The Ford Performance pair Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton, the national rally champions in 2012 and 2013, set a blistering pace in their recently revamped Ford Fiesta S2000 on the first day of the Tour Natal Rally, the first event of the 2015 national rally championship.
After six stages in the sugar cane fields in and around Scottburgh in KwaZulu-Natal they were leading their nearest rivals, reigning champions and 2014 Motor sportsman of the Year finalists Leeroy Poulter and Elvéne Coetzee (Castrol Toyota Yaris S2000) by 23.8 seconds.
Third, another 14 seconds back, was Volkswagen Sasolracing’s young gun Henk Lategan, ably guided by Barry White, in their Polo S2000, while new incumbent in the Castrol Toyota team, Dakar star Giniel de Villiers, partnered by Caroline Swan in the second Yaris S2000 was fourth overall.
Ushering in the 2015 season, Poulter and Coetzee set off from the Scottburgh country club first. After the first stage it was clear that being first and sweeping the road was costing them time, with Cronje winning the stage by eight seconds.
In the second special stage the Toyota crew lost further time, and was also beaten by Lategan/White and team mates De Villiers/Swan.
However, they staged a fight-back in the next three stages, winning stage four and five (after Cronjé wrong-slotted and had to reverse back on the stage). The Ford pair retaliated by taking the win in the final test.
“We are quite happy with our performance, but the roads were slipperier than expected,” said Poulter. “This has cost us some time, but tomorrow the roles will be reversed, with Mark in front, sweeping.”
Lategan and White had a clean run, but it was clear their Polo was not fast enough to challenge the Ford or Toyota. “We plan to keep it tidy tomorrow. Hopefully this will put us in a position to capitalise on any mistakes by the leaders…” the young VW-driver said.
Japie van Niekerk, with new British navigator Gordon Noble, finished the day fifth overall in his privately entered NAD sponsored Ford Fiesta S2000, while Gugu Zulu and Pierre Arries, in the third Volkswagen Sasolracing Polo S2000, was sixth.
Reigning S1600 class champions Guy Botterill and Simon Vacy-Lyle picked up where they left off last year and were in seventh position overall and leading their class at the overnight Parc Ferme in the Yato Tools Toyota Etios.
They were 20.9 seconds clear of Chad van Beurden and Nico Swartz (Beurden VW Polo S1600) with Ashley Haigh-Smith/Damian van Ass (Ford Fiesta S1600) more than a minute behind them.
For leading contenders Hans Weijs from the Netherlands and Belgian Bjorn Degandt (VW Sasolracing Polo S2000) it was not a good day as they rolled their VW out of contention in stage four, while Class S1600 stalwarts Nico Higgs and Etienne Lourens had to throw in the towel when their VW Polo’s engine expired in the last stage of the day.
Namibians Wilro Dippenaar and Kes Naidoo’s Toyota Auris S2000, entered in the NRC4 Challenge, suffered gearbox problems in stage three, but they will continue tomorrow under Superally rules.
Other retirements include Ernie van der Walt/Rowan Robberts (Ford Fiesta S1600) and the team of AC Potgieter and Tommy du Toit (VW Polo S1600).
The rally restarts tomorrow at 8:00 from the Scottburgh Country Club and the competitors will face five stages, which will include a spectator-friendly power stage.
Results: Day 1: Tour Natal Rally
1. Mark Cronje / Robin Houghton (Ford Fiesta S2000) 48:22.2
2. Leeroy Poulter / Elvéne Coetzee (Toyota Yaris S2000) 48:46.0
3. Henk Lategan / Barry White(VW Polo S2000) 49:00.1
4. Giniel de Villiers / Carolyn Swan (Toyota Yaris S2000) 49:16.8
5. Japie van Niekerk / Gordon Noble (Ford Fiesta S2000) 49:41.7