The leading contenders in the 2015 season of both the FIA African Rally Championship (ARC) and the South African National Rally Championship (NRC) will be looking for back-to-back wins going into the Sasol Rally, to be staged in the Mpumalanga Lowveld for the 24th time on April 17 and 18.
Not only is the rally, one of the biggest and most popular sporting events in Mpumalanga and regarded as the premier event of the SA National Rally Championship, the second round in the national series and the FIA-sanctioned ARC, it will now also host a round of the Northern Regions Rally Championship.
In the National Rally Championship the Ford Performance rally team of Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton will be aiming for back-to-back wins in their Fiesta S2000 after dominating the season-opening Tour Natal Rally in February.
Kenyan Jaspreet Chatthe and Zimbabwean Dave Sihoka (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo RC2) will have the same sentiments after the pair won the KCB Safari Rally in Kenya earlier this month. Their winning margin – 13 seconds – was the smallest ever in the long history of the Safari.
The pair needs this win in South Africa if they want to challenge the current ARC leaders and 2014 champions Gary Chaynes and David Israel (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo9) after the Ivory Coast team won the opening round in their home country in March.
Chatthe and Sihoka will face a stern challenge from Zambian brothers Jassey and Muna Singh Junior, sons of the legendary Zambian rallyist and double ARC winner Muna Singh, both in Subaru Imprezas.
Jassey Singh and Sajid Khan won the ARC in 2013 in their debut season, while the 20-year old Muna, with the experienced Adrian Sutherland next to him, is currently in his first season in the championship.
Tough NRC S2000 battle
On the local front championship leaders Cronje, who celebrated the birth of twins with his wife, Kirsten, last week, and Houghton face some stiff competition.
The Sasol Rally winners in 2012 and ’13 will be chased by reigning champions and last year’s winners Leeroy Poulter and Elvéne Coetzee (Castrol Team Toyota Yaris) and the Volkswagen Sasolracing crew of Henk Lategan/Barry White (VW Polo).
On the fast and flowing forest roads in Mpumalanga the second Castrol Toyota crew of Giniel de Villiers and Carolyn Swan (Toyota Yaris) and Hans Weijs from the Netherlands and Belgian Bjorn Degandt (Sasolracing Volkswagen Polo) will also be in contention.
However, he real danger team could be local privateer Japie van Niekerk and Ulsterman Gordon Noble (NAD Ford Fiesta), after finishing fifth in the Tour Natal, their maiden event together, Van Niekerk has made it clear they are aiming for a podium finish in Nelspruit.
It’ll also the second outing together for Gugu Zulu and Pierre Arries (Sasolracing Volkswagen Polo) and after a steady drive in Natal they will want to lift their game in the
The S1600 challenge
In the S1600 class Paulus Franken and Henry Kohne (Manitou Group VW Polo R2) will go all out to defend their position on top of the log after their fortuitous victory in Natal.
However, team mates Matthew Vacy-Lyle/Schalk van Heerden (Fragram Toyota Etios) and Guy Botterill/Simon Vacy-Lyle (Yato Etios) will dearly like to turn the tables after they both suffered bad luck on the South Coast.
Ashley Haigh-Smith and Damian van Ass (Castrol Ford Fiesta R2) also had cruel luck, breaking down less than 2 km from the finish, while the other teams to watch include Andrew Heine/Robbie Coetzee (VW Polo), Chad van Beurden/Nico Swartz (Beurden Transport VW Polo), Richard Leeke/Rikus Fourie (ATS Ford Fiesta R2) and AC Potgieter/Tommy du Toit (TriSec Autohaus VW Polo R2).
The Sasol also brings the long-awaited return of Rocky Reyneke and Gert Nienaber (Mitsubishi Evo) to do battle with the Toyota Auris of Wilro Dippenaar/Kes Naidoo, Piet Bakkes/Shaun Visser, and Namibians Thilo Himmel/Armand du Toit in, while four teams have entered the NRC2 challenge.
Northern Regions bolster the numbers
A further bolster to this year’s Sasol Rally is the inclusion of a round of the Northern Regions Championship, to be run on the stages around Nelspruit on the Saturday, the last day of the international event.
This will see the return of Theuns Joubert in the ex-Giniel de Villiers Toyota Auris S2000 with navigator Mari van der Walt in Class S5. The pair will also participate in the national S2000 class.
Luke Botha and Andre Vermeulen, a regular National Cross Country Championship pairing, will also compete in Class S5 with a Toyota RunX S2000, while Nelspruit locals and brothers Danie and Joos Stassen will enter their Subaru Imprezas for the event.
In Class S4 crowd favourites Nick and Bianca Theunissen from Sabie will be in action in their spectacular BMW 325, while the reigning Northern Regions champions Jaco and George Baker will campaign their Toyota Tazz in Class S3, going up against track racer George Smalberger and Chris Brand in their newly rebuilt VW Polo.
The challenging route
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, when competitors will be afforded the opportunity to drive the route twice at a maximum speed of 60 km/h – as per the FIA African Rally Championship regulations.
With 15 stages and overall event distance of 584 km the Sasol is longer and more demanding than any other, and has a reputation for being tough on man and machine.
There are also two thrilling tarmac stages – Nelspruit’s popular Super Specials – where pairs of cars start simultaneously and compete head to head. There are five tarmac stages altogether.
The rally will start at 10:00 on Friday with a 16 km test to heighten the senses, followed by an intense quartet of forest stages around Sabie that total 100 kilometres of flat-out driving. The day will end with two short tarmac sessions in the packed streets of Sabie and White River respectively.
Saturday will get underway with two Super Specials, split by a run around Nelspruit’s Mbombela Stadium, after which competitors head for the service point to change their cars’ set-up for a series of long, hard challenges in the forests.
The rally then returns to Nelspruit for the traditional final short special stage on grass inside the main arena of the Lowveld Showgrounds.
*Spectators can already get a first glimpse of the cars on Thursday afternoon, April 16, at the shakedown stage close to Hendriksdal. This stage covers some 6,29 kilometres of special stage 12 and 14 and competitors may repeat this as often as they wish.