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Round 1 of the 2017 South African Cross-Country Series (SACCS) took place in the Northwest town of Lichtenburg this weekend, and it was a case of picking up where they left off for Leeroy Poulter and Rob Howie (#300). The pair missed the closing rounds of the 2016 season as Poulter had to undergo surgery, but this weekend it was back to their familiar winning ways, when the pair not only dominated Friday’s qualifying race, but went on to place their Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Hilux, powered by Total Quartz, on the top step of the podium.
The new race format for 2017 saw the crews tackle a short, sharp qualifying route of only 50 km on Friday, but that was long enough for Poulter/Howie to open up a gap of 20s over their teammates, Giniel de Villiers and Dennis Murphy (#305).
The main race got under way at 08:30 on April Fool’s Day, with the two Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Hilux leading the way. This soon proved to be to Poulter/Howie’s detriment, when they got stuck in a marshy area shortly after starting the race. They got going again, but not before De Villiers/Murphy and one of the Ford crews passed them.
Once back on the road, Poulter set about reclaiming lost ground, and quickly powered back into the lead of the race. Further back, De Villiers/Murphy were putting in a solid performance in their first outing together, comfortably maintaining their second position throughout the opening loop of the Lichtenburg 400.
Then came the service break, and it was shortly after restarting the race that Dakar veteran De Villiers ran into trouble. A brake disc exploded on his race vehicle, stopping their march to the podium in its tracks. The crew tried to affect field repairs, but in the end they were forced to retire the normally highly reliable Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Hilux, and head back to the Designated Service Park (DSP).
Poulter/Howie, meanwhile, were in clear air at the head of the field, and stormed to victory in a total race time of 05:44:35. Their victory was backed up by brothers Johan and Werner Horn, in the Malalane Toyota Hilux, competing in Class T of this year’s championship. This class caters for near-FIA spec race vehicles, and their Toyota Hilux was recently upgraded with a new V8 engine. They faced stiff opposition at Round 1 of the season, with 12 Class T vehicles lining up for the start on Saturday morning.
“In the end we had a great weekend,” said Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Team Principal Glyn Hall from the DSP at the Lichtenburg showgrounds. “Leeroy is clearly back on pace, and the Horn brothers showed their mettle by winning their class despite facing a number of highly experienced and fast crews. It was disappointing that Giniel and Dennis couldn’t complete the race, but their pace was as fast as we had expected.
“We were testing many new parts in Giniel’s car as part of our ongoing development for Dakar, and we will certainly investigate the brake problem in detail once back at the workshop. Overall, the Lichtenburg 400 turned out to be an extremely tough race – much harder than we had expected.”
The 2017 SACCS consists of six rounds, with the next event taking place around the battlefields near Dundee in KZN. This will be round 2 of the series, and takes place on 12-13 May, 2017.