The 2013 national championship rally season came to a foreshortened and anti-climactic end on the second day when heavy rains and dangerous road conditions forced the organisers to cancel the last five stages of the Garden Route Rally in the Western Cape on Saturday.
After only six of the scheduled 12 special stages, five on Friday and one on Saturday, Toyota Motorsport South Africa’s team of three class S2000 Toyota Yaris four-wheel drive rally cars fell just short of clinching the elusive victory they had fought so hard for in the new rally car’s debut season.
Johnny Gemmell and Carolyn Swan (Castrol Team Toyota Yaris) were second for the third event in a row, finishing 12,8 seconds behind winners and 2013 champion Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton. Leeroy Poulter and Elvéne Coetzee (Castrol Team Toyota Yaris) were third, 24,9 seconds behind their team-mates and 37,7 seconds behind the winners. Giniel de Villiers and Greg Godrich (Imperial Toyota Yaris) were seventh.
Gemmell and Swan claimed the runner-up position in the championship for the second year in succession, after finishing second last year in a Toyota Auris. De Villiers and Godrich were fourth in their first season together, while Poulter and Coetzee were sixth.
Thanks to the overall performance of the official team and privateers, Toyota won the prestigious manufacturers’ championship for the 21st time and the 15th time in the last 16 years.
The S2000 Challenge for older specification four-wheel drive cars was won by Jean-Pierre Damseaux and Hilton Auffray in a Toyota Auris. They completed the season in a fine third place overall, giving Toyota four of the top six positions.
The Garden Route Rally did not disappoint as an exciting finale to the season, despite the abrupt ending. After Friday’s five special stages totalling 95 kilometres, run in dry weather on fast gravel roads that in places were made slippery by water and mud from earlier rain, it was a three-horse race between Cronje/Houghton and the two Castrol Toyota crews.
Cronje won three of the stages with Gemmell and Poulter scoring one apiece. Gemmell trailed by 10,5 seconds and Poulter by 25, but with another seven stages and 87 kilometres of racing ahead on Saturday, a Toyota win was still on the cards.
“We did our best and always took the fight to the championship winners, but unfortunately we came a little short,” said team principal Glyn Hall. “However, we are very encouraged by the performance of the new Yaris and the progress we’ve made in its first season.
“Between the three crews, we’ve accumulated eight podium finishes in the eight events and finished second five times, including in the last three. We also won 17 special stages during the year. Both Johnny and Leeroy were most unlucky not to have each recorded a victory this season, while Giniel and Greg have delivered a season-long consistent performance that has seen them end the year in an excellent fourth place in what is a very competitive championship.
“Congratulations to J-P and Hilton on their S2000 Challenge victory and a big thank-you to all the privateers for helping us keep Toyota on top in the manufacturers’ championship.
“We look forward with confidence to the 2014 season, which we suspect will be a lot closer than this one.”
The first round of next year’s championship will be the Tour Natal Rally in KwaZulu-Natal, provisionally scheduled for March 15.
Follow the fortunes of Castrol Team Toyota on Twitter, www.twitter.com/toyotasa.