Nissan, a name synonymous with motor sport in South Africa, is on the brink of scoring a remarkable 11th national championship in 11 years. With two rounds of the Absa Off Road Championship for production vehicles remaining and also two rounds of the Bridgestone Production Car Championship still to be run, Nissan is in contention for both championships.
Former national champions Hannes Grobler and Francois Jordaan currently lead the off road championship in their Proudly South African Nissan Navara 4.0 litre V6 pickup after three wins and two second places in the six events run to date.
The gap to second-placed former champions Neil Woolridge and Kenny Skjoldhammer (class SP Ford Racing Ranger), who have two wins and two second places to their credit, is eight points (10 if each is to deduct their worst score). With a total of 50 points on offer in the last two events (25 for a win), this battle is far from over. The penultimate round of the Absa series takes place this weekend (October 27/28) in the Lydenburg area of Mpumalanga.
The race for the title of national production car champion is equally close, with Leeroy Poulter (Sasol Nissan 350Z) leading defending champion Anthony Taylor (BMW 330i) by 10 points after eight of the 10 rounds. Each has six race wins to his credit. The penultimate round is at Killarney in Cape Town on November 4.
The Rosslyn-based company, which has its own state-of-the-art motor sport department in Midrand, where a skilled team of professionals under the direction of former national rally champion Glyn Hall designs, builds and prepares the racing class A Nissan 350Z and class SP Hardbody and Navara pickups, has long recognised the benefits of motor sport as a valuable marketing tool and brand image builder.
Success over the years in all forms of motor sport, from circuit racing to rallying and off-road racing, has built a reputation for performance, reliability and durability.
The current run of successive national championship victories started in 1996 with Nissan’s second Group N production car championship with Devon Juby in a Maxima and was followed by four successive touring car drivers’ and manufacturers’ championships with Giniel de Villiers and the locally-developed Nissan Primera from 1997 to 2000.
When rapidly increasing costs forced the premature demise of the touring car formula in South Africa at the end of 2000, Hall and his team quickly transferred their skills and enthusiasm to the national off-road racing championship.
Nissan Motorsport won the first off road championship it contested, with Giniel de Villiers and Francois Jordaan in a locally-developed Hardbody pickup in 2001. Nissan has gone on to win the drivers’, co-drivers’ and manufacturers’ championships for five successive years, with Duncan Vos and Mike Griffith successful in the Proudly South African Hardbody in 2002, Hannes Grobler and Richard Leeke victorious in 2003, Grobler and Jordaan the champions in 2004, and Alfie Cox and Ralph Pitchford winners in 2005.
Nissan South Africa can trace its motor sport beginnings back to 1961 when the reigning South African champion rally driver, Ewold van Bergen, bought a 1200 cc Datsun 310 with 3-speed gearbox. Van Bergen, a mechanical engineer trained in the United States, can justly be regarded as the father of Nissan’s motor sport career in South Africa.
He used his considerable skills and enthusiasm for things automotive to develop the little Datsun into a potent rally machine. It was when he boldly shipped his special Datsun to Europe to compete in the famous Monte Carlo Rally in 1961 that the then 30-year-old South African came to the attention of Datsun in Japan. One of their engineers saw the much-modified South African Datsun at the start of the rally and took lots of photographs back home. The Japanese were most impressed, so much so that they immediately offered Van Bergen a job as technical advisor to the engineering department.
Thus began an extraordinary and very successful collaboration between the South African and the Japanese car manufacturer, which was to last for some 15 years and which was to see Van Bergen establish himself as one of the all-time greats of South African rallying, winning a further three drivers’ championships (in 1964, 1965 and 1970) and assisting Datsun to win the manufacturers’ title five times between 1973 and 1979.
Oldtimers will fondly remember the Datsun SSS, which made its first appearance in rallies in 1969. Van Bergen, who joined Datsun full-time in 1966 as a development engineer, was intimately involved in the development of the famous SSS (Special Sport Sedan), both as a most desirable road car which set new standards of driving pleasure and as an all-conquering rally car.
This was the car that a very young Sarel van der Merwe started his magnificent rally career in, finishing a remarkable fourth overall in a standard 1600 SSS in his first Total International Rally in 1973. Van der Merwe went on to win many rallies in Datsuns between 1974 and 1977.
Another all-time rally great, Jan Hettema, drove for the official Datsun works team in 1978, a notable year for the company as it was the number one selling brand in South Africa. Hettema, a former Springbok cyclist, who went on to win five national rally championships, actually swopped places with Van der Merwe, who took Hettema’s drive at Ford. Although Hettema won several events in his 2-litre 16-valve 160Y, it was Van der Merwe who won the drivers’ title that year.
Datsun was also a name to be reckoned with on the motor racing circuits in the 1970s, with drivers like Sarel van der Merwe, Jan Hettema, Hennie van der Linde and George Santana.
Van der Linde, a car builder and preparation genius like Van Bergen, dominated his class in the 1975 modified saloon car championship in a Datsun 1200, winning every single race in the series and taking his first overall national title.
Van der Merwe and Hettema in turn enjoyed success on the track in modified Datsuns as part of their rally contract with the Rosslyn-based manufacturer.
Van der Linde, however, who was responsible for much of the development of the racing cars, enjoyed the most success. He won his second national saloon car championship in 1979 in a Datsun 140Y coupe.
He then enjoyed a string of saloon car championship successes in the 1980s, winning the title in 1984, 1985 and 1986 in Nissan Skylines. During this period he put together a record 56 consecutive wins and carved his name in Nissan’s motor sport history for ever.
A new name in the form of Hannes Grobler had appeared in rallying in the late 1970s. Grobler won the amateur championship (for non-works drivers) in 1979 and 1980 in a Datsun SSS, before becoming part of the official works team.
Grobler has the unique distinction of being the longest-serving works racing driver in South Africa, possibly in the world, having loyally and very successfully represented Datsun/Nissan for 27 years, a job he still enjoys to this day.
He won the 1986 rally championship in the glorious-sounding 2,8-litre six-cylinder Nissan Skyline. He and co-driver Piet Swanepoel made history by becoming the first team to also win the national off-road production car racing championship in a Nissan Safari pickup in the same year. Grobler won his second national rally championship in 1991 in a four-wheel drive 2-litre 16-valve Sentra coupe.
After a brief sabbatical from the sport he returned in triumph to win the 1998 and 1999 Group N rally championship for near standard production cars in a privately-entered, Nissan-supported 2-litre Sentra. He reigned supreme in this class to the chagrin and admiration of his younger and suppler rivals, and his back-to-back titles brought his overall tally of national rally championships to six over a period of 20 years, a feat unlikely ever to be equaled.
Nissan’s re-entry into circuit racing in 2005 saw a two-car Sasol Nissan 350Z team contest the national production car championship. Former national motor racing champions Gary Formato and Duncan Vos were the drivers, with Formato finishing the first season second overall with two race wins to his credit.
Nissan South Africa
Corporate Affairs and Communications
Unit 11, Growthpoint Office Park
Tonetti Street Midrand,1685
P O Box 911-010