Winterton, KwaZulu-Natal – The overall podium of the Berg 400, Round 2 of the 2019 SACCS, may have featured a Toyota Gazoo Racing SA whitewash, but that was only the result. What the podium didn’t convey was the titanic struggle between teammates Giniel de Villiers, partnered with Dennis Murphy; and Henk Lategan, with Brett Cummings beside him in an identical Class FIA Toyota Hilux. Clearly Team Orders didn’t exist as Experience and Youth clashed on the tricky route in the shadow of the Drakensberg.
Last time out, it was De Villiers/Murphy who triumphed on the Mpumalanga 400. This time, however, the chips fell the other way – but not before a ding-dong battle that saw the two Toyota crews lead the Berg 400 at various points during the weekend. The two teammates traded blows over every kilometre of a route that was described as “brutally tricky” by most of the competitors.
De Villiers/Murphy drew first blood when they won the Qualifying Race on Friday, 17 May – banking a lead of only 14 seconds. But the young Lategan/Cummings didn’t capitulate at all, opting to go on the offensive from the moment the flag dropped. Their quest was aided by bad luck for their teammates, who suffered a puncture in the first two kilometers of the race.
This set the tone for the rest of the race, as each of the two top crews struggled with punctures throughout the event. Lategan even battled a small fire after the grass stuck in the front wheel of their car caught alight when they stopped to change yet another puncture. In the sister Hilux, Murphy’s seat came partially undone early in Loop 2, adding to the drama. In the end it all came to a head in the last 50 km of the route, when De Villiers/Murphy dug deep to try and outrun their younger teammates.
“Unfortunately, the power steering gave up the ghost just 30 km from the finish,” said a rueful De Villiers from the DSP at the Waffle Hut, south of Winterton. “There was just no way I could keep up the pace while battling with the wheel, and we knew the fight was over.”
Not that De Villiers’ misfortune made it an easy victory for Lategan – the youngster had many battles of his own, but in the end his tenacity was rewarded with overall victory on the Berg 400.
“I’m overjoyed to be on the top step of the podium again,” said Lategan after spraying the bubbly. “Brett did a great job, the car was brilliant, and even though it was a very eventful race, we can’t be happier with the result.”
To make things even sweeter for the Toyota Gazoo Racing SA outfit, former Special Vehicle champion, Shameer Variawa, partnered with Juan Möhr, managed to convert their seventh place starting position to a third-place finish in the overall standings.
“We battled with plenty of dust in the first loop, but we had a clean run on the second loop,” said Variawa, who clearly has the pace to take the fight to his teammates in future events.
The remainder of the FIA finishers all belonged to the Red-Lined Motorsport Nissan Navara squad, with Ernest Roberts and Riaan Greyling taking fourth place after surviving a roll in the second loop. Teammates Jaco van Dyk and Michel Rust showed plenty of pace throughout the race but were forced to relinquish their race position to Roberts/Greyling after finishing the event on just three wheels – a result of the wheel studs failing after changing a wheel.
Thomas Bell and Patrick McMurren were next-fastest, finishing just ahead of teammates Terence Marsh and celebrity navigator Letshego Zulu. Schalk Burger and Elvene Vonk were the last finishers in Class FIA after a torrid second loop.
The Berg 400 saw Chris Visser and Phillip Herselman fail to complete the race after severely damaging the front suspension of their Atlas Copco Toyota Hilux. It was mechanical failure, in the form of a broken steering rack, that brought a halt to Johan van Staden and Mike Lawrenson’s charge, in their Elf Renault Duster.
Class T brought its own share of drama, but despite a tough opening loop, with two punctures, the Ford Castrol Cross Country Team’s Lance Woolridge and Ward Huxtable managed to bring their Ford Ranger home for their second victory on the trot, putting a huge smile on the Natalians’ faces.
“We were unfortunate to lose a tyre in the first five kilometres of the race, and we had a second puncture further on, which meant that we had to ease up a little, as we had no more spares,” said Woolridge from the DSP. “But then everything came together in the second loop, and we had a great run all the way to the finish.”
They were initially followed across the line by teammates Marcus Baumgart and Kleber Cincea, who found the going tough in the unfamiliar terrain. But a missed road crossing saw the Brazilians incur a ten-minute penalty, handing second place to Johan and Werner Horn, in their Malalane Toyota Hilux.
The Horns lost time in the first loop, when they had to make running repairs to the tie rod and rose joint of their car, but then reported a clean run to the finish, despite struggling in the dust of slower competitors.
Rounding out the Class T podium was the Ford Ranger of Jacques van Tonder and Sammy Redelinghuys, who lost a ton of time in the first loop after getting stuck in a hole. They managed to extricate themselves; but lost more time when they got stuck in loop 2, requiring a helping hand from Sandra Jonck (Total Agri Porter) to get them unstuck. They returned the favour moments later, when they towed out the Nissan Navara of Van Dyk/Rust who were similarly stricken.
Fourth place was a great finish for Wors Prinsloo and Kenneth Venter in the ex-Neil Woolridge Motorsport Ford Ranger, competing in their first National event. The penalty saw Baumgart/Kleber drop down to fifth in Class, ending as the last classified finisher.
Gary Bertholdt and Geoff Minnitt were forced to retire their Atlas Copco Toyota Hilux from Loop 1 with a broken power steering system, just 41km into the route. But they rejoined the race for Loop 2, and recorded a clean run, scoring valuable points in the process.
One crew who failed to score any points at the Berg 400 was that of Richard Leeke and Danie Stassen, who were in a fight for the Class T lead early on. But a puncture, followed by broken wheel studs, saw the young pairing retire their Ford Ranger from the event.
Class S featured the one and only David Huddy and Gerhard Schutte in their Nissan Navara. The pair finished the race in ninth place in the production vehicle category, after a relatively uneventful run.
Next up on the 2019 SACCS calendar is the Toyota Kalahari Botswana 1000 Desert Race, which takes place on 21-23 June 2019 in the area around the town of Selebi Phikwe in Botswana. This is the sole marathon event on the South African cross country calendar, and as the two leading crews – both Toyotas – are now tied on points, this promises to bring plenty of fireworks. At the same time, the battle in Class T may swing in any direction, as the Desert Race, as it is also known, is worth double points in the championship, and often marks a turning point in the fight for overall honours.