The Topcar Off-Road Racing Team, supported by Autopage Cellular and Du Pont Telecom, endured a torrid start to the Absa Off Road Championship at the Nissan Sugarbelt 400.

The team, with Topcar managing editor Deon Schoeman at the wheel, and long-time motorsport partner Jan Sime in the navigator’s seat, debuted the newly rebuilt Class D Nissan Hardbody after a year’s absence from the series, but was beset by a series of mishaps.

The 31 km prologue on Friday was spoilt by a puncture some 6 km from the finish, which caused a number of off-road excursions and a loss of some 4 minutes. Fortunately, the Nissan suffered no additional damage, but the team started the 420 km main race in 42nd place, some 6 min 30 sec behind the leaders.

“We weren’t too fussed, because we knew that the main race was a tough one, and that there would be ample opportunity to make up places,” Schoeman said. “However, our strategy went awry when we broke the front diff about 10 km into the race.”

Despite now running in rear-wheel drive only, the Topcar/Autopage/Du Pont Hardbody still made up a number of places and was attacking a slower vehicle about 66 km from the start when Schoeman hit a bank in the dust, which tipped the Hardbody on its side, in the middle of the route.

“We were blocking the route completely, and were worried that we would be hit by another vehicle, because the dust was thick, and visibility severely hampered,” Schoeman explained. “Fortunately, the next vehicle saw us in time, and alerted the others.”

It took the help of eight or 10 competitors and some 30 minutes to get the big Hardbody back on its wheels. “We are very grateful to everybody who helped -- it demonstrates what makes off-road racing so special.” Schoeman said.

After checking fluid levels, the Topcar/Autopage/Du Pont Nissan continued to the service area, some 30 km further, in the hope that the diff could be fixed, but to no avail.

“We decided to soldier on, but the lack of all-wheel drive really hampered us, and by the time we had finished the first 200 km, and had been slowed by a puncture and a flat battery, it was clear that we would be time barred before being able to finish the course.”

However, Schoeman is hugely positive about the Nissan Hardbody’s potential. “This is easily the best off-road vehicle we’ve raced: there’s lots of power, and the whole package is brilliant. It’s shame that the front diff broke, but the accident is something that could happen to anybody.”

Up front, a race-long battle between reigning SA off-road champion Hannes Grobler and Francois Jordaan in their Proudly SA Nissan Hardbody and the Ford Racing Ranger of Neil Woolridge and Kenny Skjoldhammer eventually went the Ford’s way.

Grobler overtook team-mate Alfie Cox (better known for his two-wheeled exploits in the Dakar Rally Raid) for the lead after 90 km of racing, and looked set for another win when a puncture forced him to stop, handing first place to Woolridge.

Chasing hard, he caught up with the Ford, but couldn’t pass in the dust. The Nissan crew eventually settled for second, only 17 sec behind the Ford.

Third place, and first in the special vehicle category, went to Gary Berthold and Siegfried Rousseau in a Advansoft BAT, followed by the Connix Chenowth of John Moore and Graham MacLachlan. Fifth overall and first in class D were local cane farmer Manfred Schroeder and Alec Harris after leading the class from start to finish in their Ford Racing Ford Ranger.

Other class winners included Hugo-Frans and Jaap de Bruin, who took the class E honours in a Castrol Toyota Hilux, while the class B victory went to the Motorite BAT of Evan Hutchinson and Trevor Ormerod.

The next round in the Absa Off Road Championship is the Nissan Dealer 400, which takes place on 22 and 23 April in the Western Cape town of Darling.

Original article from Car