The opening round of the South African national rally championship got off to a swinging start this weekend as the Total Rally in KwaZulu-Natal was contested between the Sasol Ford Fiesta of Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton and the Castrol Team Toyota Auris of Johnny Gemmel and Carolyn Swan.
Gemmel and Swan pushed the privateer Ford pairing hard after losing the lead to the Fiesta on Saturday’s opening stage – a 25-kilometre special that was the longest of the event and the most influential on the final outcome. After almost 200 km of rallying, all the top Toyota crew could manage was two stage wins, while Cronje and Houghton notched six out of the total 10, and had to settle for second place – 39,3 seconds behind the Ford.
The last stage win went to the eventual third-placed Basil Read Fiesta of Charl Wilken and Greg Godrich, a minute and 37 seconds behind the winning Fiesta. The second Basil Read Fiesta was less than 20 seconds behind to finish in fourth, while Enzo Kuun and Guy Hodgson brought the new BP Volkswagen Polo home in fifth, 1 minutes and 5 seconds ahead of Dutch and Belgian team-mates Hans Weijs Jnr and Bjorn Degandt, who impressed on their first rally on SA soil.
The second factory Toyota duo of Leeroy Poulter and Elvene Coetzee watched their Auris burn to its shell after just four kilometres of the opening stage, when they went off course and the hot exhaust set the local flora alight. The other factory Volkswagen also failed to finish, with Hergen Fekken and Pierre Arries forced to retire after recurring electrical issues.
“The loss of our second car is a big blow, but we’re happy that Leeroy and Elvene escaped injury. Obviously this is a big disappointment for all of us. Both of our cars had been rebuilt and fully refurbished in preparation for the new season and we all had high hopes for their success on the Total Rally, particularly following Leeroy and Elvene’s win in the final round of the 2011 championship in the MTN Polokwane Rally in Limpopo Province,”admitted Toyota Motorsport principal Glyn Hall.
“We’re encouraged by Johnny’s fine performance this weekend – he won three stages and kept Cronje honest throughout Saturday – and now turn our attention to preparing for the Sasol Rally in Mpumalanga in four weeks’ time,” said Hall. “We have a plan to put Leeroy into a replacement car, but we have a lot of work to do to be ready in time.”
The Sasol Rally happens in Mpumalanga in and around Nelspruit from 20-21 April.