SOUTH African rally champions Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton (S2000 Ford Racing Fiesta) dominated the season-opening Total Rally that took place on the South Coast on Friday and Saturday.
Thirty cars entered the first day of racing, which was marked by high drama and sportsmanship. In the worst crash of the race, Enzo Kuun and Guy Hodgson rolled their new Polo within sight of the finish on stage three while fighting for second place with Jan Habig and Robert Paisley in their Basil Read Fiesta. The multi-million-rand Sasol Racing Polo was severely damaged after rolling end over end several times, but Kuun and Hodgson were only bruised.
The crash set the tone for the rest of the rally, which saw Cronje and Houghton stop in the next stage to check on competitors Johnny Gemmel and Carolyn Swan. The pair ended up in the cane when they lost steering in their Toyota Yaris after hot gases from a broken exhaust pipe ignited a power steering pipe and caused their retirement on Friday. They restarted on Saturday under penalty time, but gave a demonstration of the new Toyota’s potential by finishing in the top three in four of the seven gravel stages and winning the final one.
Cronje and Houghton continued their good form on Saturday with six out of nine stage wins.
Former champions Habig and Paisley made it a 1-2 for Ford, finishing 65 seconds behind the winners after starting the final day 34 seconds in arrears. They won a stage on each day and were the only S2000 crew to keep the champions honest.
Third were the Team Total combination of Jean-Pierre Damseaux and new co-driver Hilton Auffray in the first of the S2000 Challenge cars in a Toyota Auris, who did well to overcome a strong challenge on Saturday from the Castrol Team Toyota Yaris of Leeroy Poulter and Elvene Coetzee.
The battle between the two Yaris crews was a feature of the event, with Poulter and Coetzee giving their new rally car an impressive debut, occupying third place throughout the day until they were slowed by power steering problems on the last two gravel special stages.
The Toyota pair picked up a 40-second penalty for lateness after repairing a broken power steering pulley and dropped to fourth behind Damseaux and Auffray with just the 1,3 kilometre tarmac super-special stage on the site of the old Durban drive-in remaining.
After tweeting that he would have to garner whatever points he could in a car that was just not gelling with him, Gugu Zulu nevertheless finished fifth overall with co-driver Carl Peskin.
They were the first of the factory Volkswagen Polos in after a disastrous weekend for the factory-based VW Sasol racing team.
After ending in a surprising third place overall on Friday night, the youngest driver in the rally, Henk Lategan (18), and veteran Barry White clipped a concrete tunnel wall and ended up setting fire to the cane. The flames saw the cancellation of stage eight, the first of Saturday’s six gravel stages, as officials and bystanders pitched in to extinguish the blaze caused by the car’s hot exhaust setting fire to the dry undergrowth.
Lategan followed Gemmel’s example with a spirited fight-back to win stage 12 on his way to 23rd overall and 13th among the S2000 vehicles.
Zulu and Peskin were challenged for fifth by Team Total Toyota’s Mohammed Moosa and Andre Vermeulen in their Auris.
Racing hard, Moosa also clipped a bridge and later put his Auris on its roof after hitting a drainage ditch. In true rally tradition, Moosa and Vermeulen rolled the light car back on its wheels and finished eighth overall and fourth in the S2000 Challenge.
Rounding out the top six and missing a top-five finish by five seconds were Giniel de Villiers and new co-driver Greg Godrich in their S2000 Imperial Toyota Auris. De Villiers caught a 40-second penalty for lateness after replacing a power steering pump.
Former champions Hergen Fekken and Pierre Arries (VW Sasol racing) also competed under penalty time on Saturday after they went off the road on Friday’s first stage and were unable to continue.
They finished 18th overall and 11th in S2000, but the second fastest time they achieved in Saturday’s first two stages before they lost time with a puncture on stage 12 was a reminder of the VW Polo’s potential. — WR.