Mark Cronje and co-driver Robin Houghton (Sasol Ford Fiesta) increased their championship lead this weekend when they clinched the win ahead of hard-charging Johnny Gemmel and Carolyn Swan (Castrol Team Toyota Auris) at the Sasol Rally in Mpumalanga.
The season opener in Kwa-Zulu Natal saw Cronje and Houghton best the pairing of Gemmel and Swan, who came into round 2 strong by pulling a 14 second lead over the Sasol duo by the end of the six special stages on Friday. Cronje dug in deep to narrow the gap down to 0,8 seconds by the end of stage 11 on Saturday, which Gemmel responded to on the next special by building his lead up to 3,4 seconds again.
Stage 13 was where Cronje and Houghton pulled it all together, by finishing 5,2 seconds ahead of their Castrol Toyota rivals to grasp the top podium spot by just 3,1 seconds. Both drivers had their fair share of mishaps, as Cronje suffered a 20 second time penalty on Friday after clocking in late at final control after damaging his Ford’s subframe, while Gemmel suffered slow punctures on stages 2 and 9.
Third overall were the Dutch/Belgian combination of Hans Weijs Jnr and Bjorn Degandt (BP Volkswagen Polo), quite an impressive result for the SA rally championship rookies – even if it was 1 minute 37 seconds behind the leaders. Multiple former champs Jan Habig and Robert Paisley (Basil Read Ford Fiesta) were a further 29 seconds behind in fourth, but 1 minute 11 seconds ahead of Jon Williams and Cobus Vrey (Sasol Ford Fiesta).
The second round of the SA championship ran in conjunction with the FIA African Rally championship, which Cronje and Houghton won, followed by Habig and Paisley with Williams and Vrey rounding off the podium. Championship-leading visitors Mohammed Essa of Zambia and Greg Stead of Zimbabwe (Subaru Impreza WRX) finished fourth, and continue to lead the series.