Rally South Africa, a brand new event on the SA Rally Championship calendar and a candidate for a round of the World Rally Championship in 2014, sees the country's top exponents of gravel special-stage racing returning to KwaZulu-Natal for the second time this season for a rally that will shake up the status quo in the competition.
While the result of the recent Volkswagen Rally in the Eastern Cape saw a slight shuffle among the top four in the national championship, the battle for the title remains one of the closest in years. Just 12 points separate the contenders after four rounds as the second half of the season gets underway.
Nine special stages, four on Friday and five on Saturday, will make up 185km of flat-out racing on a route the totals 572km and takes in the magnificent Valley of 1000 Hills north-west of Durban on Friday and the Mondi forests near Richmond in the west on Saturday.
Rally South Africa will be a tough test of the best, worthy of WRC status (a third day will be added in the southern KZN sugar cane fields should South Africa win its bid).
FAST, SLIPPERY ROADS
Apart from a one-kilometre super special stage on tarmac on the site of the old Durban Drive-in to end off each day, all the stages are on good gravel roads. The first day's stages are quite technical, with average speeds between 60 and 80km/h, while day two's stages are on fast, slippery roads with average speeds up to 130km/h in places.
Leading the championship after four rounds by just three points are VW Rally winners Johnny Gemmell and Carolyn Swan in a factory Toyota Auris. Second are the winners of the opening two rounds, Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton (Ford Fiesta).
These two crews have dominated the season to date, winning 27 of the 47 stages run so far. Cronje has won 16 and Gemmell 11. Each is seeking their first overall national championship.
Seven points behind in third place are multiple former champions Jan Habig and Robert Paisley, the two veterans with eight national championships between them (six for Habig and two for Paisley) enjoying a new lease on life in a Ford Fiesta.
Jon Williams and Cobus Vrey, the only other race winners this year in a second Ford Fiesta, are fourth in the points standings, two adrift of Habig/Paisley after their maiden success in the Toyota Gauteng Dealer Rally in June.
PACE AND PROMISE
The Dutch/Belgian combination of Hans Weijs Jr and Bjorn Degandt in a factory VW Polo are fifth overall and also in the four-wheel drive S2000 class. They have shown great pace and promise in their first season in South Africa and are 11 points behind Habig and Paisley.
Making up the top 10 are Toyota Auris crew Jean-Pierre Damseaux and Grant Martin, Charl Wilken and Greg Godrich in a Ford Fiesta, Gugu Zulu and Carl Peskin (VW Polo), Hein Lategan and Johan van der Merwe (Peugeot 207) and twice former champions Hergen Fekken and Pierre Arries in VW Polo.
Zulu and Peskin, competing in their first season in the premier S2000 class, are leading the new 2012 S2000 Challenge for older specification four-wheel drive cars after three consecutive top 10 finishes. They have a 31-point advantage over S2000 Challenge rivals Wilro Dippenaar and Morne du Toit (Toyota RunX).
Third in the Challenge are promising youngster Henk Lategan and Barry White (VW Polo), on the same points as Dippenaar and Du Toit, after a fine seventh place overall on the VW Rally.
Surprisingly outside the top 10 are former champions Enzo Kuun and Guy Hodgson (VW Polo). The 2006 and 2010 champions have suffered two non-finishes in the first four rounds, but showed their class in the VW Rally when they recovered from 13th on Day 1 to finish fifth on Day 2, and can be expected to mount a serious challenge in the remainder of the season.
Also enduring a tough season so far are Leeroy Poulter and Elvéne Coetzee (Toyota Auris), twice winners in their debut season in S2000 in 2011. Three non-finishes including losing their car in a fire in the opening round have hurt their championship aspirations and they will be happy to settle for a win or two before the end of the season.
Dakar Rally winner Giniel de Villiers will be making his KwaZulu-Natal debut in only his second appearance in this year's rally championship in a works Toyota Auris. He endured a baptism of mud and water in the VW Rally, finishing 13th after a puncture on the second day dropped him out of the top 10.
TWO WHEEL DRIVE CHAMPIONSHIP
The Two Wheel Drive Championship for S1600 cars is turning out to be a closely-fought battle between the wily and experienced KwaZulu-Natalian Craig Trott and co-driver Robbie Coetzee (Toyota RunX) and a crop of talented youngsters.
Trott and Coetzee lead Nic van der Westhuizen and Henry Dearlove (Ford Fiesta R2) by 10 points and are 15 clear of Matthew Vacy-Lyle and Schalk van Niekerk (Toyota RunX).
There has been a different winner in each of the first four rounds - Trott, Morne Janse van Rensburg (VW Polo), Van der Westhuizen and Ashleigh Haigh-Smith (Fiesta R2) - and the title fight is still far from over. This is where the champions of the future are honing their skills and from what we've seen so far this season, the future of rallying looks very promising.