser/Stassen and had to deal with some dust, but a wrong tyre choice by Visser/Stassen on the first loop and lost time due to a flat tyre, saw them losing time and the team had to settle for fourth place, seven minutes and 29 seconds behind Woolridge/Vonk who were again only two minutes and one second behind De Villiers/Haro after a faultless outing.

A new left-hand drive car; a new navigator and having not competed for more than a season were some of Brian Baragwanath’s challenges at the Dullstroom event. Baragwanath/Juan Möhr (Century Racing CR 6) started 15th in the Production Vehicle category but faulty windscreen wipers, jamming back brakes and a penalty for late departure from DSP added to their challenge. They worked their way up to finish fifth in the FIA Class and overall, posting the same total race time as Visser/Stassen.

With the first five positions claimed by teams in the FIA Class, it was time for a first victory of the season for former Class T champions, Johan and Werner Horn (Malalane Toyota Hilux) who were also the fastest in the class after the Qualifying Race. The brothers had a clean run except for a flat tyre on the first loop and won a tight battle with Gary Bertholdt/Siegfried Rousseau (Total Excellium Toyota Hilux) who finished second in Class T and seventh overall. A mere 48 seconds separated these two Class T teams with Wors Prinsloo/André Vermeulen (Neil Woolridge Motorsport Ford Ranger) happy to claim the final place on the Class T podium and finishing ninth overall.

Three punctures in total and a cautious approach for the third Class FIA Toyota Gazoo Racing Hilux in the hands of Shameer Variawa/Dennis Murphy saw the team finishing only 41 seconds behind Bertholdt/Rousseau in eighth place while they were just under five and half minutes ahead of Prinsloo/Vermeulen. The top ten was rounded out by SACCS and FIA Class newcomer, the Namibian rally ace, Thilo Himmel and experienced South African navigator Gerhard Schutte (King Price Xtreme) who ran out of tyres during the first loop after two flats while they lost even more time with yet another flat tyre during the second loop.

The race took its toll on competitors and only five more teams managed to complete the 2020 edition of the Mpumalanga 400. Terence Marsh/Letshego Zulu (Red-Lined Motorsport Nissan Navara) started from the back of the field to finish fourth in Class T and 11th overall despite the treacherous conditions and hampered by visibility issues. They were a minute an nine seconds clear of Jacques van Tonder/Sammy Redelinghuys (Neil Woolridge Motorsport Ford Ranger) who rounded off the Class T top five despite a disastrous first loop where they lost back brakes, suffered  a flat tyre and had their front right wheel rim disintegrate which forced them to limp to DSP.  A flat tyre during the second loop was their only major issue.

Two of the three husband and wife pairings who started the race in the Production Vehicle category, managed to reach the finish line. Former Special Vehicle champions, Marius and Jolinda Fourie (Ford Ranger) completed their first outing in this category in 13th place overall and eighth in the FIA Class while Bernard and Minette Johnstone (Toyota Hilux) were 14th overall and sixth in Class T.

The Ford Castrol Cross Country Ranger in the hands of the visiting Brazilian team of Marcos Baumgart/Kleber Cincea were the last finishers after a rear sideshaft snapped on the first of the two loops. The team limped home for running repairs before tackling the second loop with the prescribed penalty but still managed to score their first points of the season.

There were problems for Ernest Roberts/Henry Köhne (Red-Lined Motorsport Nissan Navara) who were the sixth vehicle in the FIA Class to start the race. They had to call it a day 40 kilometres into the second loop after an input shaft broke while Clint Weston/Gerhard Snyman (King Price Xtreme) retired after they hit a tree in the second loop.

Neither of the father and son teams of Johan and Sean van Staden (Elf Renault DE Duster) and Malcolm and Frans Kock (Neil Woolridge Motorsport Ford Ranger), the Bezuidenhout couple in their first outing in the CR 5 and German driver Daniel Schröder and Ryan Bland (Nissan Navara) did not see out the distance.

The Mpumalanga 400 was an enjoyable event for most and with the ice of the new season now broken, the teams have five weeks to prepare for the Sugarbelt 400 that takes place on 3 and 4 April from the Beaumont Eston Farmers Club in the Eston/Mid Illovo area on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal.

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