A fighting second place in the season-opening Total Rally in KwaZulu-Natal by Toyota Motorsport’s Johnny Gemmell and Carolyn Swan (Castrol Team Toyota Auris) on Saturday was some consolation for the disappointment of losing the sister Auris of Leeroy Poulter and Elvene in a fire just four kilometres into the event’s opening stage on Friday.
Gemmell and Swan, who were competing together for the first time, fought a close battle with eventual overall and class S2000 winners Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton (Ford Fiesta) throughout the day for overall supremacy.
The gap between the two cars was never more than a few seconds, with Gemmell leading at the end of stage seven and winning stages 10 and 13 while Cronje took over the lead on stage eight after winning stages seven and eight and going on to add victory in stages 11, 12 and 15.
The thrilling contest for supremacy between two of the country’s top rally drivers went the full distance and left the rest of the field in their dust as they raced across the fast and slippery gravel roads in the south coast sugar cane fields near Scottburgh, Park Rynie and Umzinto.
A distant third behind the winners after 15 special stages and nearly 200 kilometres were Charl Wilken and Greg Godrich (Ford Fiesta). Three privateer Toyotas finished in the top 10, with team-mates Jean-Pierre Damseaux/Grant Martin and Mohammed Moosa/Andre Vermeulen seventh and eighth in Auris cars ahead of 10th-placed Wilro Dippenaar and Morne du Toit in a RunX. All were competing in the premier S2000 class for four-wheel drive cars, with Dippenaar/Du Toit taking the honours in the new S2000 Challenge for older generation S2000 cars.
Poulter had hardly got into his stride when, just four minutes after the start, he went wide in a corner and beached the car on the edge of the road. While he attempted to manoeuvre the car back on to the road the hot exhaust set fire to the dry undergrowth and it quickly engulfed the Toyota, reducing it to a smouldering shell within minutes. The incident caused the stage to be abandoned after just six cars had completed it, including the Auris of Gemmell which returned the fastest time.
While Gemmell and Swan’s fine performance signalled that they will be strong contenders for this year’s title, Poulter and Coetzee’s premature exit from the rally left them no chance of demonstrating their potential as championship contenders and following up on their season-ending win in the MTN Polokwane Rally in North West Province in 2011.
They had looked good in the official practice stage near Umzinto on Thursday, declaring themselves satisfied with their freshly refurbished Auris, and underlined their and the car’s potential by finishing joint third with Charl Wilken and Greg Godrich (Ford Fiesta) in the Friday morning’s qualifying stage that established the start order for the rally itself.
“Johnny and Carolyn worked well together and kept the pressure on Cronje and Houghton throughout with the final outcome in doubt until the very end,” said Toyota Motorsport team principal Glyn Hall. “They were at a disadvantage running third on the road for most of the day, while Cronje enjoyed a cleaner road and better grip in eighth place. They did us proud and the Auris never missed a beat.
“The loss of our second car is a big blow, but we’re happy that Leeroy and Elvene escaped injury. Obviously this is a big disappointment for all of us. Both of our cars had been rebuilt and fully refurbished in preparation for the new season and we all had high hopes for their success on the Total Rally, particularly following Leeroy and Elvene’s win in the final round of the 2011 championship in the MTN Polokwane Rally in Limpopo Province.
“We’re encouraged by Johnny’s fine performance this weekend – he won three stages and kept Cronje honest throughout Saturday – and now turn our attention to preparing for the Sasol Rally in Mpumalanga in four weeks’ time,” said Hall. “We have a plan to put Leeroy into a replacement car, but we have a lot of work to do to be ready in time.”
Privateer Toyotas took the honours in the two-wheel drive S1600 class. Former champion Craig Trott and co-driver Robbie Coetzee won in a Toyota RunX from Matthew Vacy-Lyle, competing in his first national championship rally, and Schalk van Heerden in another RunX.
The next round of the championship is the Sasol Rally in Mpumalanga on April 20 and 21.
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