In a day of ups and downs for Toyota Motorsport, SA Rally Championship leaders Johnny Gemmell and Carolyn Swan (Castrol Team Toyota Auris) completed the first day of the two-day Rally South Africa in KwaZulu-Natal in second position overall.
After three of Friday’s scheduled four special stages, two of which were on slippery gravel roads in the Valley of a Thousand Hills and one was a final tarmac Super Special in Durban, Gemmell and Swan stayed in close touch with their main championship rivals, Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton (Ford Fiesta), who finished 13,6 seconds ahead of them.
The first day’s stages, covering just 25 kilometres of the scheduled 64 kilometres after the cancellation for safety reasons of the 39-kilometre special stage two, were less kind to Toyota Motorsport’s Leeroy Poulter and Elvene Coetzee in the second Castrol Auris and Giniel de Villiers and new co-driver Celeste Snyders (Imperial Toyota Auris).
Poulter and Coetzee, winners of two rounds of last year’s championship in their first season together in the premier S2000 four-wheel-drive class, were second behind Cronje and Houghton on the opening 9-kilometre stage and were pushing hard for a win on stage three when they rolled out of contention midway through the stage.
“We hit a ditch in a tight turn, which threw the back end over the edge of the road and the car rolled several times down the side of a hill, coming to rest about 200 metres from the road,” explained Poulter. Both he and Coetzee were unhurt. They had to wait until the end of the event before help could be summoned to winch the car back on to the road. After on-the-spot repairs it was driven back to the service park in Durban on Friday night, where the Toyota Motorsport technicians were ready to repair it for Saturday’s restart. However, it was found to be too badly damaged to safely contest the final day.
De Villiers and Snyders, coming off a maiden win together in the recent regional HMC Rally in Mpumalanga, lost time on the opening stage when they were held up by cattle in the road. They completed stage three in two-wheel drive after a front drive shaft broke and also experienced an engine misfire, which was later traced to a broken airbox. They eventually finished 12th overall.
Echoing the sentiments of most of the drivers, De Villiers remarked: “It was a shame that the long second stage was cancelled. It would have been something to get our teeth into and settle into a rhythm on our first national championship rally together.”
With four gravel special stages on Saturday in the Richmond area over fast, slippery roads in Mondi forests and private sugar cane fields, the rally, which is also a candidate round of the World Rally Championship, will really come alive. A battle for overall honours between the top two crews in the championship is again on the cards, as it has been for most of the season so far. Friday’s Super Special will be repeated to end the day back in Durban.
“We had a good, trouble-free run today with no incidents to report,” said Gemmell, who is seeking his first national championship title after numerous runner-up finishes. “We have some fast and tricky stages over slippery surfaces to contend with tomorrow and I’m really looking forward to the challenge.”
Team principal Glyn Hall was up until the small hours of Saturday morning with his team overseeing the repair of Poulter’s car. “Although we were able to drive the car back to Durban and thought we could repair it for Saturday, on closer inspection it was not possible. Our lads did a great job of recovering it from so far off the road and repairing it for the drive back to Durban. We are very grateful to members of the Land Cruiser Club of South Africa for their invaluable help in winching it back on to the road.”
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