RING-A-RING O’ DUSTY ROSES – Polokwane Rally Preview

The Rally of a thousand circles – or so it feels every year after having driven over the stages a few times to write the rally notes.


Distances vary with every run. You get so mixed up you are never sure where you really are when going around and round the irrigated potato and other fields. No matter how hard you try to find beacons or markers on or next to the roads, there are normally more than one of the same thing, or simply nothing that will clearly help the drivers in rally vehicles judge distances and this coming weekend will not be any different.


On 17 and 18 October 2014 the area surrounding Polokwane will be alive with the music of angry rally engines when the 2014 Polokwane Rally takes place.


It will again be the traditional battle between Ford and Toyota or Ford and Volkswagen, not easily between Volkswagen and Toyota on their own.


The excitement is normally or shall I say, “sadly”, only generated when Mark Cronje picks up a problem in the privately entered Ford Fiesta and he has to play “catch-up”.


If nothing goes wrong for Cronje, he normally runs away with the spoils almost as badly or easily as Mercedes is in F1.


This year things went wrong for him a few more times than he would have liked and the championship leaders at this stage of the game are Leeroy Poulter and Elvéne Coetzee (Castrol Team Toyota Yaris) currently enjoying a comfortable 31-point lead over factory teammates Hergen Fekken and Carolyn Swan.


Poulter has this year finished every event so far and only a miracle will hand Cronje the 2014 title.


It is almost certain that Poulter will drive the last two events keeping his championship chances in mind rather than taking Cronje to task which may just prove nothing.


Having said that, Cronje has another hurdle ahead of him. If he has his eye on the runner-up trophy in the championship, he will have to get past Hergen Fekken who is leading him by about 5 points.

Hergen Fekken also in a factory sponsored Toyota Yaris is not exactly what you will call a “pushover” and he will obviously do what he can to stay ahead of the charging Cronje.

Fekken still has to get his first overall win in the Toyota and I have a feeling that it may still happen before the end of this season. He has the pace, the ability and only a few hick-ups stood between him and possible victory so far.


One of the three teams mentioned will win the championship this year with Poulter the out and out favourite.


Then there is our very own Dakar Champion, Giniel de Villiers who has scored his first National Rally win in the Cape last month and one can again expect a steady performance from this versatile driver. The Polokwane circumstances may just suit his slightly cautious driving style and he may just surprise a few wannabe’s again.


The fact that he competed in the Off-Road Toyota Hilux in the Rally of Morocco that finished in Marrakech a week ago, may have an effect on de Villiers’ driving the rally car this weekend in Polokwane.


Some people may not agree – but after experiencing a drive in one of the top Off-Road vehicles at Rallystar last week I have no doubt that the vast difference between the rally and off-road vehicles, must have an effect on a driver – at least for the first stage or two. No matter how hard you try, there will be some places where a rally car will simply not do what an Off-road vehicle, may find to be a walk in the park.


I realise that there will be testing before this weekend, but the local teams do not test nearly enough as far as I am concerned and Giniel will take a bit of time to adjust to the rally car.


The special bite that the Polokwane Rally always offers the drivers, will again play a major role in determining who will be victorious and who will be sitting on a rock or tree stump somewhere in the veld watching the other cars go by.


This rally has always been a difficult rally to write “pacenotes” for and when I look at the different interpretations of my notes between the competitors I am amazed that more than about two or three teams finish this rally without an incident.


All the stages with the exception of one, offer some tricky “between-tree” driving on twisting Bushveld roads. Rocks are hidden in the grass, tight kinks are begging the drivers to take them on and a kink changed from my “L3.R4.L2” to a “kink max” can easily bite the left one off.


My three hair stand on edge when I catch a glimpse of and extreme danger jump (!!!Jmp) call from me changed into a “care Jump” and then of course the variety of interpretations of my calls are a concern as well.


I heard someone asking, how an “easy dip” can also be marked as dangerous? Well my friend the “easy” describes the “looks” rather than the severity and an adrenaline driven driver may just decide it looks “easy” enough to attack at full force and land next to … what is the town nearest to Polokwane?


Some teams add extra markers, some take almost everything less than a 50 degree corner and all the calls that are less than “danger” out of the equation. They will add something next to the road as a marker and take out a small bump on the route that is supposed to be a marker rather than a warning.


Then again as they say, “to each his own”.


It is rather difficult to predict a winner – but I will be pleasantly surprised if Poulter does better than second or third, especially on this event for the already mentioned reasons. Fekken on the other hand will love making this year an all Toyota affair by finishing as runner-up in the championship.


He will surely try to push Cronje and the Ford at least one spot down to ensure that the task to win the championship overall this year becomes even more difficult.


Cronje on the other hand must start as favourite to win the event, but in that lies the risk of pushing that little bit too hard. He will be at risk all the way from start to finish, except if he manages to open a respectable gap on day one. That on current form is not impossible, but this is one of those rallies where full out attack seldom pays off.


Hans Weijs in the Volkswagen Polo still has to prove this year that it was worth the trouble to bring him in from Europe to put the locals in place and give Volkswagen the glory they have been searching for more than just a few seasons.


Henk Lategan is also not really living up to expectation so far but then he is the youngest driver by far in the team and the pressure often placed on him to carry the Volkswagen banner to the top has taken its toll.


Gugu Zulu had until now a season filled with absolute bad luck and he still has to get through an event without losing time due to something, mostly unexpected, going wrong.


Then we get to Japie van Niekerk.


Van Niekerk seems to improve with every run, although Enzo Kuun drove his car into third spot on the last rally when he could not get away from business commitment.


He is determined to do well on this event and prove that his excellent run in Cullinan two rallies ago was not a “flash in the pan”. His risk lies in overdoing it and Polokwane is just the event where you should not take too many chances. It will bite!


Giniel de Villiers also stand a good chance especially after his win in the Cape where he, although through some luck, proved that he can actually maintain rally pace when the need is there. He is however such a calculated driver that the “sprint” characteristic of rallying does not suit his style all that well. Stretch the rally stages to 50 and 60 kilometres and you will see a different result every time.


Thilo Himmel in a Volkswagen Polo is not unlike Gugu Zulu also trying to get away from a spate of luck that could be described as; “going from bad to worse”. This is a great pity as he is without doubt one of the most talented young drivers on the scene. This year truly did not do his reputation any good and I just hope it will not count against him.


Wilro Dippenaar and Kes Naidoo will be the only entry in the “S2000 Challenge” class while the single other entry Piet Bakkes could not get his car ready for this event. This single entry in what is supposed to be a class filled by privateers, again proves that something somewhere is very wrong with the sport and the lack of either funding or enthusiasm to keep up with the present very expensive exercise is showing clearly.


That’s it – the ten S2000 teams have all been mentioned.


In the S1600 we have no more luck than in S2000 – or wait I am lying there are 11 entries!


Wonderful progress we have made in the sport and we can expect the crowds to flock to the side of the roads to be entertained for a stretched out 42 minutes at a time before all goes quiet again.


The charges for the scoring and the ambulance service alone takes the cost per competitor up to over R5000 per head. Small wonder the Route Notes are being seen as too expensive and plans are made to let the competitors write their own notes during two runs over the stages destroying standard normally rental cars in the process. This two run recce is said to be a step to take the sport forward and “prepare all our overseas” young competitors to do their own notes.


God forbid some of them still leaving the local scene to go driving overseas.


Cronje, Poulter and Gugu will have a ball in the three cars left to determine, who is the best in South Africa.


Guy Botterill and Simon Vacy-Lyle have won the S1600 title already as no one stands a chance to cover the gap of 49 points they have built up during a fantastic run throughout almost every event this season.


Talk in this class however is the improvement of Chad van Beurden and Nico Swartz in the Volkswagen Polo R2. Van Beurden’s maturity impressed me more than any other driver did in a long-long time and I will not be in the least surprised if this young man reaches the top spot sooner rather than later.


Ashley Haigh-Smith did not have the best of seasons but when he got the Ford going properly, he managed to post top times and keep up with what anybody could throw at him. I truly hope he manages to get more sponsor support very soon.


Although there are also not many names to choose from, there are some excellent talent in the S1600 class. Luckily most of them coming from a wealthy background and they may feel like spending a million or so for another season or two.


Anyway, let’s go to Polokwane and see what happens.


This may also mark an interesting turn in my rally career that stretched over 47 years so far.