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With the first of the 2013 South African Rally championship's eight rounds, the Total Rally in KwaZulu-Natal, less than a month away on 8 and 9 March, the musical chairs of driver/navigator pairings and sponsors has thrown up some intriguing combinations.
The biggest talking point has been the switch by team sponsor Sasol from the two-car Ford privateer team that won them the four-wheel drive S2000 and overall championships to the Volkswagen factory team. Reigning champions Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton are looking for a new sponsor while Volkswagen says goodbye to long-time sponsor BP and hello to Sasol.
Cronje and Houghton will be back to defend their crown in their Ford Fiesta, thanks to the continued financial support of a private benefactor, but they need to replace Sasol if they are to be able to mount the kind of challenge they did so effectively last season.
Their 2012 team mate Jon Williams, who finished an excellent third in the championship with a maiden win in the Toyota Gauteng Dealer Rally in June, is also looking for a new sponsor for his Ford Fiesta and is expected to line up for the Total Rally with father Doug as navigator.
Their main rivals for overall and S2000 honours will again be the factory teams from Toyota and Volkswagen. Toyota Motorsport, under the expert guidance of former national rally champion Glyn Hall, is hard at work after their Dakar Rally heroics in January building two brand new Toyota Yaris S2000 cars to replace the battered Auris that have stood Toyota in good stead for the past seven years.
Championship runners-up Johnny Gemmell and Carolyn Swan will be joined by Leeroy Poulter and Elvéne Coetzee in the two Yaris two-doors while the old cars will find their way into the S2000 Challenge in the hands of privateers Wilro Dippenaar of Namibia and promising youngster Nic van der Westhuizen, who steps up from S1600.
Giniel de Villiers will swop his Dakar Toyota Hilux for a 2012-spec Toyota Auris until a third “works” Yaris is ready (probably in time for round two, the Sasol Rally in Mpumalanga in April). His navigator will be the experienced Greg Godrich, who read the notes for Charl Wilken during the past seven seasons, the past four in an S2000 Ford Fiesta. Wilken, a former SA modified saloon car champion, is considering a return to circuit racing.
A strong three-car Volkswagen factory team will contest the premier S2000 class with former champions Hergen Fekken and Enzo Kuun back in the Polos that made a relatively subdued debut in 2012, but looked stronger as the season progressed.
Two second places by Kuun in the final three rounds and a win in the final rally by exciting young Dutch driver Hans Weijs was an ominous sign to the Ford and Toyota camps.
Weijs will not be returning, but an equally exciting young talent in the form of 18-year-old Henk Lategan will step up from the S2000 Challenge to take over the third factory S2000 Polo.
Also wearing Sasol livery will be the older specification Polo Vivo of Gugu Zulu and Carl Peskin, back to defend their title in the inaugural S2000 Challenge title.
Spicing up the S2000 class and thoroughly enjoying his rallying in his senior (by rally standards) years is Jan Habig. The multiple former champion has been rejuvenated by his new privateer Ford Fiesta after years with the factory Volkswagen team. Three consecutive fourth places at the start of the season were followed by a second and a third on his way to finishing fourth in the championship, ahead of all the factory Volkswagens. He will again have former champion Robert Paisley in the navigator's hot seat.
The S2000 Challenge for the older specification all-wheel drive cars will be much stronger this season. In addition to defending champions Zulu and Peskin (Volkswagen Polo), Dippenaar (Toyota Auris) and Van der Westhuizen (Toyota Auris), several new entrants include Toyota Auris pair Jean-Pierre Damseaux and Mohammed Moosa, who contested the S2000 class in 2012, and class newcomer Morne Janse van Rensburg (VW Polo), who has moved up from S1600.
The Two Wheel Drive Championship for S1600 cars, vigorously contested in 2012 by a host of talented youngsters - and a veteran who won it! - will be boosted by arrival of more of the FIA R2B-spec cars to add to the existing Ford Fiestas and Citroen C2. There are also rumours of factory supported Polos and Toyota Etios 1600s being built this year, a South African initiative that will be watched around the world.
Two-wheel drive champion, canny veteran Craig Trott, will be back in his venerable class S1600 Toyota RunX, now in its seventh season, with a new navigator, Janine Lourens.
His main competition will include Ashley Haigh Smith, who won the S1600 class in 2012, in an R2B-spec Ford Fiesta, although Haigh Smith and navigator Craig Parry will miss four rounds as they will also be contesting the Junior World Rally Championship (now called WRC3) in a Ford Fiesta.
There were six different S1600 class winners in 2012, including class returnees Clint Weston in an R2B-spec Citroen D2 and Guy Botterill (Toyota RunX), and the scene is set for an equally unpredictable series this year.