The lead in the SA Rally championship changed hands in KwaZulu-Natal at the weekend when Ford Fiesta crew Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton convincingly won the two-day Rally South Africa by 24 seconds from previous points leaders Johnny Gemmell and Carolyn Swan in their works Toyota Auris.
The fifth round of the national championship - and a candidate event for the World Rally Championship in 2014 - was again dominated by the top two crews, who between them have won four of the five rallies run so far this year in their quest for a maiden championship win.
Cronje and Houghton led Gemmell and Swan by 13 seconds after the first day, which consisted of two gravel special stages in the Valley of 1000 Hills - a third stage was cancelled for safety reasons - and a tarmac Super Special to end the day on the site of the old Durban drive-in. Cronje and Houghton won the opening and closing stages.
Saturday saw the rally move to the Mondi forests and private sugar cane fields in the Richmond area and Cronje and Houghton extended their advantage over Gemmell and Swan to 32 seconds after winning the first three of the day's five stages. Gemmell and Swan pulled back 10 seconds on the penultimate stage in a final effort to close the gap to the Ford, but Cronje stepped on the loud pedal again to win the Durban Super Special that ended the rally.
Third and fourth places overall went to multiple former champions Jan Habig and Robert Paisley (Ford Fiesta) and Enzo Kuun and Guy Hodgson (VW Polo), who were each more than a minute in arrears. Habig and Paisley recovered from eighth on Day 1, slowed by problems with the suspension set-up of their Ford, to carve their way through the field and overtook Kuun and Hodgson, who had started the day in third, on Stage 7 when the VW pair overshot a turn.
Giniel de Villiers and Celeste Snyders (Toyota Auris) successfully completed their first event together and De Villiers' second outing in the third Toyota Motorsport entry. They improved their overnight standing of 12th following a broken drive shaft and an engine misfire on Friday to finish fifth.
Not so fortunate were team mates Leeroy Poulter and Elvéne Coetzee in the second works Toyota. They crashed out of the event on Stage 2 on Friday while lying second, rolling the Toyota several times down a hillside.
Hein Lategan and Johan van der Merwe (207) finished sixth after making up two places on Saturday. They had been seventh at the start of the penultimate stage, seven seconds behind Lategan's 18-year-old son Henk and Barry White (VW Polo). The teenager, flushed with the success of outpacing his experienced father on the first three stages of the day, then slipped up on stage eight, going off the road and breaking a wheel in the process.
Wilro Dippenaar and Morne du Toit (Toyota RunX) won the S2000 Challenge category for the older specification four wheel-drive cars after the demise of Lategan Jnr and White. They were seventh overall and finished a comfortable eight minutes ahead of the only other S2000 Challenge entry remaining, the VW Polo of Gugu Zulu and Carl Peskin. The current Challenge leaders were slowed by set-up problems throughout the rally, a puncture on Saturday and prop-shaft problems on the final stage.
Charl Wilken and Etienne Lourens (Ford Fiesta) were eighth after battling power steering problems on Friday and stopping to change a flat wheel on Saturday's Stage 6. Ninth were Sebastiaan Klaassen and Cindi Harding (Ford Fiesta) and rounding out the top 10 was the leading S1600 two-wheel-drive Citroen C2 R2 of Clint Weston and Herman Groenewald.
It was Weston and Citroen's first S1600 win. In a fine performance behind the four wheel-drive S2000 cars, Weston and Groenewald fought a close battle with Tjaart Conradie and Kes Naidoo (Toyota Auris) and Ashley Haigh Smith and motoring journalist Patrick Vermaak, who finished second and third respectively in the category and 11th and 12th overall. Fourth was veteran former champion Craig Trott in his venerable six-year-old Toyota RunX with navigator Robbie Coetzee.
Notable S2000 casualties in what was a technically challenging event on slippery gravel roads, befitting a WRC candidate rally, included the Dutch/Belgian combination of Hans Weijs Jnr and Bjorn Degandt, whose BP VW Polo's engine failed on the way to the start of Saturday's first stage. They had been fourth overall at the end of day one after winning the second of the day's stages. Team Total's Jean-Pierre Damseaux and Grant Martin (Toyota Auris) rolled out of contention on the same stage as the Poulter/Coetzee Toyota on Friday.
Former champions Hergen Fekken and Pierre Arries (VW Polo) failed to make the start of Stage 1 on Friday when they experienced electrical problems. Their crew traced the problem to a faulty crankshaft sensor and the pair started Day 2 under Super Rally rules. They lost their front brakes halfway through the opening stage on Saturday, but recovered to post the quickest time on the penultimate gravel stage in the Richmond area.
Jon Williams and Cobus Vrey (Ford Fiesta) were holding a strong fourth when they ran over a length of barbed wire on Stage 6 that punctured a tyre and wrapped itself around the rim. They lost more than 10 minutes battling to remove the wire and replace the wheel and eventually finished 13th overall.
Prominent S1600 casualties included Nic van der Westhuizen and Henry Dearlove who rolled their Ford Fiesta R2 on Saturday's Stage 6 while lying fifth.
The next round of the championship will be the Toyota Cape Dealer Rally on 13-15 September.