Hanging his gloves up – for now

The Toyota Dealer Gauteng Rally, round four of the South African Rally Championship, proved to be the most critical rally of the 2011 season. This despite the fact that this event’s results were scrapped after being declared null and void.

After a season of posting strong results, recording victories and podium finishes, two drivers entered the final round of the season with the possibility of winning the Championship. Mark Cronje, in the new Sasol Ford Fiesta S2000 rally team, claimed the final victory of the season to top the Championship standings. However, after a months-long legal battle, Conrad Rautenbach, of the Green Fuel Ford Fiesta S2000 rally team, was declared the South African Drivers’ Rally Champion once the Toyota Dealer Gauteng Rally’s results were nullified.

Rautenbach, hailing from Zimbabwe, is one of the world’s talented rally drivers. After two seasons in what is arguably of the world’s ten most competitive Championships, the 27-year-old was crowned Champion.

It was also a season in which Rautenbach and French co-driver Nicolas Klinger were rewarded with the FIA African Rally Championship title too, this Rautenbach’s second.

The entire debacle left South African rallying clamouring for solid ground, after a series of incidents saw the Championship knocked off its proud perch in South African motorsport…

The cost of all this? Disgruntled fans and organisers, and disillusioned sponsors, the competitors were left largely demotivated. This is no fault of any one competitor, or one incident for that matter. As the months roll by, the cost of this will become apparent, but Handbrakes & Hairpins is saddened to report that Rautenbach will be hanging up his rally gloves – for now.

“I’ve won two FIA African Championships and the SA series as well as competed in the World Rally Championship,” said Rautenbach. “The South African Championship is one of the most competitive there is, but it is fundamentally flawed in that it doesn’t follow the FIA rules regarding pre-event recces which is dangerous considering the pace the leaders run at.”

“The route note system used in South Africa requires a week of watching a DVD over and over on a TV set so that by the time the rally starts, I’ve lost a lot of my motivation for the event. With growing work commitments, I simply cannot afford to take a week off for every rally. The other issue is the inconsistency over the application of the rules, which changes by the event,” Rautenbach added. “I would like to thank everyone involved in rallying at every level, as well as our loyal supporters and of course our sponsors”.

Let’s not forget that this Zimbabwean was team-mate to Sebastien Loeb in 2008 in a Citroën C4 WRC, and finished eighth overall in the World Rally Championship standings that season.

Havng been surrounded by rallying from a young age, and eventually taking dad Billy’s place behind the steering wheel in club, regional and then national rally events, Rautenbach cut his teeth in various events in Africa before launching a campaign on the World Rally Championship in a Ford Puma first in the Junior World Rally Championship (J-WRC) and then in a Citroën C2 S1600. He was then selected by Citroën Racing to pilot a C4 WRC, and he did so with confidence.

The rally ace, who was only awarded his South African Rally Championship title in November 2011, is the cost of indecision and poor decision-making choices. With the next season 60 days and counting from starting, all in South African rallying hope this will be the only evident cost to the series.

What will Rautenbach be doing in 2012 and beyond? “Competing in the Dakar Rally has been a life-long dream and we will use the year to build towards an entry in the 2013 Dakar, which may include participating in some the SA Off Road series,” said Rautenbach. “If things change in the SA Rally Championship we could return,” he concluded.

Conrad Rautenbach/Nicolas Klinger - Picture by Evan Rothman.