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The Sugarbelt 400, the second round of the 2023 South African Rally-Raid Championship that took place on 12 and 13 May in the Eston/Mid Illovo area in KwaZulu-Natal, will probably be remembered as one of the toughest events in recent years. This iconic race had not been on the calendar for six years, and after its return in 2021 the 2022 event cancelled due to the flooding, making it a relatively new event for many current competitors.

One thing is sure, it was not an easy 350 kilometres between the sugarcane fields and plantations with competitors describing the route as tough, tricky and challenging with no room for error, while dust was also a huge factor. These conditions added to the test, as did the consequences of a shortened Pirelli Qualifying Race the previous day due to a fire on the route.

In the end it was Henk Lategan and Brett Cummings (Toyota Gazoo Racing DKR Hilux T1+) who claimed their second overall victory of the season and their first Sugarbelt 400 win. The team posted the fourth fastest time after the shortened qualifying and selected to start the race from third place on Saturday. Their time of just over five hours included time lost when they landed up in a ditch while they also suffered two punctures, and experienced a few mechanical issues. It was the team’s second attempt at the Sugarbelt 400, and they walked away as the winners of the Production Vehicle Category and FIA T1+.

They ousted their team-mates and the winners of the event in 2021, Giniel de Villiers/Dennis Murphy, by three minutes and 16 seconds after more than five brutal hours in the saddle. De Villiers, who also won this event in 2001, and Murphy lost time wrong-slotting while they also suffered a puncture.

It was, however, the local Pietermaritzburg team of Gareth Woolridge/Boyd Dreyer (NWM Ford Castrol T1+ Ranger) who led the way at the halfway mark while they were also fastest after the 20km qualifying race. After a clean first loop, a puncture 40 kilometres before the finish as well as brake problems forced them to settle for third place in FIA T1+ as well as in the Production Vehicle Category with a mere 19 seconds separating them from De Villiers/Murphy.

The third Toyota Gazoo Racing DKR Hilux T1+ team, national rally champions, Guy Botterill/Simon Vacy-Lyle, survived their Sugarbelt 400 baptism by fire as they also had to open the road on Saturday morning, which was not an easy task. The team finished fourth overall and in FIA T1+ (05:25:22), just under 3 minutes behind the Ford Ranger T1+. There was not much between Botterill/Vacy-Lyle and fifth-placed Johan and Werner Horn (#TeamHilux Rally-Raid) in a similar DKR T1+ as only 44 seconds separated the two teams.

Two more FIA T1+ teams worked themselves into the top 10 in the Production Vehicle Category, with Chris Visser/Albertus Venter (Red-Lined REVO T1+) having had their worked cut out after starting in the middle of the field. They overcame some mechanical issues and lost time with a puncture to finish seventh overall and in FIA T1+ (05:42:24), just under two minutes ahead of Lance Trethewey/Adriaan Roets (King Price Xtreme CR6) who were the first of the three two-wheel drive vehicles to finish the race despite their fair share of technical issues including brake problems.

Lance Woolridge/Kenny Gilbert (NWM Ford Castrol T1+ Ranger) were ninth in FIA T1+ and 12th overall (06:04:03) – having stopped to pull the defending T1 champions, Eben Basson/Leander Pienaar (#TeamHilux Rally-Raid) out of a ditch – while Simon Murray/Achim Bergmann brought their 2×4 WCT HT2 Toyota home in 14th place overall after not being able to post a qualifying time as they rolled their vehicle. They were ninth in FIA T1+.

It was also almost over for Brian Baragwanath/Leonard Cremer (Century Racing CR6) who qualified fifth fastest, but the team also landed in a ditch early in the race, but eventually managed to get themselves out and rounded off the FIA T1+ top 10 while they finished 18th overall.

There were new FIA T1 winners with all three podium teams finishing in the overall top 10. Nic Pienaar/Carl Swanepoel (Red-Lined Motorsport REVO) claimed their first FIA T1 victory after a relatively clean run. They were sixth overall, 13 minutes and 25 seconds behind the Horn brothers and 2 minutes 53 seconds ahead of their team-mates, Visser/Venter. Basson/ Pienaar finished second in the class (05:47:38), only 82 seconds ahead of teenager Jayden Els (King Price Xtreme SVR) who had a roller-coaster first Sugarbelt outing.

Els’s navigator, Elvéne Vonk, became ill during the first of the two 160km loops and was replaced at the halfway mark by Henry Köhne, regular navigator for Gary Bertholdt whose FIA T1+ Toyota Hilux was hampered by electrical issues forcing the team into early retirement. Els and Köhne finished 10th overall with the silverware for third place in FIA T1 a just reward.

The third #TeamHilux Rally-Raid team, Fouché and Bertus Blignaut, completed their first Sugarbelt 400 experience just outside the top 10 in 11th place overall, 67 seconds behind Els/Köhne. Three more FIA T1 teams received the chequered flag at the Beaumont Eston Farmer’s Club with German regular, Jürgen Schröder/Stuart Gregory (Nissan Navara) fifth in class after being helped onto their wheels by Johan and Sean van Staden (Renault Duster) who could not finish the race.

They were followed by two Red-Lined Motorsport teams with the 18 year-old lady driver from Dubai, Aliyyah Koloc completing her first outing on South African soil successfully with navigator Riaan Greyling (Red-Lined VK50) albeit after also rolling their vehicle. They were sixth in class with Johan de Bruyn/Gerhard Schutte (Red-Lined REVO) finishing seventh.

Schalk Burger/Henk Janse van Vuuren rounded off a 100% finish rate for Team King Price Xtreme when they brought their VW Amarok home as the winners of Class T.

The list of Sugarbelt 400 casualties also included Hendrik and Heinrich du Plessis (Ford Ranger) who could not finish in Class T; Ernest Roberts/Jaco van Aardt (CR6) who were hampered by flat tyres and landed in the sugarcane after wrong slotting and FIA T1 entrants Daniel Schröder/Ryan Bland (Nissan Navara) and the newcomers Gerhard and Rudi Heinlein (Red-Lined VK56).

With two extremely tough events on the 2023 SA Rally-Raid Championship now ticked off, it is time for competitors to focus on the Toyota Gazoo Racing Kalahari Botswana 1000 Desert Race, the third round of the series that will see them returning to Jwaneng in Botswana for this three-day event that will take place from 23 to 25 June.

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

Photography by: Plan C Productions

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