Words: Compiled by Sarah Kobal | Photos: Martin Hermida and Geoffrey Crow
In spite of their dirty reputation, off-road racing cars sport some of the cleanest and most high-tech engineering on the planet. And even though off-road racing has evolved quite a bit over the years, it has retained every bit of its original sideways-sliding fun.
So what exactly is off-road racing all about and what's the appeal? DO IT NOW spoke to Martin Hermida, a mechanical engineer at Century Racing (one of the teams competing in the race series) to find out more about this high-octane and action-packed four-wheeled motorsport.
Off-road racing is an endurance race where the cars are expected to race at high speed across any terrain that is usually only accessible by 4x4. There are about eight events in a year, which culminate in the championship. At each race, points are awarded depending on where the competitor finished in each class. The competitor with the highest number of points is the championship winner and receives the much-coveted #1 plates, which they race with pride in the following season.
Each event comprises a Prologue race and this takes place on the Friday prior to the race weekend. The Prologue is like a qualifying session and the competitors set off in the order of their finish from the last race on a course that is approximately 50 km long. Their time in the Prologue will determine their starting position for the race on Saturday - so this event is just as exciting to watch because the competitors give it their all and often finish within seconds of each other. Come race day, this means that they will start just seconds apart and this makes for some truly exciting bumper-to-bumper and intense racing that is quite rare in endurance motorsport.
On the Saturday, the route is usually around 400 to 500 km long and split into two loops of approximately 200 to 250 km. Between loops, the cars have to stop for a mandatory 15-minute pit stop to refuel (both the driver and vehicle), get the windscreens cleaned and tyres changed. The pit crew also carries out any repairs needed during this stop. Due to the incredibly rough terrain, punctures are a common problem, so each team carries at least two spare tyres with them. If a team gets a puncture or something goes wrong with the car, the work must be done by the driver and navigator without any external assistance. Time costs places and the top teams are able to stop, lift the car, change the tyre and be off again in less than five minutes - you’ve got to see it to believe it! However, when a car is stuck in mud, as they so often do, the spectators willingly lend a hand or shoulder to get it out.
There are two types of vehicles: special and production types.
• Special vehicles look like buggies and the majority have exposed big wheels, as well as an open cockpit because it's simpler and lighter. There is still a full-roll cage with a roof, but no windscreen or windows.
• Production vehicles resemble a production car. The 1968 FIA rules stated that production cars were, for sports cars, at least 25 identical cars produced within a 12 month period and meant for normal sale to individual purchasers.
Special vehicle classes
Special vehicles are only two-wheel drive, with the drive being through the rear wheels, and there are two classes: Class A and Class P.
• Class A is an open class where there are few rules and the drivers can pretty much do anything they want. These big V8 monsters boast huge American engines around 7.0-litres in capacity. They are extremely powerful, very fast and very loud.
• In Class P, the cars are smaller than what you will find in Class A and engines are restricted to V6, usually around 3 to 4-litres in capacity. Although they are not as powerful as the Class A cars, they are still very quick as they are lighter. The race cars used here are also cheaper than those in Class A, which makes it easier for new teams to enter the fray.
Production vehicle classes. There are three classes in the production cars: Class SP, Class D and Class E. Production cars used are four-wheel drive cars, which gives them a traction advantage over the special vehicles. However, other rules balance out the advantage thus making it quite even in the end.
• Class SP or Super Production is the top class. These are specially-built off-road race cars that have the body work of a road-going 4x4, such as the Toyota Hilux, but underneath the skin there are almost no parts shared with its road-going counterpart. However, regulations do specify that the engine must be in the same location as found on the road version and the engine used must come from the same manufacturer. This is one of the most popular classes with the fans because they resemble cars you’ll find on the roads, yet they are full-blown racing machines.
• Class D vehicles are based on the standard production car, yet the rules here allow certain modifications to be made to the suspension, to make the vehicle stronger and faster. Unlike in the SP, this is a supped-up, modified version of a street-going car as opposed to a custom race vehicle.
• Class E is an almost standard road vehicle. The only modifications allowed in this class are safety features, such as a roll cage for protection. Otherwise all components are as found on the street vehicle.
The regulations are set-up in such a way that although an SP vehicle and Class A vehicle are completely different in design, they are still seriously competitive. Moreover, even though the vehicles cost millions of Rands, there are still a lot of competitors to keep it exciting. An average start has around 45 competitors across all the classes.
Safety is paramount, so the cars in all classes are built to take the toughest abuse as rolling a vehicle is a common occurrence. Thankfully, it is very rare for a driver to get hurt, even after rolling over four times at 120 km/h. The body work will be destroyed, but depending on the nature of the roll over, more often than not, the driver will be able to continue racing with minimal mechanical damage.
The events are not just about the competitors; the spectators are equally important and a lot of time and effort goes into preparing detailed maps with the locations and expected times that the race cars will pass through these points, for them. So, contrary to normal sports where one sits and watches the action, in off-road racing the spectators actively chase the action moving from one predetermined spectator point to the next as they follow their heroes. In addition, the route is designed in such a way that while the car winds through a tough technical section, the spectators are able to drive ahead and reach the next point before the race vehicles pass. This often leads to driving on a tar road alongside a race car that's on a rough dirt road - and I’m sure I don’t need to explain what this does to the testosterone levels of the non-racers.
South Africa has one of the most competitive and challenging off-road racing series in the world: the Donaldson Cross Country Motor Racing Championship. Some of the components used here hail from international suppliers who designed their components around feedback from South African teams because we are the only ones in the world driving hard enough to break their components. For example, the Toyota and Ford racing teams are based in South Africa so that they can test and develop their cars here in the local series, with local drivers.
So if you are looking for some action in your life - be it getting involved or just spectating - then why not add off-road racing to your bucket list?
2013 NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP OFF-ROAD calendar (The definitive calendar as agreed with MSA)
1/2 March: Gauteng / Tshwane
12/13 April: Mpumalanga
17/18 May: KwaZulu-Natal
14/15/16 June: Botswana 1000: Desert Race
26/27 July: North West Province
6/7 September: Lesotho
11/12 October: Free State: Thaba ‘Nchu
22/23 November Gauteng East Rand
Source: Cross Country Commission (Media)
For more information, visit South Africa’s official off-road website www.saoffroadracing.co.za.