Port Elizabeth - Reigning champions Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton in their Ford Fiesta pulled off a second consecutive victory as the 2014 SA Rally championship reached its halfway mark in the Volkswagen Rally in the Eastern Cape at the weekend, pulling them back up to fourth in the standings after a disastrous start to their second title defence.
It was a comfortable victory in the end for the Ford pair as they completed the 15 special stages over a racing distance of 179 kilometres on Friday and Saturday in a time of 1hr 55m55s. Second were arch-rivals and current championship leaders Leeroy Poulter and Elvéne Coetzee in a works Toyota Yaris, 1m30s in arrears. Between them, the two top contenders won 14 of the stages with Cronje victorious in 10 and Poulter in 4.
Nevertheless Pulter and Coetzee increased their championship lead to 15.5 points after accumulating 78 points from wins in each of the first two rounds, a seventh place in the PMC Rally in May and now second in the Eastern Cape. Cronje and Houghton scored only 6.5 points in the first two rounds, but have got their title challenge back on track with another 50 points for the back-to-back wins.
Third car home in Port Elizabeth on Saturday afternoon was the first of the four Volkswagen Polos entered for the manufacturer's home event, crewed by the Dutch/Belgian duo of Hans Weijs Junior and Bjorn Degandt, 3m28 behind Cronje and Poulter, and moving up to second in the championship with 62.5 points.
Team-mates and former S2000 Challenge winners Gugu Zulu and Carl Peskin made it two VWs in the top four with a troubled but gutsy drive that saw them overcome power steering problems on Friday and then a burst power steering pipe and a small fire (quickly extinguished by the marshals) on Saturday's opening stage, which forced them to complete four stages without power steering. They finished a distant 12 min 25 sec in arrears.
These were the only four out of 10 S2000 cars and a single S2000 Challenge entry to complete the full route and score full championship points on an incident-filled event held in cool, cloudy and windy conditions.
SUPER RALLY RULES
Fifth overall was the Toyota Yaris of 2009 Dakar Rally winner Giniel de Villiers and Greg Godrich, who withdrew with engine problems on Stage 13 while lying an impressive third - which would have equalled their best result of third in the 2013 VW Rally - and were awarded half points under the Super Rally rules.
Similarly, Henk Lategan and Barry White (VW Polo) were awarded half points for sixth place despite dropping out after going off the road on Stage 13 while lying fifth. They had been fifth overnight after delays caused by power steering problems and a broken drive shaft.
Namibian Wilro Dippenaar and South African co-driver Kes Naidoo in the lone S2000 Challenge Toyota Auris were classified seventh under Super Rally rules after completing only two of Saturday's eight stages.
There were four non-finishers: Toyota's Hergen Fekken and Carolyn Swan in the second factory Yaris slipped from joint second in the championship standings to third (with 57 points) after electrical/engine problems forced them out on Friday's opening stage.
Austrian rally champion Raimund Baumschlager and German co-driver Klaus Wicha, making a guest appearance in a factory VW Polo, retired with gearbox problems after completing Friday's opening stage in sixth.
Japie van Niekerk and Gerhard Snyman (Ford Fiesta) only managed to complete three stages on Day 1 before the radiator was holed by a stone and the engine overheated. They had been right on the pace and were lying third after the first two stages. It was decided not to risk further damage to the engine by tackling Saturday's stages.
Namibian Thilo Himmel and South African co-driver Armand du Toit (VW Polo) went off the road in Stage 4 and were also unable to continue.
FOUR S1600 RALLY WINS IN A ROW FOR BOTTERILL AND VACY-LYLE
S1600 Championship leaders Guy Botterill and Simon Vacy-Lyle (Toyota Etios) scored their fourth consecutive victory after winning 10 of the 15 special stages, giving them a full-house 100 points and a healthy 44-point lead over their nearest rivals.
But it was no easy victory - they were given a full run for their money by a resurgent Chad van Beurden and Nico Swartz (VW Polo R2), who posted their second runner-up finish of the season, only 11 seconds in arrears after nearly 180 kilometres of high-speed rallying over 12 gravel and three tarmac stages.
Van Beurden won four stages and led the rally at the end of Friday's seven stages by 18 seconds, the first to better Botterill at the end of any day of the championship so far.
Third, 2m36s behind the winners, were Ernie van der Walt and James Aldridge (Ford Fiesta R2), in their best result of the year to date together. It was also Van der Walt's best performance since joining the championship full-time from circuit racing in 2013.
SIX OUT OF 10 FINISHED
AC Potgieter and Tommy du Toit (VW Polo) improved their overnight fifth place to fourth with their best result of the season, finishing 5m21s arrears. Andrew Heine and former S1600 co-driver champion Robbie Coetzee were fifth in a VW Polo, ahead of Chris Coertse and 16-year-old Mari van der Walt (Toyota Etios R2), who were the last of the 10 S1600 entries to complete the full event.
Classified seventh under the Super Rally rules although they only completed Saturday's first three stages were Ashley Haigh-Smith and Damian van Ass (Ford Fiesta R2), while Matthew Vacy-Lyle and Schalk van Heerden (Toyota Etios R2) were classified eighth after rolling their car on Saturday's Stage 9 and Paulus Franken and Henry Kohne (VW Polo R2) came ninth after going off the road on Stage 10.
Tenth and last were the unfortunate Richard Leeke Junior and Rikus Fourie (Ford Fiesta R2), who lost four minutes in Stage 4 on Friday with gearbox problems while lying third and then were forced out on Saturday's Stage 9 when the gearbox failed altogether.
The next round of the championship will be the Cullinan Rally on 15 and 16 August.