Mark Cronje and Chris Birkin put in the best drive of their short careers to claim the class A6 victory in their third ever rally. The Castrol Toyota RunX RS performed faultlessly throughout the three day, 908km Zulu Rally South Africa, the 4th round of the Sasol SA Rally Championship.
Making Cronje’s feat even more remarkable is that this was their first event on safety notes. “It took us about half of day one to get used to the notes”, said Chris.
Mark was impressed with the work that the Castrol Toyota team has done to his car. “It’s still a very new car, but the increase in mid-range torque is quite noticeable”, said Mark at the Durban ICC finish. “We took things easy to start with, not knowing what the pace was going to be like. I concentrated on driving smoothly and keeping the car in the middle of the road. It’s even more special for us as it is our first finish”, Mark added.
Setting the pace at the front of the field were multiple champions Serge Damseaux and Robert Paisley in their Super 2000 Castrol Toyota RunX RSi. Serge adopted a cautious strategy on day 1 and opted to run on ‘wet’ tyres. “I was probably overcautious at the start”, said Serge. “We ran the first five stages with softer tyres so I was always very aware of not getting punctures. We lost quite a bit of time because of that.
Notwithstanding Serge’s description of ‘cautious’, the Castrol RunX duo ended day one in a solid 2nd place overall and the top South African crew, heading for some much needed championship points. The gap to former World Rally driver Alister McRae was 11 seconds.
“We had a real fight on our hands with Alister (McRae – the eventual winner). We lost a few seconds in stage nine because of the low, early morning sun in our eyes, but took it back again in stage10”.
It went horribly wrong in the penultimate 11th stage. Approaching a fast corner, the Castrol RunX driver hit a damp, slippery patch and while in second gear, the rear of the car stepped out and hit a bank. The car swung around and hit the bank head on, damaging the radiator.
The Zulu Rally SA was run under FIA (the sports governing body) rules that allow a driver who has problems during an event, to complete the course under “SuperRally” rules. As a result, Serge had 5 minutes of penalties added to his actual stage times for each stage he failed to complete (10 minutes in total for two incomplete stages) and was classified 9th overall and 7th in the SA championship standings.
On the performance of a fully-specced, well prepared and driven production car class N4 vehicle beating a Super 2000 car, Serge said: “It shows the FIA got their sums right. They want the two classes to be close together and this event shows that we’re very evenly matched”.
Charl Wilken and Greg Godrich had a hard day at the office on the first day of action. Their class A7 Castrol Toyota RunX RSi wasn’t putting its power down on the road and the current Northern Regions Champions lost a substantial amount of time.
‘We didn’t really hook up to the car or the rally on Friday”, Charl related. “I got worse for us in stage 4 though”.
The RunX broke a driveshaft just 4km into the 10.5km 4th stage. With no servicing until after stage 5, the Castrol pairing lost a disastrous 10 minutes limping through the stages, dropping them to 35th overnight.
Day two went a lot better and the pair flew through the first stages. In the second last stage, the accelerator cable came loose from the pedal, and the pair was forced to stop and fix the problem, losing a further 1½ minutes, leaving the crew a frustrated 19th overall.
Top scoring for Toyota was Etienne Lourens and Andre Vermeulen in their Team Total Toyota RunX RSi after overcoming a host of niggling problems. Never out of the top five, Etienne had a shock absorber-related handling problem over the first section of three stages. Once that was fixed, the intercom failed in stage 8 and unable to her Andre’s notes, they went of the road on three separate occasions.
The alternator bolts came loose before stage 11 and they were forced to stop for 15 minutes on the side of the road and just made the stage start in time. The bolts again worked loose and the intercom gave up the ghost once more. The car started to overheat and the computer shut the motor down (limp mode). The final stage went smoothly and they were able to make up the time loss on the car ahead (Robbie Head) to claim the final step of the podium.
Etienne is now in second place in the overall SA championship standings.
Total is an official corporate sponsorship partner to Toyota and fields a huge nine-car team across six different classes.
Jean-Pierre Damseaux and Cobus Vrey won class A7 in their Team Total Toyota RunX RSi, over 100 seconds clear of their Volkswagen-mounted rivals and 8th overall in the rally standings.
Craig Trott and John Costa (Team Total Toyota Corolla), the current A6 class champions, ended second in class behind Mark’s Castrol RunX. Craig had a trouble-free run, unlike the Team Total Toyota Conquest of Eugene Lourens and Derek Jacobs.
The elder Lourens brother was beset with electrical problems which caused the car to frequently fail to start or cut our unexpectedly. In stage 9 a tyre burst; the new tyre lasted just 4km before it too went flat, causing a driveshaft to pull out after the stage and end their event.
Michael Houghton and stand-in co-driver Gerry Gericke ended 2nd in class A5, driving their Team Total Toyota Tazz. Michael was outgunned by Gugu Zulu/Rikus Fourie’s BP VW Chico on this occasion but retains his class title points lead.
Vusi Mabanga/ Kobus Jansen (Team Total Sowetan Toyota Tazz) failed to finish the event.
Mohammed Moosa and Henry Dearlove (Team Total Toyota RunX) claimed their maiden class N3 win after a superb, problem free performance that saw a number of the favourites for the class win fall by the wayside.
Chris de Wit and Patrick Yende, the reigning class champions, twice had to change faulty shock absorbers to cure wayward handling. On Saturday, the gearbox casing cracked and the pair limped home in 36th place.
Rodney Visagie and Arno Lagrange had their best outing of the season but retired their N3 Team Total Toyota RunX RSi in stage 8 with a broken driveshaft.
The two Sasol-backed Toyota RunX RSis of Kobus Roos/Niel Fourie and Claudio Piazza Musso/Greg Gericke dominated proceedings for 80% of the rally. Kobus led initially and held a firm grip on the class standings until he went off the road at the flying finish in stage 6. Kobus ran on day two under the SuperRally clause and ended 2nd in class.
Claudio took up the cudgels and ran strongly in the lead until rolling out of the event in stage 10.
Class N2 was a Kosta Koumantarakis/ Barry White benefit, the youngsters dominating proceedings in their Toyota Corolla, and ended 16th overall after a storming drive.