With 60 points up for grabs over two heats the Toyota Kalahari Botswana 1000 Desert Race, round three of the South African Cross Country Series from June 23 to 25, has the potential to be a game changer where championships in the Production Vehicle category are concerned.

Championship hopefuls will be fully aware of the situation, and the only marathon event on the SACCS calendar could be a make or break race for those harbouring title aspirations as the season reaches the halfway mark. Drama is never far away on the Desert Race, and this year’s event is likely to be no different with a fine line between triumph and heartbreak.

Johan van Staden

As has been the case in the two opening events of the season the two Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Toyota Hilux entries of South African champions Leeroy Poulter/Rob Howie and Giniel de Villiers/Dennis Murphy, competing in the FIA Class will start outright favourites for the 26th running of the race under the Toyota banner. With Terence Marsh and the Red-Lined team in China for the Taklimakan Rally, opposition for the Toyotas is left with Johan van Staden and Mike Lawrenson in the Elf Renault Duster.

Van Staden and Lawrenson had a satisfactory debut on the Battlefields 400, but it is unrealistic to expect a win in only the Duster’s second outing. They are an experienced crew but Poulter/Howie and de Villiers/Murphy appear to hold all the cards and are set to defend an unbeaten record for the Toyota Gazoo team that extends to the beginning of the 2015 season.

Class T, for vehicles over four litres and with solid axle rear suspension, is another kettle of fish and this is where most of the action will unfold. The category has had two different winners on the first two events and only six points separate the first three crews.

Two second places see Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer (Ford NWM Puma Lubricants Ranger) topping the championship by one point from Johan and Werner Horn (Malalane Toyota Hilux) who won the opening event of the season. Lance Woolridge and Ward Huxtable, winners of the second event in another Ford NWM Puma Lubricants Ranger, are a point behind the Horn’s and that sets the scene for two terrific races.

But it does not end there. Class T is ultra-competitive with a mixture of youth and experience and there are half a dozen crews who could end up in victory lane – and that is what gives the category extra appeal.

Fourth and fifth in the Class T championship are Hennie de Klerk and former South African champion Achim Bergmann again co-driving in the Treasury One/Atlas Copco VW Amarok, and Gary Bertholdt/Philip Herselman (Atlas Copco VW Amarok) who have made encouraging starts to the season. Both crews tend to blow hot and cold, but the Amaroks are proving to be reliable and have a 100 percent finish record this season.

Rookies Henk Lategan and Barry White, in a third Ford NWM Puma Lubricants Ranger, and reigning champions Jason Venter and Vince van Allemann (4×4 Mega World Toyota Hilux) are level on points  and represent the younger generation in the SACCS championship. Lategan and White have shown indecent pace on the events run thus far, but the Desert Race will be a new experience for them.

Venter and van Allemann could be classified as Desert Race “veterans” and have finished both races this season. But a variety of mechanical niggles have not helped their cause, and they will be eyeing the rich haul of points which could put them back into championship contention.

The same applies to former South African champions and former Desert Race winners Chris Visser and Japie Badenhorst. The Atlas Copco Toyota Hilux pair will know exactly what it takes to win the Desert Race, and experience is a precious commodity in Kalahari conditions.

Jacques van Tonder and Leander Pienaar (Ford Ranger) are paired together for the second time this season. The Battlefields 400 provided them with a satisfactory start to their association and it always takes a little time for driver and co-driver to settle down.

The experienced Deon Venter and Jaco van Aardt, in the second 4×4 Mega World Toyota Hilux, will also be keen to kick start their championship. A lone finish on the first event of the season in Lichtenburg represents a disappointing start to the season for the pair, and what better place to remedy the situation that the Desert Race.

Class S for cars up to four litres with solid axle rear suspension has a made to order pair who will be installed as favourites. Former South African champion Jannie Visser, with son Chris doing the co-driving in a Toyota Hilux, will revel in the conditions and will be hard to beat.

The pair currently lead the championship from Richard Leeke junior and Henry Kohne (Ford Ranger) who scored a maiden national championship win on the Battlefields 400. Leeke’s father has more wins on the Desert Race than any other driver/co-driver, but that won’t count for anything with a character building exercise awaiting the youngster and Kohne.

David Huddy, with Rodney Cook navigating this time out in a Nissan Navara and Dakar Rally quad hero Brian Baragwanath and Leonard Cremer in a Ford Ranger, will provide the major opposition. A cameo performance between Toyota, Ford and Nissan will ensure a high level of interest.

Jwaneng, the home of the world’s largest diamond mine, will again play host to the event. Race headquarters, the start/finish and designated service area will all be located at the Jwaneng Sports Club and adjacent showground, but due to unprecedented public interest in the race there will be restricted entry to these areas.