Following months of uncertainty and with only two weeks remaining before the start of this year’s SA National Rally Championship, reigning champion Mark Cronje has announced he will defend his title – in a Volkswagen Polo S2000; not a Ford Fiesta.
Cronje, who won the title, his third since 2012, in the last round of last year’s championship in Polokwane for the Ford Performance team, recently made the announcement on his Facebook account.
According to Cronje the Polo S2000 he will be campaigning this year will again be prepared by Stuart Thompson Racing, the outfit that helped him win his previous titles with Ford.
No co-pilot yet?
Cronje’s participation is good news for the National Rally Championship (NRC) series after it was rocked by the closure of the official Volkswagen rally team at the end of last year, and subsequent withdrawal of official Ford support for Cronje.
However, Cronje still has to announce who his co-pilot will be for the upcoming season.
Late in 2015, his regular navigator Robin Houghton was suddenly replaced by Gerhard Snyman, but it’s unclear whether either of them is available in 2016.
Cronje thanked his followers for their support in the past 3 months and indicated he will soon announce the sponsors that “made the marvellous move possible”.
With VW and Ford out, only Toyota (now without sponsorship from long-time partner Castrol) remains as official factory team entrant in the national series.
Toyota in SA motorsport
The team will again this year field two Yaris S2000 cars for Leeroy Poulter, last year’s driver championship runner-up, and the current champion navigator, Elvene Coetzee, as well as Dakar hero Giniel de Villiers and Carolyn Swan.
Other confirmed Toyota entrants are privateers Ernie van der Walt and Greg Godrich in a Yaris S2000 with backing from Vecto Petroleum, and Theuns Joubert/Mari van der Walt returning in their Salom Group-Toyota Auris in Class NRC4.
Privateer Japie van Niekerk in his NAD-sponsored M-Sport-built Fiesta S2000 and Namibian Wilro Dippenaar in another Fiesta will fly the Ford flag, while his compatriot Thilo Himmel will be in action in a VW Polo S2000.
Cronje admitted that “with all preparations still on the plate, it will be a tight call for us”.
Also, gaged by the performances of the VW Polo S2000 crews over the last four seasons, it remains to be seen whether he will be able to mount a serious challenge against the factory-backed Toyotas.
Still, it is clear he’s looking forward to the encounter, stating: “Let’s show everyone what this Polo is capable of…”
*Cronje’s victory in the 2015 drivers’ championship has moved him up to the sixth position overall in terms of national rally titles won, and in terms of national rally wins (22) up to fifth behind rally legends Serge Damseaux (74), Sarel van der Merwe (66), Jan Hettema (36) and Jannie Habig (36).
Toyota again secured the Manufacturers’ title in 2016, its 23rd in the series since 1968.