Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton (Sasol Racing Ford Fiesta) took a giant step towards winning their first South African rally championship when they took the honours in the championship’s penultimate round in Limpopo this afternoon.
The Ford pair completed the two-day 13-special stage Polokwane Rally in a time of 2 hr 7 min 9 sec, edging former champions Hergen Fekken and Pierre Arries (BP VW Polo) by a comfortable 1 min 19 sec. Giniel de Villiers and Celeste Snyders (Imperial Toyota Auris) enjoyed their best result of the year with third place, 26 seconds behind the VW pair.
Cronje and Houghton’s championship cause was helped by the retirement three stages from the finish of closest challengers Johnny Gemmell and Carolyn Swan (Castrol Toyota Auris). The Toyota pair had led the championship from Cronje and Houghton by five points going into this weekend’s event. While Cronje and Houghton led after yesterday’s eight special stages, Gemmell and Swan struggled to find their usual pace and could only manage fifth place at the overnight stop in Polokwane.
The Toyota Motorsport team changed the diff of the Auris and Gemmell showed improved pace in the first two stages this morning. When the Toyota’s engine temperature climbed dangerously, Gemmell called it a day to preserve the engine.
With their chief rivals scoring no points to their full-house 25, Cronje and Houghton now enjoy a 20-point lead with one round remaining and a maximum of 25 points on offer. Complicating matters is the national championship rally requirement that competitors drop their worst score of the year. If this were to be done now, Gemmell would drop this weekend’s zero score and would reduce the gap to Cronje (whose worst score is 10) to just 10 points.
All this means that the outcome of the championship will definitely go down to the wire and make the Garden Route Rally in the Western Cape next month all the more intriguing.
Japie van Niekerk and Gerhard Snyman (New Africa Developments VW Polo) achieved their best result of the year when they finished fourth, 2 min 24 seconds behind the winners and 30 seconds ahead of the Team Total Toyota Auris of Mohammed Moosa and Andre Vermeulen, who enjoyed their best performance this season and were delighted to win the final gravel stage of the rally on Sunday morning.
Jean-Pierre Damseaux and Grant Martin (Total Toyota Auris), who were robbed of fifth place overall on Friday after losing a minute in the final corner of the last stage of the day when their car’s engine stalled, improved on their seventh place overnight position to claim sixth place behind their team-mates.
Former champions Jan Habig and Robert Paisley (Basil Read Ford Fiesta) were second overall on Friday night, 47 seconds behind Cronje and Houghton, but their challenge came to an end on stage 11 this morning when they were slowed by a misfire and also having to stop between stages to replace the power steering belt. This resulted in them arriving late at the next control and incurring a 1 min 20 sec penalty. They eventually took seventh place, 3 min 32 sec behind the winners and 1 min 3 sec ahead of team-mates Charl Wilken and Greg Godrich.
Leeroy Poulter and Elvéne Coetzee were ninth in the second Castrol Toyota and would have come close to winning the event for the second year in succession had they not run into mechanical problems on the first stage on Saturday. A front suspension bolt broke, losing them 45 seconds on the stage to winners Cronje and Houghton. They were forced to complete the next two stages with a temporary roadside repair before they were able to have their service crew attend to the problem.
They went on to dominate the remainder of the rally, winning four of Saturday’s eight stages and two more on Sunday. The 5 min 39 sec gap between them and the winners at the finish almost equalled the 5 min 20 sec penalty for lateness that resulted from their suspension problem.
Rounding out the top 10 overall and in the premier S2000 class for four-wheel drive cars were Jon Williams and Cobus Vrey (Sasol Ford Fiesta) who distinguished themselves by winning Sunday’s two short tarmac stages that opened and closed the day’s programme, the final one watched by a huge crowd at the Peter Mokaba Stadium on the outskirts of Polokwane.
Gugu Zulu and Carl Peskin (BP VW Polo) virtually wrapped up the S2000 Challenge for the older specification four-wheel drive cars with their fourth category wins of the season. They finished 12th overall and 15 min 20 sec ahead of second-placed Henk Lategan and Barry White, who were the only other finishers, coming in 18th overall. Namibians Wilro Dippenaar and Morne du Toit (McCarthy Toyota/PZN Panelbeaters Toyota RunX), who had been second in the Challenge category on Saturday night, fell out on the third stage this morning with mechanical problems.
Ashley Haigh-Smith and Craig Parry (Castrol Ford Fiesta R2) put the finishing touches to their two-day domination of the S1600 class for two-wheel drive cars to take their second category win of the season, the only crew in the hotly contested class to manage this achievement. They were 11th overall and 1 min 15 sec ahead of second-placed Tjaart Conradie and Kes Naidoo (Galvadip Toyota Auris).
Former champion Craig Trott and Robbie Coetzee pulled off yet another points scoring finish in Trott’s ageing Team Total Toyota RunX with third place to put themselves within a handful of points of winning the Two Wheel Drive Championship.
Megan Verlaque and Hilton Auffray (BP VW Polo) kept themselves in the hunt for a top three finish in the class championship with fifth place, ahead of the Lourens twins, Janine and Michelle, who recorded their first national championship points-scoring result in a Toyota Conquest.