The Volkswagen Rally, one of the most demanding on the National calendar, promises yet another close contest - and an unexpected new challenge - when the cream of the country's special-stage racers line up for the start of the two-day rally in Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape on - you guessed it - Friday, 13 July.
After three rounds the championship is delicately poised, with five crews covered by just 10 points and the sixth crew only a further four points adrift. There have been only two winners thus far, but seven different stage winners, and most of the top contenders have performed consistently well.
Leading the official entry of 18 four-wheel drive Super 2000 cars, 14 two-wheel drive Super 1600s and nine S20 regional competitors, are championship leaders Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton in an S2000 Ford Fiesta.
With wins in the first two rounds and 16 stage victories out of 38 to their credit to date, they have 60 points and lead Toyota's Johnny Gemmell and Carolyn Swan (S2000 Auris) by just three points. They're also looking for a second consecutive successive victory in the Eastern Cape event.
Gemmell, like Cronje, is looking for his first overall championship after being runner-up three times and finishing third last year. He's also looking for a rally victory that has eluded him since he won the VW Rally in a Toyota in 2010. He has finished second five times since then.
BREATHING DOWN THEIR NECKS
Between them, Cronje and Gemmell have dominated the stages this season, taking 25 between them.
Only four points behind Gemmell and Swan are Jon Williams and Cobus Vrey, winners of the Gauteng Rally five weeks ago in the second works Fiesta. Breathing down their necks are former champions Jan Habig and Robert Paisley, in a privateer Fiesta, who are just two points behind.
Fifth with 50 points are the Dutch/Belgian combination of Hans Weijs Jnr and Bjorn Degandt, who are impressing in their first season in South Africa in a works Volkswagen Polo - and they're just four points ahead of Jean-Pierre Damseaux and Grant Martin in a Team Total Toyota Auris.
But the top crews will be looking over their shoulders in Uitenhage because, out for the first time this year in a brand new S2000 Auris built for them by Toyota motorsport head honcho Glyn Hall, will be Dakar legend Giniel de Villiers and vastly experienced regular navigator Ralph Pitchford.
De Villiers finished a remarkable third overall in the Dakar Rally in South America in January in the South African-designed and built Toyota Hilux's first attempt at the world's longest and toughest motor race.
He said: “I've been keen to get back into rallying after my debut year with Ralph in 2011 - we have unfinished business there and we were just getting into our stride when the season ended.
“Racing a four-wheel-drive rally car over loose gravel roads at high speeds is also a great way to sharpen my driving skills and keep me focused between Dakar Rallies!”
Making up the top 10 in the championship are Charl Wilken and Greg Godrich (Ford Fiesta), Gugu Zulu and Carl Peskin (VW Polo), Hein Lategan and Johan van der Merwe (Peugeot 207) and Mohammed Moosa and Andre Vermeulen (Toyota Auris).
Also serious contenders for an overall win in the Eastern Cape are the works Volkswagen team's former champions Hergen Fekken and Pierre Arries, winners of the 2009 VW Rally, and Enzo Kuun and Guy Hodgson.
The works Volkswagens have recorded an uncharacteristic three DNF's as their new-for-2012 Polos have suffered teething problems and they're 12th and 15th respectively in the points standings.
Similarly, Toyota's hot young crew of Leeroy Poulter and Elvéne Coetzee, who won two rallies in 2011, in their debut S2000 season, have only finished one rally so far this year and are languishing in 20th position.
Nevertheless, write them off at your peril.
Zulu and Peskin have impressed in their first year in the premier class in an old-specification VW Polo, in which they are leading the newly created S2000 Challenge, ahead of Wilro Dippenaar and Morne du Toit (Toyota RunX), Henk Lategan and Barry White in a Polo and the RunX of Werner Koekemoer and Etienne Lourens (Glasurit Toyota RunX).
Former champion Craig Trott and Robbie Coetzee are leading the Two Wheel Drive Championship for S1600 cars with 46 points from a win in the opening round and second in the recent Gauteng Rally. Four points adrift are Nic van der Westhuizen and Henry Dearlove in a Ford Fiesta R2), class winners in Round 3, with Matthew Vacy-Lyle and Schalk van Niekerk (Toyota RunX) third on 38 points.
Competitors in the 30th Volkswagen Rally will contest 12 stages - five on Friday and seven on Saturday - over about 200km in the Gamtoos Valley, the Longmore Forest, Uitenhage and at Port Elizabeth's oval track in Greenbushes, ending with the traditional Kings Beach spectator stage on Saturday afternoon.