Open letter to South African rallying

The state of rallying in South Africa, by Evan Rothman.

With the largest collection of Class S2000 rally weaponry competing in a national rally championship in the world, with near on 15 two-wheel drive crews, four manufacturers represented and the cream of South Africa’s motorsport sponsors, how can the 2011 South African Rally Championship not be a showpiece of excitement, drama and spectacular driving? Well, it was all that and a bag of chips.

Rally victories were decided with mere seconds separating a handful number of crews, where battles throughout the field raged from the first stage to the very last corner of the last speed test. Jumps were attacked as if they were launch pads directly onto the winners’ podium; high-speed sweeps were encountered with generous amounts of opposite lock to throw up plumes of dust to thrill the thousands of spectators. Even going into the final round of the season, any one of four crews was in line for the title of South African Rally Champion. After competing in eight events, in five provinces and over 1,440km of stages, rallying proved to its loyal and new legions of supporters just why this motorsport is so very popular throughout the world.

That bag of chips mentioned in the first paragraph, however, is stale. It was established late last week that the Toyota Dealer Gauteng Rally, held on 10 – 11 June as round four of the season, was deemed null and void by Motorsport South Africa (MSA) and the National Court of Appeals. Reading and digesting all the legalese, it all boils down to this: all results and Championship points would thereby not be counted. It is important at this moment for me to point out that much wrist-slapping was meted out to and for poor event management, route directors, the MSA, competitors and just about anyone within a mud-slinging distance of rallying’s inner circle throughout this saga. Pointing fingers, making judgements or calling into question the decisions surrounding this finding by the National Court of Appeals is not the aim of this particular article, but rather my aim is to investigate the ramifications and permutations of this decision.

Conrad Rautenbach (GreenFuel Ford Fiesta S2000), according to this latest ruling, is now unofficial official 2011 South African Rally Champion. I use the phrase unofficial official as MSA and the Rally Commission have yet to announce this officially or to release a media statement regarding this unprecedented ruling. However, Handbrakes & Hairpins’ mathematics is not too poor and we have calculated that the Drivers’ Champion is Rautenbach. Congratulations to you and your hard-working team. It is the first title the Zimbabwean rally ace has won in South Africa. And, will it be his last rally championship?

The 2011 Co-Drivers’ Championship crown remains with Robin Houghton (Team Sasol Ford Fiesta S2000), as Rautenbach’s co-driver Nicolas Klinger competes in South Africa under his French competition license and therefore does not qualify for Championship points here.

Mark Cronje (Team Sasol Ford Fiesta S2000), who had provisionally won the title, is now placed second overall in the series. The second biggest change to the points standings: Charl Wilken (Basil Read/bizhub Ford Fiesta S2000) has been demoted from a sensational third place on the log to sixth overall.

As has been briefly mentioned, the ramifications of last week’s judgement are that many within the sport will now become disillusioned and that this season will be regarded with mockery. With the millions of Rands spent by the top competitors chasing after the now-somewhat-less-coveted South African Rally Championship titles, a stretch of the imagination is not required to understand that results are hugely important. It is why everyone dons their overalls, slip on their helmets and empty out their wallets to inch closer to the driver ahead. The rules and regulations currently in place have created a superb season of rallying, but the politicking behind-the-scenes taints this image of success to a certain extent.

Rautenbach and Cronje are both worthy winners of the South African Rally Championship. They upstaged the establishment to bring Volkswagen and Toyota to their knees in a Championship dominated by these two manufacturers for decades. Six of the eight events were won by Fords, something that is a testament to not only the impressive M-Sport-built machines but to their pilots too. This journalist has not seen so many tired, frustrated and speechless factory Volkswagen and Toyota drivers as this season, when Rautenbach and Cronje managed to magically pull that critical tenth of a second per kilometre out of the bag when it was most needed to win a crucial stage and a rally.

However, with Rautenbach now the season winner, knowing the Zimbabwean personally I can vouch that he is not enjoying this victory as much as he should. He too will be sharing in the sadness of Cronje, as Rautenbach too would have wanted to win the rally title not in courts of appeals and enquiries but on the stages. Will he compete in the series in 2012 after all the political wrangling of 2011? I doubt very much. In fact, I would not be surprised to see his rally car up for sale in the near future…

Will sponsors and potential entrants pull out of the series for 2012? Has the integrity of the MSA and the Rally Commission been tainted? The answers to these are not immediately known. As a rally supporter, I sincerely hope that sponsors and potential entrants for next season’s events will not back out; there is still much from which to smile about in South African rallying. And, this is where I feel that the MSA and the Rally Commission should not be forced to walk the proverbial gangplank. With their hands tied, limited finances and resources available to them for this season of competition, the Rally Commission and the MSA put on a great production for Joe Soap in the street.

South African rallying knew this judgement hung over the sport going into the final event in Polokwane, Limpopo. The decision of the National Court of Appeals was distributed and released to the media on Friday, but a media statement from the MSA and the Rally Commission was not.

Sponsors, competitors and media invest not only money but also their time and energies into producing the best products to showcase their input into the sport. With a title series sponsor lacking in 2011, with two events running without the financial support from sponsors, it is unlikely that this picture of the 2011 rally season can be vastly improved for 2012 without the support of all in South African rallying. Now is the time to band together to lift this motorsport back onto the pedestal it belongs in South Africa.

Hergen Fekken/Pierre Arries - Picture by Evan Rothman.