Ford Fiesta crew Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton continued their good form in the South African Rally Championship when they followed up their recent win in the opening round in KwaZulu-Natal with victory in the Sasol Rally in the Mpumalanga Lowveld at the weekend.
It was a hard-fought win for the championship leaders, who battled with Johnny Gemmell and Carolyn Swan in their works Toyota Auris throughout the two-day, 600km rally, just as they did in previous round.
Gemmell and Swan led Cronje and Houghton by 14.3 seconds at the end of Friday's six special stages, with each winning two stages during the day. Cronje chased down his arch rival until just 0.8sec separated the Toyota from the Ford at the end of Stage 11. Gemmell responded on the 16km Stage 12 by increasing his lead to 3.4 seconds.
Stage 13 was the last of the recognised gravel racing stages before the final ceremonial stage over just 500 metres in the Lowveld Showgrounds arena and it was clear that whoever won this stage would probably win the rally.
IN A CLASS OF THEIR OWN
Both crews, who were in a class of their own throughout the weekend, put in a supreme effort and it was Cronje and Houghton who took the honours, 5.2 seconds ahead of Gemmell and Swan, to clinch their second consecutive rally victory by the slim margin of 3.1 seconds. Cronje won four of Saturday's stages with Gemmell taking the honours in two.
Gemmell was to rue two slow punctures at the end of Stages 2 and 9, while Cronje did well to overcome a 20-second penalty at the end of Day 1, as a result of clocking in late at the final control after damaging his Ford's sub-frame. This cost him the lead at the end of the day.
A distant third overall were Dutch driver Hans Weijs Jnr and Belgian co-driver Bjorn Degandt (Volkswagen Polo), who had their best outing so far in their first year in the SA championship, finishing 1 min 37.4 sec behind the winners.
Fourth was the Ford Fiesta of multiple former champions Jan Habig and Robert Paisley, who were a further 29 seconds in arrears. They in turn were 1 min 11,4 sec ahead of fifth-placed Jon Williams and Cobus Vrey in another Fiesta.
Sixth overall and first in the S2000 Challenge category for older spec four-wheel drive cars were Gugu Zulu and Carl Peskin (VW Polo), who delivered their best performance yet in their first year in the top class of rallying. Second in the challenge and ninth overall were 17-year-old Henk Lategan and Barry White (VW Polo), ahead of Werner Koekemoer and Etienne Lourens (Toyota RunX), who finished 12th overall.
Making up the top 10 overall were Jean-Pierre Damseaux and Grant Martin (Toyots Auris) in eighth, and Japie van Niekerk and Gerhard Snyman (VW Polo) in 10th.
Punctures on the rocky roads through the York Timbers forests in the Sabie, Graskop, and Hendriksdal areas took their toll of the 40-strong field, with several top crews among those who lost time completing stages on flat wheels or forced to stop in a stage to change a wheel.
Among these were 2011 winners Leeroy Poulter and Elvene Coetzee (Toyota), who lost nearly four minutes on Stage 3 on Friday and lost more time in Stage 11 on Saturday. They eventually finished 11th, 8 min 37 sec behind the winners.
Former champions Hergen Fekken and Pierre Arries (VW Polo) recovered well from a puncture delay in Stage 1 on Fridaym climbing steadily through the field to finish seventh overall, 4 min 34 sec in arrears.
Among notable retirements in the premier S2000 class were former champions Enzo Kuun and Guy Hodgson, who had the misfortune to suffer a flat battery within kilometres of the final stage in Nelspruit. They, too, had been delayed by a puncture on Stage 3 on Friday and had started Saturday's stages 15th overall.
TWO WHEEL DRIVE
The S1600 class and the Two Wheel Drive Championship category was won by Morne van Rensburg and Rikus Fourie (VW Polo), who were somewhat surprised to find themselves in the lead after starting the final day in fifth.
Overnight leaders Ashley Haigh-Smith and Craig Parry (Ford Fiesta R2) dominated the class until they lost six minutes with a flat wheel on Stage 9. This dropped them to second behind Guy Botterill and Simon Vacy-Lyle (Toyota RunX). They regained the lead when Botterill retired with a dropped valve in the Toyota's engine only to retire themselves with a broken driveshaft.
Also casualties in the two wheel drive class were former champions Craig Trott and Robbie Coetzee (Toyota RunX), who dropped out of third on Saturday with a broken driveshaft. Nic van der Westhuizen and Henry Dearlove (Ford Fiesta R2) had been third at the end of the first day, only to retire with a broken oil cooler on Saturday's first stage.
AFRICAN RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP
The second round of the African Rally Championship ran in conjunction with the second round of the SA championship and was won by Cronje and Houghton from Habig and Paisley with Williams and Vrey third overall.
The leading visiting crew of Mohammed Essa of Zambia and Greg Stead of Zimbabwe (Subaru Impreza WRX) finished fourth ahead of fellow visitors Giancarlo Davite and Sylvia Vindevogel, also in a Subaru Impreza. Essa was 13th overall in the SA championship event, one place ahead of Davite.