Jan Habig drew first blood in the South African Rally Championship by winning the season opening Natal Rally in the Sasol DualFuel sponsored Volkswagen Golf 4 on Saturday.
Habig and navigator Douglas Judd beat long time bitter rival Serge Damseaux in a Toyota RunX by a massive 2min 27 sec in the car’s first ever outing, with veteran Schalk Burger finishing 3rd in a Subaru Impreza.
While many cars failed to survive the searing hot and humid conditions that also tested driver mental strength, Habig’s car proved its consistency and he, his endurance as he mastered the twisty sugar cane stages with some aplomb.
It was a performance only briefly matched by team mates Enzo Kuun and new navigator Guy Hodgson, who at some point were overall leaders but had to retire with a blown engine.
The toughness of the event can never be over-emphasised as some of the championship’s major contenders had to take an early shower. Etienne Lourens’ Team Total Corolla lasted only one stage on Day Two, while Sasol Volkswagen Polo Playa of Hergen Fekken, a popular high-flier, lasted until Stage 9 before giving up. It was a heart-breaking retirement for Fekken as he was fighting for the Class A7 lead with team mate Tjaart van der Walt at the time. Van der Walt himself had to retire on Stage 13 after off the road a mere 600m from the end of stage.
That left Habig to fight the Volkswagen cause, but Damseaux’s new car was far from being a serious contender as the unhappiness was clearly visible in a car that is making its first run.
The fight may not have turned out to be as tough as Habig and co expected late on Day One but he and navigator Douglas Judd still had to make some crucial decisions. The importance of being third or fourth on the road early on Saturday morning resulted in an interesting scenario where most runners seemed to be doing their best to finish lower down the order. Habig and Judd chose to go for broke and it paid off despite having to sweep the loose gravel for everyone else on Day Two.
Nkosinathi Nzimande and navigator Fani Meyiwa in a Class A5 Sasol Volkswagen Chico finished 4th in class and 26th overall in a gritty performance that saw them stave off a broken exhaust on the penultimate stage. Fellow Class A5 team mates Gugulethu Zulu and Dave McGregor had to retire on Stage 6 after breaking their car’s front suspension and going off the road.
So Habig has fired the first salvo in what is expected to be a protracted war lasting until the very last instalment of the championship in Tzaneen. Habig is gunning for his third straight title and fifth overall, while team mate Kuun is looking for his first.
Fekken and van der Walt are expected to continue their pitched battles with Etienne Lourens, and had retirement not ended the skirmish early, fans would have been treated to a nail-biting affair.
“We have set the ball rolling. It’s still early days but the Golf held up better than we expected on a season opener. The number of retirements speaks volumes of the reliability one needs to win an event of this nature and we are very pleased with today’s performance.” – Jan Habig.
“You win some and lose others. This was the one that got away. We were looking good until we hit engine trouble but we will be back at the Total Rally in a month’s time.” – Enzo Kuun.
“So close and yet so far. It’s part of the game and you live to fight another day. We will be back more determined in the Playa next time.” – Tjaart van der Walt.
“We would have liked to start the season with a powerful message and that was looking possible until we had to retire. It’s still early days and there’s more rallying to be done still.” – Hergen Fekken.
1. Jan Habig – Sasol Volkswagen Golf 4
2. Serge Damseaux – Toyota RunX
3. Schalk Burger – Subaru Impreza
4. Nicolas Ryan – Subaru Impreza
5. Craig Trott – Toyota Corolla