The Atlas Copco Gold 400, final round of the 2017 South African Cross-Country Series, cemented Toyota’s domination in the sport. Toyota Gazoo Racing SA’s Giniel de Villiers and navigator Dennis Murphy had wrapped up the overall title at the previous round, but the final event saw brothers Johan and Werner Horn (Malalane Toyota Hilux) wrap up the Class T title; while the Class S crown went to Jannie Visser and his son Chris Jnr (Team Barberspan Toyota Hilux).
This trifecta closed out the Production Vehicle category, with Toyota claiming the championships in each of the three classes that make up this category – Class FIA (De Villiers/Murphy), Class T (Horn/Horn) and Class S (Visser/Visser).
“We couldn’t be happier,” said Toyota’s Vice President: Marketing, Glenn Crompton, from the Designated Service Park (DSP) at Glen Harvie, Gauteng, after the race. “Winning each class in the category clearly proves the reliability and toughness of the Toyota Hilux. We are very proud of what our various crews achieved this year.”
With the overall championship already in the bag after the Sun City 400, round 5 of the six-round championship, Toyota Gazoo Racing SA turned their attention to the upcoming Dakar Rally, which takes place in January 2018. As such, they not only entered the all-new mid-engined Toyota Hilux for the Atlas Copco Gold 400, but also had Dirk von Zitzewitz do duty as De Villiers’ navigator for the race.
“We’ve done a mass of testing since the last race,” explained Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Team Principal, Glyn Hall. “With the championship wrapped up, we wanted to give Dirk the opportunity to experience the new car, in preparation for next year’s Dakar.”
With its new mid-engine layout, the latest version of the team’s Toyota Hilux sees the crew seated in a new, more reclined position. So, a proper seat fitting was needed for Von Zitzewitz, who last competed with De Villiers in the Dakar Series: China Rally last month. That race, however, was run in the previous version of the Toyota Hilux.
The pair got off to a rocky start on the Atlas Copco Gold 400. They had to open the road on Friday’s qualifying session, and the lush grassland of the area around the mining town of Glen Harvie made things tricky.
“We wrong-slotted early in the loop,” said De Villiers of their effort. “And then we had a problem with one of the brake units we were testing for the Dakar Rally.”
As a result, De Villiers/Von Zitzewitz qualified way down the order, and started Saturday’s main race from the 13th position. They had a deficit of 03:03 to the winners of the qualifier – the fellow Toyota Hilux crew of Johan and Werner Horn.
But De Villiers/Von Zitzewitz are experienced campaigners, and when the flag dropped they didn’t hang around. Despite suffering a puncture mid-way through the first of the two race loops on the main event, they powered straight to the head of the field, taking the chequered flag some 05:25 ahead of their nearest competitors.
“The car ran absolutely perfectly, and it is clear that all our efforts in testing have paid off,” said De Villiers after the race. “As always there’s still room for improvement, but winning from 13th on the road certainly shows what the new Toyota Hilux is capable of.”
At the same time, brothers Johan and Werner Horn went to the final round with a lead of 26 points of the Ford crew of Lance Woolridge and navigator Ward Huxtable. The Toyota crew needed only to finish in the Top 10 to secure the championship – even if Woolridge/Huxtable won the race.
In the end, it was the Horns that drew first blood, when they powered to a victory in Friday’s qualifying race. This gave them an early advantage, but a puncture shortly after the start of the main event took the sting out of their attack. They drove a steady race from that point forward, finishing second in class, and claimed the hard-fought Class T Championship for 2017 in the process.
Further back, the Vissers were flying in their Class S Toyota Hilux. The pair went fastest of the Class S crews in qualifying, and looked set to finish the season with another class victory. However, the alternator of their car cried enough near the end of the race, forcing them into retirement on the final round of the year.
Despite the DNF, the Vissers had done enough earlier in the season to be crowned Class S Champions for 2017 in their Toyota Hilux, giving Toyota championship victory in all three production classes.
With the 2017 SACCS now done and dusted, all attention shifts to the grueling Dakar Rally. The 2018 edition of the Dakar Rally takes place in January next year, and will follow a route that start in the Peruvian capital of Lima, before crossing through Bolivia and southwards to the finish in the Argentine city of Cordoba.