- Cronje and Houghton set out to repeat their Tour Natal win and build championship lead in Mpumalanga
- 206 km of special stage action through the region’s forest roads, along with the spectacular night stages in Sabie and White River
The Ford Performance rally team of Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton will be aiming for back-to-back wins for the 2015 season going into the Sasol Rally, second round of the National Rally Championship on 17 and 18 April.
After dominating the season-opening Tour Natal Rally in February, the Ford Fiesta pair are determined to continue their winning form on an event that they have won twice already, in 2012 and 2013.
The 24th annual Sasol Rally takes place in Mpumalanga’s Lowveld region, and is renowned as the South African championship’s premier event with spectacular special stage rallying through the forests surrounding Sabie, Graskop, Pilgrim’s Rest and White River.
According to Robin Houghton, co-driver in the Class S2000 Ford Performance entry alongside driver Mark Cronje, this event is particularly well suited to their Fiesta.
“Our car is designed for World Rally Championship-type stages, and the Sasol Rally is very close to what you would find on international events,” Houghton says. “This is always a great event, although it’s tough on the cars and the forest stages are very unforgiving if you make any mistakes.”
For Cronje it will be a particularly emotional outing as he and his wife, Kirsten, celebrated the birth of twins on Tuesday.
The team will be doing a test session early next week in preparation for the Sasol Rally, and setting the car up for the fast-flowing stages through the forests.
“We start the rally third on the road behind Leeroy Poulter in the Toyota and VW’s Henk Lategan, so this will give us a decent position to assess the conditions on the first day,” Houghton states. “We hope to set the pace on Friday and then consolidate our position on Saturday, as we did on the Tour Natal.”
According to the organisers, the rally features seven special stages on Friday, 17 April, and a further eight stages on the Saturday. Five of these will be tarmac stages, including the traditional Sabie and White River town stages on Friday night.
On Saturday morning, spectators will be treated to a double dose of the popular “Spaghetti Junction” Super Special in Nelspruit, where two cars compete against each other at the same time, and a tarmac stage around the Mbombela soccer stadium.
While serving as the second rally of the SA championship, the Sasol Rally is also round two of the FIA African Rally Championship. At least five of the leading ARC contenders from Zambia, Zimbabwe and Kenya are expected to enter, thus adding an international flavour to this spectacular event.
The rally covers a total stage distance of approximately 206 km, and is preceded by a recce of all the gravel stages on Wednesday, 15 April during which competitors are given the opportunity to drive the route twice at a maximum speed of 60 km/h – as per the FIA African Rally Championship regulations.
A carnival atmosphere dominates the entire weekend, kicking off at the Sabie Market Square from 10:00 on Friday before the first stage of the rally at Olifantsgeraamte.
Four more gravel stages in the forests in the Sabie, Graskop and Pilgrim’s Rest areas follow thereafter. The day will be rounded off with the traditional and exciting tarmac night stages in Sabie and White River before the overnight stop in Nelspruit.
Saturday’s first stage is the Super Special in Nelspruit, which starts at 08:00, followed by the tarmac stage at the Mbombela stadium and a repeat of the Super Special in Nelspruit at 09:10 before returning to the forests and a new gravel stage near Klipkop, followed by four more gravel stages in the Hendriksdal and Sabie areas.
The rally returns to Nelspruit for the traditional final short special stage on grass inside the main arena of the Lowveld Showgrounds.