With the overall Donaldson Cross-Country championship title already in the bag, thanks to the performance of Leeroy Poulter and navigator Rob Howie earlier in the season, all eyes turned to the battle that raged in Class T, when Toyota tackled the Atlas Copco Gold 450 – final round of the 2016 cross-country championship – on Friday and Saturday, October 28 and 29. The Class T championship, for race vehicles with solid rear axles and off-the-shelf tyres, came down to a dash for the finish, between Ford’s Chris Visser and navigator Ward Huxtable, and eventual winners Jason Venter and Vince van Alleman, driving a 4×4 Mega World Toyota Hilux.
The pair started the final race, based around the Gauteng town of Glenharvie, by posting the fastest time in Friday’s qualifying race, putting more than two minutes between themselves and their challengers. But Visser/Huxtable are known for their tenacity, and the pair dug deep on Saturday’s main race, taking the lead at one point. Venter/Van Alleman rallied in the final stages, and managed to bring their Toyota Hilux home just one minute and five seconds ahead of the Ford crew, for one of the closest championship finishes on record.
“We are extremely pleased with what we achieved today,” said Venter from the DSP at Glenharvie after clinching the title. “It was a tough battle all through the year, and in the end it came right down to the wire. A single puncture could’ve cost us everything. But in the end we held it together for the win.”
Venter/Van Alleman’s victory completed a clean sweep in cross-country racing for Toyota. Poulter/Howie’s overall title, behind the wheel of their Class FIA Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Hilux, in association with Total Quartz, was an impressive feat, since they closed out the title with two rounds to spare. Teammates Anthony Taylor and Dennis Murphy finished second in the championship.
In Class S it was newcomers to the sport, Otto Graven and Bobby Brewis, who sealed the championship with a round in hand, piloting their Graven Motorsport Toyota Hilux. Class S caters for vehicles with engines up to four litres in capacity, as well as solid rear axles, and has been a hotly contested class in recent years. The arrival of Otto and brother Ronald Graven added spice to the class, and the brothers certainly set the cat among the pigeons with their spectacular driving styles.
With so much attention on the Class T battle, the overall victory on the Atlas Copco Gold 450 almost got lost in the noise. Stand-in driver Conrad Rautenbach and navigator Rob Howie drove an excellent race to take the win in the Class FIA Toyota Hilux, ensuring victory in all seven rounds of the 2016 cross-country championship for Toyota Gazoo Racing SA. This was Rautenbach’s first win in a new discipline, since the Atlas Copco 450 was only his third cross-country race. It also marked a flawless season for the Toyota Hilux, which never missed a beat throughout the year.
This brings to a close a vintage motorsport season for Toyota. Leeroy Poulter and navigator Elvéne Coetzee also clinched the South African National Rally Championship after finishing second on the Toyota Cape Dealer Rally in September, while teammates Giniel de Villiers and navigator Carolyn Swan won that particular event, and finished second in the championship. Both crews campaigned the reliable and spectacular four-wheel-drive Toyota Yaris S2000 rally cars during 2016.
As a result Toyota not only won both manufacturer’s championships – in rally and cross-country racing – this year, but also became the first manufacturer in South African history to win every race in both championships in one year.
With the local championships complete, Toyota Gazoo Racing SA’s attention now shifts fully to its Dakar campaign, and with the race just over two months away, the team will complete final testing before shipping their race vehicles to South America at the beginning of December.