Team Sasol’s Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton clinched the 2011 SA Driver’s and Co-Driver’s Rally Championships – the first privateers in 45 years to claim the titles – after ending the MTN Polokwane Rally in a fighting second place, just 2.7 seconds shy of their 4th victory of the year.
In a weekend of high drama, the Sasol Fiesta S2000 pair started badly, suffering a puncture as early as stage 2 on Saturday morning, losing 24 seconds to the early leaders. “I had memories of Cape Town and wanted to cry”, said a disbelieving Mark. “We came out of the stage and saw Conrad (Rautenbach – their main rivals) changing a tyre and realised we had been thrown a life line”, Robin added.
The pair slipped down to 6th in the overall standings, 28 seconds off the lead and set about clawing their way back into contention. By stage 5, the Sasol pair was into 3rd place with a seemingly insurmountable 30 seconds to make up and the gap to the leaders varied up to nearly a minute.
Lady luck helped the Fiesta crew on stage 8, where Mark and Robin scorched through the bushveld stage just as the rally leaders Leeroy Poulter/Elvene Coetzee hit problems and slashed the deficit to 6.1 seconds.
Sunday’s early start saw a massive fight for 2nd place with Hergen Fekken’s factory Volkswagen Polo; after the second stage of the day, Mark and Robin were 0.4 seconds off the middle step of the podium, which they put to rights in the next stage with a cushion of 6 seconds.
Such was the frenetic pace that Fekken squeezed ahead of Mark and Robin by 0.9 second on the final gravel stage, with Mark and Robin taking their first stage win of the event on the final 2.5km tarmac stadium stage to snatch 2nd in the dying moments of the rally.
“It’s a huge relief”, said Mark at the finish. Sunday was stressful because we knew we had it in the bag as long as we stayed on the road and out of trouble and not hit anything pulled into the road. I wasn’t in the sport 14 months ago so I’m really chuffed. We had our ‘near-death’ experience for the event early on and kept a level head. I knew the rally would come to us if we stayed consistent”, Mark related.
Robin is a rare champion adding the national rally title to his previous national off-road titles. “Saturday was particularly difficult; there were lots of things to hit. It looked like a scrapyard out there!”
“This rally is one where if you lose half a minute, you can make it up again, unlike on other rallies where you would out of the running”, Robin continued. “Mark likes to win on tarmac and before the final stage I told him ‘we don’t have to win this one’. Not that he listened! The pressure was tremendous all weekend because the championship was ours to lose. It’s a fantastic feeling to have done it in our first year”.
Jon Williams and Cobus Vrey, driving the second Sasol Fiesta S2000 ended 10th overall after another character-building weekend. In stage 2, Jon cut a kink a little too closely and clipped a concrete block holding up a gatepost. “It was a right left chicane with a pole in the grass; the pole was bedded in concrete which the previous guys had gradually exposed. It hooked a wheel and spun me around 180 degrees in mid-air. The driveshaft broke and I had to crawl out of the stage”, Jon explained. “We lost just less than 2 minutes. It was fixed in service but the toe-out was all wrong”.
“I was happy with my driving this weekend. Saturday’s stages were much better and I sent fairly consistent top 5 times and set the 2nd fastest time in stage 13. There’s a lot I can still improve on but overall, I’m happy with the year”.
Dean Somerset, Sasol Oil Head of Sponsorships said: “It is a monumental achievement for the Team and Sasol to win the championship in our first year. Everything was new this year; the car, the drivers and the crew members. It is a clear indication that all the elements we assembled to create a force to be reckoned with has worked out extremely well for everyone concerned and the sport as a whole. Team Sasol brought a new dynamic level of competition as a privateer team to rallying that encouraged everyone to raise their game to the enjoyment of the fans and we look forward to defending our hard won titles”.