With the decreasing number of rallyist in South Africa it is not too difficult to stand out and be seen by the spectators and fans.
When you excel in good company – and I mean really stand out – then more than just the fans will take note.
When I did the Route Notes for this rally I knew that car number one on the first day would almost definitely not win this rally. The road surface was simply too loose over long distances for especially the lead car to get the required grip.
The fate to sweep befell the young Henk Lategan and I scratched his name from a possible number one spot.
Then there were very fast sections where any blue blooded Ford fan would have placed money on any one of the two Fiestas – but then they did not see the improvements made by Toyota over the past season.
The Toyota camp pushed their luck a bit too far and paid the price on the PMC Rally when their cars were a bit too strong and they suffered engine problems.
This slight set back was corrected and suddenly the Toyotas made just enough power to last and at the same time keep up with the Fords of Cronje and van Niekerk.
Volkswagen came to light on the PMC rally and took two top spots behind the winning Ford of Mark Cronje – high time if you ask me and also where they belong.
Ford and Cronje or whichever way around you prefer to call the combination again spoiled Volkswagen’s fun on their “own” event last month and beat the hell out of anything any team could throw at them.
But then came the rally in Cullinan.
As usual I did my best to forecast to the Rallystar readers who would win this event.
I had to keep in mind that I was not allowed, not to say some other drivers would win the event – but my choice fell squarely on the shoulders of Leeroy Poulter. To prove this I placed a few Rand on a bet with a Ford fanatic who at a late stage of the Cullinan rally started licking his lips saying that he did not nominate Mark Cronje but bet me that a Ford would win. No so, but what the hell – had van Niekerk pulled off a win, I would gladly have paid.
But let us not cross the finish line before we started.
By now, it is old hat that Mark Cronje never hesitates to open a gap on the very first stage of any rally. He simply pulls the bowstring back to breaking point and lets fly – all or nothing!
This time around the tactic did not work that well.
He did indeed win the stage but at the same time cracked the Ford’s gearbox at the only rocky spot of the stage. Just when I wanted to run to check what and how I warned the few rocks just before a left-hand corner – I smiled and relaxed – they did a recce and took the decision themselves while there was another option around the rocks.
One needs to add that this was bloody bad luck – rather than careless driving.
Cronje built a “mighty” three second lead and got a hellhole in the gearbox as reward. Not a good deal, if you ask me.
Poulter who was second quickest almost came short as well. He clipped a pole on the left front-side of the car and was lucky to escape with no real damage. The fact that this happened and he was only three second off Cronje was a little out of character for Leeroy as he normally takes a bit of time to settle in. This spelled trouble for the other teams.
Luckily for Cronje there was a 20 minute service period between stages One and Two. Twenty minutes says you – that was enough time to change tyres and refuel – surely not to change a gearbox on an all-wheel-drive car?
I agree 20 minutes was not enough but it only took them a little longer as Mark clocked in 7 minutes late into the service exit control incurring a penalty of 70 seconds. Full gearbox exchange and get to the control in 27 minutes. Not bad, not bad at all.
As said Poulter was lying second by 3 seconds while Hergen Fekken was 6/10th of a second slower in third.
Henk Lategan did well to complete the stage in 4th fastest time while Weijs was fifth and Japie van Niekerk (Ford Fiesta) was inconspicuously lying in sixth spot after SS1. No sign yet of things to come.
The war in S1600 was well and truly on and as predicted, it would be a fight between Botterill (Toyota Etios) and van Beurden (VW Polo)
Van Beurden drove brilliantly to beat quicksilver Botterill by 6/10th of one single second.
The pressure was now on Botterill for the first time this year – and as I said in the preview – the question would be how Botterill would handle this.
This time the stage belonged to Poulter – he won it by 1/10th of a second.
When you think about this type of time difference – it simply does not make any sense. How the hell, can two people in different cars, drive 16.2kms during which they receive about 300 instructions staccato-style finish 1/10th of a second apart?
This time van Niekerk was on pace pushing Fekken one stage spot down compared to SS1 while Weijs was 5th and Giniel de Villiers 6th fastest.
In S1600 Chad van Beurden managed to put a bit of light between him and Botterill opening the gap by 4.3s. Paulus Franken dropped a few places compared to his SS1 position while Andrew Heine moved up four.
The 70 second penalty dropped Mark Cronje to 9th spot and in my book the fight for him for top honours was over if nothing extraordinary happened.
Poulter was leading the rally and notwithstanding my prediction – this was sooner than even I expected this to happen.
Hergen Fekken was now trailing Poulter by 5.6s with Weijs in third spot.
Stage 3 was a short tricky affair with three very tight hairpin corners hidden between trees.
Hergen managed to win this stage by 1.6s from his team mate Leeroy Poulter, Weijs was third fastest and van Niekerk 4th.
Chad van Beurden posted his third fastest S1600 stage time for this rally in SS3 while Botterill lost time due to a few problems in this stage. Was the pressure starting to mount?
Poulter moved into the lead, while Hergen occupied second spot with Weijs 7.2 seconds behind him.
Japie van Niekerk was 4th and the road sweeping Henk Lategan in 5th.
Chad van Beurden and Nico Swartz were leading S1600 while Marko Himmel and Francois Schoonbee were in second spot.
Ashley Haigh-Smith was lying well back in 5th spot for S1600.
This was a sandy, dusty, difficult affair and in my humble opinion, would be the ultimate test for Henk Lategan. I felt sorry for him. To be honest the first three, even four cars would run at a disadvantage.
The deep sand and tricky conditions showed mostly in Henk Lategan’s time. He lost 20 seconds to stage winner – Leeroy Poulter.
Fekken was second fastest, while Mark Cronje managed 3rd quickest – 9 seconds off the pace. Something was not right.
Weijs posted 4th fastest and van Niekerk fifth.
Ernie van der Walt won the stage in the S1600 class with Guy Botterill second fastest. Van Beurden managed a slow 5th and lost 6 seconds of his lead to Botterill.
Meanwhile Giniel de Villiers had a nightmare rally in a car that simply did not go properly and I truly belief that the Dakar champ must be getting frustrated with this constant battle he seems to be having with a car that should actually be able to keep up with the Poulter and Fekken cars.
Giniel must also be worried about the fact that he does not get any practice in for the 2015 Dakar – while everyone else seems to be having a field day behind steering wheels in preparation for the world’s biggest race?
Another tricky stage that switched from slow, to extremely fast sections.
Poulter took another win while Weijs popped into the limelight missing a stage win by 0.3 of a second. Suddenly van Niekerk’s pace also increased and he managed third fastest – a sign of things to come?
Chad van Beurden in S1600 pulled back into his winning form and posted another stage win. I am actually lying – he had to share this win with Guy Botterill who now seemed to throw in all he had.
Giniel was slowest of the S2000 cars through the stage and one could almost feel the frustration as he came out of the stage.
Poulter was now leading the rally by 14.6 from Fekken who in turn lead Weijs by 5.9 while Weijs had a 4.6s cushion over Japie van Niekerk.
Chad van Beurden led Botterill in the S1600 brigade by 12.2 while Ernie van der Walt did very well to hold on to third overall.
Giniel dropped two overall positions and was now in 10th spot overall with only Piet Bakkes and Shaun Visser between him and the S1600 cars.
The last stage of Day One arrived.
Cronje pulled an Ace from his sleeve or was it an elephant out of the hat? He beat second fastest Weijs by 5.8s and Leeroy by 5.9 while van Niekerk was right there only 0.4s off the rally leader Poulter’s pace.
In the S1600 class Botterill also spoiled van Beurden’s sweet dreams for the night by posting a 1.1s quicker stage time than the latter. What a race!!
For de Villiers the writing was on the wall – he was now running between the faster S1600 cars. What a mess for this very, very talented driver.
So off to bed they went.
Poulter leading team mate Fekken by 15s.
Fekken in turn led Weijs in the leading Volkswagen Polo by 5.4 while van Niekerk was well within range only 5.1 behind him.
Henk Lategan was understandably in a quiet 5th spot – having done what must be seen as the most difficult “sweeping” job on a rally so far this year.
Wilro Dippenaar and Kes Naidoo was leading the S2000 Challenge class from Piet Bakkes and Shaun Visser.
In S1600 the fight was far from over. There were merely 11.1 seconds between van Beurden and Botterill. A blink of an eye and an adjustment of a set of sunglasses and that was it!
“Tomorrow is another day!”
Then the lights went out.
Early Saturday the Zonderwater prison inmates’ morning-sleep was disturbed by the sound of angry rally car engines.
Cronje desperately opened his tally by launching one of his typical early attacks. He had to show his hand and it had to be good in order to put Leeroy under pressure.
Yes, it was good. Matter of fact it was an excellent show of driving skill and it was around 2 seconds better than his winning time of the previous day. The only difference was that this time he missed the rock!
Was the time good enough to intimidate Poulter? Nope – unfortunately for Cronje he was “merely” 1.7s quicker than Leeroy.
The early morning surprise however came from another Ford – this time in the hands of van Niekerk who posted second fastest time.
Weijs was third quickest just 0.2s slower than van Niekerk while Poulter was a mere 0.3s behind him.
Chad van Beurden once again drove faultlessly and posted another win in S1600 – but Guy Botterill and Simon Vacy-Lyle opened the day losing a massive 1minute 12s to Chad due to a broken side-shaft. That for all practical purposes put an end to one of the best dices in a long, long time.
Poulter was leading Fekken by +16.8, Weijs was 3rd on +20.1; van Niekerk +25.0 and Lategan in 5th was +53.2 behind the rally leaders.
The S1600 format was now van Beurden, 2. Ernie van der Walt +35.9; 3. Haigh-Smith +59; 4. Botterill + 83.4 with Andrew Heine and Robbie Coetzee lying fifth.
Stage 8 went to van Niekerk in a time 15s quicker than the winning time the previous day. Poulter was second fastest with Cronje 4.1s off the winning pace.
A fight for S1600 honours now developed between van Beurden and Haigh-Smith with the former taking a stage-win by 0.4s. Franken also came to light and posted 3rd fastest.
Fekken lost almost 12s in the stage while Botterill and also Giniel de Villiers suffered another stage nightmare.
Poulter led but van Niekerk moved into second spot while Fekken dropped to 4th spot behind Weijs who remained in 3rd place.
Chad was now almost into the Top10 overall, while Ernie vd Walt was second in S1600 but under severe attack from Haigh-Smith.
“Hello here I am!” came the call from Leeroy just to let everyone know that he was still around, fighting fit and he proved it by taking another stage win.
Japie van Niekerk seemed determined to upset my prediction apple cart but he discovered that Leeroy was a bit like a bar of wet soap bowled at you by Dale Steyn.
Weijs had to be content with third spot again 0.7s slower than van Niekerk.
Hergen came in next with Cronje 0.7 behind him. Despite not sweeping anymore Lategan was off the pace and managed sixth fastest only.
In the S1600 Ashley Haigh-Smith won the stage and Chad van Beurden had a problem. The latter lost 25.4s to the flying S1600 Ford of Haigh-Smith who now also passed van der Walt to lie second in the class.
The gap of 34.9 seconds between Chad and Ashley was a huge climb – but nothing was impossible.
Poulter had an overall lead of 24.4s over van Niekerk but Weijs was only 1.9 behind the latter while Fekken needed 3.5 to reel in Weijs.
The game was on!
Van Niekerk kept up the pressure and took 2 seconds from Poulter to win the stage. Weijs was 1.6s slower than Poulter and Fekken dropped 10.1 seconds in the stage. This meant almost certainly that he could kiss his potential second spot, goodbye.
Haigh-Smith took a massive 11s from a battling van Beurden and the climb we spoke about did not seem that huge anymore.
Paul Franken was second fastest S1600 and AC Potgieter third.
The gap between Poulter and van Niekerk was now 22.4 with 29.98kms to go!
No one in South Africa will take a second per kilometre off Poulter – and that was that, so Japie had to keep an eye on Weijs rather than try to do the impossible. A second overall was something a number of drivers will pay good money for.
Weijs was trailing van Niekerk by 5.5s with Fekken 10s behind him.
In S1600 the gap between van Beurden and Haigh-Smith shrunk to 23.9s – also a little too much left a little too late? Well, this depended on what shape van Beurden was in for the last two stages.
The problem Chad had was that there was no more servicing between the stages until the end of the rally. So if he had a technical problem – it could be fatal for his first S1600 win.
Poulter picked up his pace in SS11 and won. The margin however was less than a count – 0.3s to be exact.
Haigh-Smith managed another win in S1600 but Chad luckily for him, managed to contain the margin when he conceded only 0.7s.
Gugu Zulu deserves a mention as he entered this even with a heavy bout of flu. He was determined to finish the rally come what may.
The headline news was however that Weijs managed to roll his Polo in this stage. This meant that Hergen moved into third spot overall and the pressure was off Japie.
Going into the final stage of the event Poulter held a lead of 22.7s over van Niekerk while the latter was 25.9 ahead of Fekken.
Lategan moved into 4th spot while Cronje was now in fifth.
Despite his roll and not finishing the stage and later for that matter the rally – the SA Super Rally rules are such that even non-finishers can finish. They do receive a 5min per stage penalty added to the fastest time, but how the hell can that be fair to people who finishes after a hard fight – is beyond me.
It is one thing if this is applied to day One – but on day Two? The problem is that only 18 cars would have finished the rally – if this “rule” was not applied.
In S1600 van Beurden went into the last stage with a 23.2s cushion over Haigh-Smith while Andrew Heine and Robbie Coetzee moved into third spot.
I believe van Niekerk accepted by now that he would finish second at best, while Poulter decided not to take any chance in the last stage.
The fact that Lategan and Cronje completed the stage fastest and second fastest confirms this.
Chad van Beurden on the other hand decided to make bloody sure he won the S1600 rally and posted fastest time beating his main contender Haigh-Smith by 6.4s
The final results were: Poulter won the even by 20.5s from a charging van Niekerk, while Fekken finished third.
Lategan was fourth and Cronje finished in fifth spot.
Wilro Dippenaar won the Challenge class while Chad van Beurden completed the rally 29.6s ahead of Ashley Haigh-Smith after brilliant drives by both.
Andrew Heine was third in S1600, Matthew Vacy-Lyle fourth and Ernie van der Walt fifth.
All and all a very good rally with huge battles along the way.
With three rounds of the National Rally Championship to go, Leeroy Poulter and Elvene Coetzee (103) lead Hergen Fekken and Carolin Swan (76) by 27 points.
2012 and 2013 champions, Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton are in third spot on 72.5 points.
Hans Weijs Jr en Björn Degandt dropped from second in the championship to fourth spot after this event. They have accumulated 68.5 points which are equal to that of Lategan.
Gugu Zulu and Carl Peskin have 53.5 points in sixth place.
Guy Botterill and Simon Vacy-Lyle are obviously still leading the S1600 championship on 105 points after overall wins in all but this last rally. They are followed by Van Beurden and Swartz on 81 points after the latter improved their position dramatically on this rally with a brilliant win.
Ashley Haigh-Smith and Damian van Ass is currently third in the championship on 71 points.
Three to go!
The next round of the championship will take place on 19/20 September 2014 in the Western Cape.