Castrol Team Toyota will be defending an unbeaten record at the Vryburg Endurance, round five of the Donaldson Cross Country Championship on September 11 and 12, with the added bonus of having factory crew Leeroy Poulter and Rob Howie poised to clinch the Production Vehicle title.
Poulter and Howie need third place or better to win the overall and premier Class T titles after dominating the season so far. The pair won the RFS Endurance, the Sugarbelt 450, the Nkomazi 450 and shared heat wins with team-mates Anthony Taylor and Dennis Murphy on the Toyota 1000 Desert Race in Botswana.
Reigning champions Taylor and Murphy are the only other crew with a mathematical chance of winning the titles, but it would need a massive turnaround of fortunes to deny Poulter and Howie championship glory. The versatile Poulter is also on the brink of adding the cross country title to a national rally championship and a string of circuit racing and karting championships.
Rival teams will be banking on the law of averages catching up with the Castrol Team Toyota squad, and behind the two leaders there are some tight battles for the minor championship placings. Jason Venter/Vince van Allemann (4×4 Mega World Toyota Hilux) and brothers Johan and Werner Horn (Malalane Toyota Hilux) share third place in the standings, and have performed consistently without ever threatening to win races.
Three crews – Lance Woolridge/Ward Huxtable (Ford Performance Ranger), Johan van Staden/Mike Lawrenson (Regent Racing Nissan Navara) and Gary Bertholdt/Siegfried Rousseau (Atlas Copco Ford Ranger) – share fourth place in the championship. The under performers in that bunch are factory crew Woolridge and Huxtable and, along with team-mates Chris Visser and Japie Badenhorst, they will be looking for some kind of atonement.
Visser and Badenhorst, in particular, have had the sort of season they would rather forget. The former South African champions won this race last year but will need to come up with something extra to repeat the performance.
Youngsters Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer (Neil Woolridge Motorsport Ford Ranger) have performed admirably in their first season of premier cross country racing, and for them the learning curve continues. The Ford presence is also bolstered by Australian crew John Purshouse and Murray Hynes who will be having their second outing in the Donaldson series in an ex-factory Ford Ranger.
Freddie and Sune Kriel (Uni Freight Ford Ranger) venture into Class T territory for the first time, while Hennie de Klerk/Johann Smalberger (RFS/Treasury One BMW X3) have been in good form recently. Dakar Rally preparations have seen the Regent Racing challenge in Class T, for cars above four litres with independent suspension, reduced to a pair of entries with team principal Terence Marsh and Man Cave television presenter Janez Vermeiren joining van Staden/Lawrenson.
Sean Reitz and Riaan Greyling will have an outing in the Regent Racing Jimco in the Special Vehicle category while German crew Jurgen and Max Schroeder sit out this race. The German pair finished second to Poulter/Howie on the recent Nkomazi 450.
Local crew Malcolm Kock and Johan Burger (Kock and Sons Toyota Hilux) will have plenty of support, but two other crews will attract a huge amount of interest over the weekend. Former Dakar Rally winners Giniel de Villiers and Dirk von Zitzewitz will be testing a Toyota Hilux in preparation for next year’s South American classic, while former Sun City 400 winners Christiaan du Plooy and Henk Janse van Vuuren return to action for the first time this season in a new Volkswagen Amarok.
De Villiers and von Zitzewitz will enjoy celebrity status, but the performance of the Amarok will be closely watched. New race cars are notoriously fickle, but the entire cross country fraternity will be keeping a beady eye on the Amarok which sees a fifth manufacturer represented in the Donaldson series.
Interest in Class S for cars up to four litres with solid rear axle suspension will centre around the championship battle between North West crew Heine Strumpher and Henri Hugo (4×4 Mega World Toyota Hilux), and Portuguese crew Rómulo Branco and João Serôdio in the Regent Racing Nissan Navara. Strumpher and Hugo, who lead the Portuguese pair by nine points in the championship, will be at home in the conditions and that could give them the edge in an interesting confrontation.
Deon Venter/Jaco van Aardt (4×4 Mega World Toyota Hilux) still have a mathematical chance of winning the championship but maximum points are essential, while the event sees a return to action for Marius and Jolinda Fourie in the PHB Toyota Hilux. The entire Class S applecart could be upset, however, by a late entry from reigning champions Jannie Visser and Joks le Roux (Toyota Hilux) who will make only their second appearance of the season.
Like Strumpher/Hugo the experienced Visser and le Roux are North West based and will revel in the conditions. Visser/le Roux are not championship contenders but could have an influence on the scramble between Strumpher/Hugo and Branco/Serôdio.
The national race will run in conjunction with a round of the Northern Regions championship, with race headquarters located at the Vryburg Motor Club on the outskirts of the town with free public entry. There will also be free public entry to numerous spectator viewing points along the route, and spectator guides will be available at race headquarters.
The qualifying race to determine grid positions will start at 10:30 on Friday, September 11, and the race at 07:30 on Saturday, September 12.
Follow the action on twitter.