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A challenging 65km Pirelli Qualifying Race in hot and humid conditions laid the foundation for an exciting Nkomazi 400, the opening round of the 2023 SA Rally-Raid Championship that takes place this weekend, 24 and 25 March in the Malalane area in the Mpumalanga Province.

On Friday, a total of 33 teams in the Production and Special Vehicle Categories, of which various competitors were looking forward to get back in the seat after the recent Dakar Rally, set off to take on the Nkomazi 400 with all the action taking place from the Nkomazi Fuel & Gas Depot.

And while a tight and technical route with some tricky navigation was enjoyed by competitors, the dust played an important role in the strategy as well as the outcome of the first set of results of the season opener.

In the end it was the Toyota Gazoo Racing SA team of Henk Lategan/Brett Cummings (Toyota DKR Hilux T1+) who posted the best time (00:56:47) in the Production Vehicle Category after opening the road of the Qualifying Race. They were followed by the new team combination of Lance Woolridge and former multiple off-road motorcycle champion, Kenny Gilbert (NWM Ford Castrol T1+ Ranger) who made a good start to their first season together by finishing second (00:57:59).

Woolridge and Gilbert were sandwiched by another Toyota Gazoo Racing team, Giniel de Villiers/Dennis Murphy (00:58:04) who rounded off the overall podium.

Eben Basson/Leander Pienaar (#TeamHilux Rally-Raid Toyota) lead FIA T1 (00:58:16) and finished fourth on their mission to defend their title with another NWM Ford Castrol T1+ Ranger in the hands of Gareth Woolridge/Boyd Dreyer fifth overall and fourth in FIA T1+ (00:58:39). Another new team combination, the young Jayden Els, who won the 2022 Class T championship and moved to FIA T1, with experienced female navigator, Elvéne Vonk (King Price Xtreme SVR) showed their intent by finishing sixth overall and second in FIA T1 (00:59:04).

Brian Baragwanath/Leonard Cremer (Century Racing CR6) are back in action and were the first of the 2×4 vehicles now competing in FIA T1+. The team posted a time of 00:59:33 that placed them seventh overall and fifth in T1+, 23 seconds ahead of the remaining Toyota Gazoo Racing DKR Hilux T1+ of Guy Botterill/Simon Vacy-Lyle (00:59:56).

The first of four Red-Lined Motorsport Teams, Nicolas Pienaar/Carl Swanepoel (Red-Lined REVO) rounded off the FIA T1 podium (01:00:01) with former Class T competitors, Wors Prinsloo/André Vermeulen (Ford Ranger T1+) 10th overall after their first stint in FIA T1+.

Two more Red-Lined Motorsport teams also finished in the top 15. Chris Visser/Albertus Venter (Red-Lined REVO T1+) are getting to grips with their Red-Lined REVO T1+ and are 11th (01:01:20) with team-mates, Johan de Bruyn/Gerhard Schutte (Red-Lined REVO) 12th (01:02:27) and fourth in FIA T1.

Hendrik and Heinrich du Plessis (Ford Ranger) posted the best time in Class T (01:02:54) to finish 13th with the only other Class T team, the Nienaber brothers, Nico and Juandré (King Price Xtreme Renault Duster) 25th in the Production Vehicle Category (01:10:03).

Johan and Sean van Staden (KEC Racing Renault Duster) moved up from Class T and are now competing in FIA T1. They finished in a commendable 14th place overall and fifth in class (01:03:00) with five more teams in this class also posting their first results for the 2023 season. The consistent Philip Botha, partnered by his brother Nicolaas (Red-Lined VK56) were 17th overall (01:04:02) and sixth in the class while Geoff Minnitt/Gerhard Snyman (Hydro Power Equipment WCT Toyota Hilux) who made a successful shift from Class G in the Special Vehicle Category, finished seventh in the class (01:05:38).

They were followed by three teams with international competitors. The German driver, Daniel Schröder and Ryan Bland (Nissan Navara) are eighth in the class (01:07:17) after getting stuck in a dam and being helped out by Special Vehicle competitors, Lood du Preez/Rikus Hatting. Daniel’s father and team-mate, Jürgen, together with Stuart Gregory finished 10th (01:13:51) after losing time due to a mechanical issue with the Dutch pairing of Dave Klaassen/Tessa Rooth (Red-Lined VK50) sandwiched between the two Germans in ninth place (01:09:53) in the class.

With a total of 13 entries for the Nkomazi 400, the FIA T1+ championship is packed and four more teams, all competing with 2×4 vehicles, completed the 65km Qualifying Race successfully. It was an extremely hot day for Simon Murray/Achim Bergmann as the air-conditioner in their WCT HT2 Toyota Hilux malfunctioned. They were ninth in the class (01:03:16) followed 22 seconds later by the 2022 FIA T1.2 champions, Lance Trethewey and Adriaan Roets (King Price Xtreme Century Racing CR6) who finished 10th in FIA T1+ while Dewald van Breda/Stompie Mynhardt (CR6) were 11th (01:07:05) and the newcomer driver from Namibia, Loic Bathfield and Rodney Burke (Century Racing CR6) 12nd (01:17:03).

Gary Bertholdt/Henry Köhne (Toyota Hilux T1+) could not finish due to power-steering failure 25 kilometres into the route while the Blignaut brothers, Fouché and Bertus (#TeamHilux Rally-Raid) will also have to start the main race on Saturday from the back of the field as mechanical issues five kilometres from the finish prevented them from completing the distance.

In the Special Vehicle Category, the defending overall and Class A champions, Tim Howes/Gary Campbell (BAT Spec 4) enjoyed the route and posted the best time (01:03:48), a minute and 19 seconds faster than Glen Theron/Craig Galvin (Moto-Netix Racing Can-Am Maverick) who were second in the category and fastest in Class G. Eugene Bierman/Pieter Visser (BAT Spec 2) rounded off the Special Vehicle Category overall podium and were second in Class A (01:08:28)

Two more Class G teams finished in the overall top five with Francois and Neil de Wit (Can-Am Maverick) fourth overall (01:11:13) and the defending Class G champions, Ian and his father, Werner Mostert (Moto-Netix Racing Can-Am Maverick) fifth (01:12:21). For this season the roles have changed with Ian now behind the wheel listening to his dad in the hot seat.

Team Du Preez/Hatting (Farmers Meat Stryker), who helped Schröder/Bland, finished third in Class A and sixth in the category (01:20:22) after they also lost time struggling to change a flat tyre. Ewald van Rensburg/Johan Scheepers (Can-Am Maverick) brought up the rear (01:22:15).

On the final day of the Nkomazi 400, teams in both the Production and Special Vehicle Categories will take on the first of two 170km loops at 08:00. The loops starts and finishes at the Nkomazi Fuel & Gas Depot where the teams will also stop for a compulsory 30 minute service break after the first of the two loops.

Enthusiasts at the event can view the action from various vantage points along the route while information is also available on the RallySafe App that can be downloaded from iStore and the Google Play Store.

Published by: SA National Cross Country Series (Charmaine Fortune)

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