With Round 3 of the South African Rally Championship, the Toyota Gauteng Dealer Rally, due to start in Pretoria on June 9, the question being asked in rally circles is 'Can anyone stop Mark Cronje and Johnny Gemmell from running away with the drivers' championship?'
While it's a bit early to start making predictions after only two rounds of the eight-leg championship, Cronje and navigator Robin Houghton (Ford Fiesta) and works Toyota Auris crew Gemmell and Carolyn Swan have dominated thus far, finishing first and second respectively in the Total Rally in March and the Sasol Rally in April.
Cronje and Houghton are leading the points standings with a full-house 50 points, eight ahead of the Toyota pair and 16 in front of joint third-placed Jan Habig and Robert Paisley (Ford Fiesta), and Hans Weijs and Bjorn Degandt (Volkswagen Polo). Surprisingly, both Cronje and Gemmell are yet to win a championship while Habig (six times) and Paisley (twice) have tasted the champagne as title holders.
Veteran Habig, who won his first championship in 1997, has amassed 36 rally victories in a distinguished career and is showing signs of rejuvenation after back-to-back fourth places in the two events held so far. He and Paisley moved from the factory Volkswagen team, with whom they finished a lowly 12th in the 2011 championship, to a privateer Ford team and they have taken to the left-hand drive Ford like the proverbial ducks to water.
The Dutch/Belgian pairing of Weijs and Degandt, which is the most successful to date of the three factory Volkswagen crews in the all-new Polo Vivo, has introduced some European flair to the championship and once they temper their impressive pace with greater experience of South African conditions, they will be a force to be reckoned with. Team mates and former champions Enzo Kuun and Guy Hodgson, and Hergen Fekken and Pierre Arries are not to be discounted once they get to grips with their new machines.
Strong performances can also be expected from Jean-Pierre Damseaux and Grant Martin, Jon Williams and Cobus Vrey (Ford Fiesta), and Charl Wilken and Greg Godrich (Ford Fiesta).
Gugu Zulu and Carl Peskin will be hoping to maintain their fast start to the season in their older spec BP Volkswagen Polo, in which they are leading the new S2000 Challenge. Wilro Dippenaar and Morne du Toit in a Toyota RunX are second in the Challenge despite not scoring in the Sasol Rally, 18 points behind Zulu and Peskin (33-15). Promising young driver Henk Lategan and Barry White (Volkswagen Polo) are joint third with Werner Koekemoer and the experienced Etienne Lourens (Toyota RunX) on 12 points.
TWO WHEEL DRIVE CHAMPIONSHIP
Megan Verlaque and Hilton Auffray (Volkswagen Polo) are the leaders in the Two Wheel Drive Championship for S1600 cars with 37 points thanks to two good showings in the opening rounds - but just two points behind are Lloyd Murray and Ralph Lehmann (Volkswagen Polo) with former champion Craig Trott and Robbie Coetzee (Toyota RunX) joint third with Morne Janse van Rensburg and Rikus Fourie (VW Polo), class winners of the Sasol Rally.
Ashley Haigh-Smith and Craig Parry (Ford Fiesta R2) have been among the quickest in S1600 but have yet to complete an event. Also among those in contention will be the brother and sister combination of Christoff and Celeste Snyders (Volkswagen Polo), last year's S1600 champions, Guy Botterill and Simon Vacy-Lyle (Toyota RunX) and Tjaart Conradie and Kes Naidoo in a Toyota Auris.
The rally will get underway with a ceremonial start from McCarthy Toyota in Lynnwood, Pretoria at 9am on Saturday, 9 June. Competitors will then drive an open section to the start of the first of the day's five special stages around the RallyStar Motorsport Academy near Bapsfontein, finishing at RallyStar at about 4.30pm.
Sunday's restart will be at 7am at RallyStar and will finish after another four gravel special stages and a final 16km tarmac special stage at the Zwartkop Raceway west of Pretoria at about 1.30pm.
A podium prize-giving is scheduled for about 4pm.