Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton in their Ford Performance Ford Fiesta dominated the Tour Natal Rally, the inaugural round of the 2015 South African Rally National Championship, and scored seven stage wins on their way to overall victory.
However, while the Ford pair romped home virtually unchallenged in the S2000 class, it was a very different story in the S1600 class. The lead changed hands numerous times before Paulus Franken/Henry Kohne in their Manitou Group VW Polo prevailed to take the S1600 victory.
Cronje and Houghton, after eleven special stages in overcast and cool conditions through the sugar cane fields in and around Scottburgh, came home in 2 hours 6 minutes and one second – beating defending champions Leeroy Poulter/Elvéne Coetzee (Castrol Toyota Yaris S2000) by 44.6 seconds.
“The car performed faultlessly, and so did the team. It was a great rally for us and we are happy to start our season with a good win as it gives us the momentum to carry over to the next event.” Cronje said.
An overnight setup change on his Yaris did not bear fruit for Poulter. “The revised settings did not work, and after the first two stages today we changed back, but by then it was too late, Mark was too far ahead,” the Toyota driver said.
Winning the final stage of the rally, the power stage supported by New Holland, was small consolation for the Toyota crew. This stage and its innovative format also proved very popular with the spectators.
Third after a consistent and trouble-free run was young Henk Lategan, with Barry White reading the notes, scoring their first finish and a podium position in the Volkswagen Sasolracing Polo S2000 – 28.2 seconds adrift of Poulter/Coetzee.
Dakar hero Giniel de Villiers and Carolyn Swan in the second Castrol Toyota Yaris today did not take any risks to secure fourth place, while Japie van Niekerk and Gordon Noble (NAD Ford Fiesta S2000) had to work hard to regain fifth after they suffered a puncture in stage eight, costing them valuable seconds. In the end they beat the Volkswagen Sasolracing Polo team of Gugu Zulu and Pierre Arries, in his first outing in top-tier rallying for over a year, by only 9 seconds – displacing them with one special stage still to run…
It was a day of major upsets and heartbreak in the hotly contested S1600 class.
The worst affected was Ashley Haigh-Smith and Damian van Ass (Ford Fiesta S1600). With the frontrunners all hit by trouble, they inherited the class lead and looked set for victory – until two kilometres from the end when a broken wheel on their Fiesta R2 brought their progress to an abrupt end.
Earlier the overnight leaders Guy Botterill and Simon Vacy-Lyle (Yato Tools Toyota Etios) lost four minutes due to a puncture. Then they suffered brake problems, leaving them floundering at the bottom end of the field.
Chad van Beurden/Nico Swartz (Van Beurden Construction VW Polo), lying second in class, tried to capitalise on Botterill’s woes, but the pair broke a wishbone on their car in stage 7 – effectively ending their charge.
The same bump also led to the demise of Richard Leeke/Rikus Fourie (ATS Ford Fiesta R2). They damaged a control arm and could not continue, while Ernie van der Walt/Rowan Robberts (Ford Fiesta R2) rolled out of the rally in stage eight. This stage also claimed Andrew Heine/Robby Coetzee (VW Polo R2) when they went off the road and got their vehicle beached.
All this action, as well as High-Smith’s cruel luck, saw Paulus Franken/Henry Kohne (Manitou Group VW Polo) romping to victory in the S1600 category – over a minute ahead of Matthew Vacy-Lyle/Schalk van Heerden (Fragram Tools Toyota Etios), with Botterill/Simon Vacy-Lyle in a distant third.
The only surviving NRC4 entry after the eleven stages was that of Piet Bakkes and Shaun Visser (Toyota Auris). The pair finished ninth overall, while Wilro Dippenaar and Kes Naidoo (Toyota Auris) finished second in class under Superally rules after gearbox trouble put them out of contention yesterday.
In the NRC2 Challenge Bryan and Keith Heine (Datsun SSS) was the pick of the bunch, winning the challenge by a country mile.
They were followed by Trevor Graham/Brian Clifton (Nissan Skyline) with Hanno Ehlers/Kevin Cunningham (Toyota Corolla) bringing up the rear after Tony Ball/Wade Harris (Lancia Fulvia) ran out of fuel after stage eight. In total 13 out of 25 starters completed the rally distance of 426.34 km.
The next round in the SA National Rally Championship and the Africa Rally Championship, the Sasol Rally, will take place on 17 and 18 April in Mpumalanga.
All images Andre Laubscher