Total Rally opens 2012 National Rally Championship season

The opening round of the 2012 South African National Rally Championship, the Total Rally, sets the scene for what promises to be one of the most closely-contested competitions in many years. Formerly known as the Tour Natal, the event is the fourth version of the traditional season-opener to be sponsored by Total South Africa and will be contested by the country’s top rally crews as well as a new combination from Europe.

This year sees just two classes in the championship. The premier class remains Super 2000 (S2000) for modified, normally-aspirated, four-wheel drive cars with engines not exceeding two litres. The second class is Super 1600 (S1600) for modified, normally-aspirated, two-wheel drive cars with engine capacity not exceeding 1, 6 litres. Both will compete for the overall national championship, while S1600 will also compete in the Two Wheel Drive Championship introduced in 2011.

An innovation this season is a separate S2000 Challenge for the earlier generation S2000 cars, which will be scored separately from the overall championship.

With 14 drivers in four different brands of S2000 cars capable of competing for an overall win, together with 12 potential class winners in four different brands of S1600 cars, the fans are in for a bumper championship consisting of eight rounds in six provinces.

Organised by the Natal Motorcycle and Car Club, the Total Rally will consist of 16 special stages (14 gravel and two tar) covering 196 kilometres over the two days. The event will be centred on the Sun Coast Casino complex, which will host rally headquarters and the media centre with the Parc Ferme and service area alongside.

A feature of the Total Rally sure to attract large crowds of Durbanites will be a brand new and unique super special stage in the heart of the city. The stage, which will be 90% tar and 10% gravel, will see two cars at a time racing alongside each other under strictly controlled conditions over a distance of some three kilometres.

What makes it different is that it is, in fact, two super special stages in two separate car parks, connected by a 600 metre lane that will cross over the coastal highway close to Sun Coast Casino. The stage will finish a stone’s throw from the Moses Mabhida stadium.

It will be the final stage on both days and is scheduled to start at 19:15 on Friday, March 23 and at 16:15 on Saturday, March 24. The super special will again complete Saturday’s 10 stages, with the other nine covering a distance of some 122 kilometres of gravel roads in the south coast area.

All gravel stages will be run on the infamous and ultra slippery KZN south coast roads.

Heading the strong entry in S2000 are the all-new factory BP Volkswagen Polos of former champions Enzo Kuun/Guy Hodgson (winners in 2006 and 2010) and Hergen Fekken/Pierre Arries (2008 and 2009 champions) and new team members Hans Weijs jnr from Holland and Belgian co-driver Bjorn Degandt. Weijs and Degandt are no strangers to the rally scene. Weijs entered a motor sport talent search at 17 years of age back in 2004 and has since been named as one of Holland’s biggest names in rallying. In 2008 he became the first Dutch driver ever to claim a point in the World Rally Championship.

The strong VW line-up, with four championships in the last six years between them, can expect a serious challenge from the Castrol Toyota factory team, which will be looking to regain the championship they last won in 2004.

Carrying Toyota’s hopes are Johnny Gemmell and new co-driver Carolyn Swan (Toyota Auris) and Leeroy Poulter and Elvéne Coetzee (Toyota Auris). Gemmell, uncharacteristically winless in 2011, finished the season third while Poulter, competing in his first year in the premier S2000 class, was fifth and scored two wins. Also in Toyota Auris cars are Team Total privateers Jean-Pierre Damseaux and new co-driver Grant Martin and Mohammed Moosa and new co-driver Andre Vermeulen.

The formidable privateer Ford challenge that won four of last year’s seven rounds has been boosted to five privateer S2000 Fiestas. While 2011 champion Conrad Rautenbach of Zimbabwe, who won three rounds last year, will not be defending his title, his car has been acquired by Sebastiaan Klaassen, who will be backed by Monster energy drink and will again have the experienced Cindi Harding as his co-driver. The Sasol team of Mark Cronje, runner-up to Rautenbach in last year’s championship and winner of two rounds, and Robin Houghton, winner of the co-drivers’ title because Rautenbach’s French co-driver didn’t qualify, and Jon Williams/Cobus Vrey will be back.

The Basil Read Ford team has been increased to two cars with multiple former champions Jan Habig and Robert Paisley switching from the factory VW team to a brand new Fiesta to join the established Ford pairing of Charl Wilken/Greg Godrich.

Hein Lategan and Johan van der Merwe return in their Peugeot 207 with backing from SAC, and Japie van Niekerk and Gerhard Snyman will be in a brand new VW Polo with sponsorship from New Africa Developments.

Contesting the new S2000 Challenge will be three of last season’s earlier spec factory Volkswagen Polos in the hands of Nicolas Ryan/Geoff Tyrer (Grandmark International), Gugu Zulu/Carl Peskin (BP) and young Henk Lategan/Barry White (Q8 Oil), who make the big step up from last year’s S1400 class. They will have competition from the older Toyota RunX of Wilro Dippenaar/Morne du Toit (PZN Panelbeaters).

The S1600 class will be missing the reigning champion combination of brother and sister Christoff and Celeste Snyders (VW Polo) for the KZN round, although Celeste will partner Ashley Haigh Smith, third last year, in a Castrol Ford Fiesta. The Two Wheel Drive Championship promises to be a closely-fought battle ground with multiple former champion and last year’s runner-up Craig Trott back with co-driver Robbie Coetzee in a Team Total Toyota RunX. Other potential winners are Tjaart Conradie and Kes Naidoo (Galvadip Toyota Auris), Nic van der Westhuizen/Henry Dearlove (SA Earthworks Ford Fiesta), Morne Janse van Rensburg/Rikus Fourie (GC Diesel Volkswagen Polo), Guy Botterill/Simon Vacy-Lyle (Yato Tools/Liqui Moly Toyota RunX) and Clint Weston/Herman Groenewald in a brand new Citroen C2 R2 Max sponsored by Reef Tankers.

Megan Verlaque and Hilton Auffray step up from last year’s S1400 class, which Verlaque won, in a BP Volkswagen Polo and adding further feminine appeal will be Team Total’s all-woman combination of Stephanie Botha and Angela Shields, who return in their Toyota RunX.

The Total Rally will start from the Sun Coast Casino on both days, with the first car due off at 12:00 on Friday and at 06:00 on Saturday.