Mark Cronje and Ford take first win of the season!

The Total Rally, opening round of the 2012 South African Rally Championship, developed into a thrilling two-horse race in KwaZulu-Natal on Saturday between the Sasol Ford Fiesta of Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton and the Castrol Team Toyota Auris of Johnny Gemmell and Carolyn Swan, with the privateer Ford crew finally taking the overall honours from the factory pairing by 39,3 seconds after two days and nearly 200 kilometres of special stage racing.

Gemmell pushed Cronje all the way after losing the lead to the Ford driver after Saturday’s opening 25 kilometre Ellingham stage near Scottburgh, the longest stage in the rally and the one that had the biggest influence on the final outcome. At the finish, in the shadow of the Moses Madhiba Stadium near Suncoast Casino, the pair had left the rest of the field in their wake, with Cronje winning six of the 10 stages and Gemmell two.

Third and winner of the final three kilometre tarmac spectator stage in front of a large and appreciative Durban crowd was the Basil Read Ford Fiesta of Charl Wilken and Greg Godrich, who finished 1 min 37,2 sec behind the winners.

Former champions Enzo Kuun and Guy Hodgson were the first of the all-new factory BP Volkswagen Polos in fifth place, 2 min in arrears and 1 min 5 sec ahead of team-mates Hans Weijs Jnr of the Netherlands and Belgian co-driver Bjorn Degandt, who impressed in their first appearance on a South African rally.

Jean-Pierre Damseaux and Grant Martin finished seventh in a Team Total Toyota Auris ahead of team-mates Mohammed Moosa and Andre Vermeulen. Making up the top 10, all of whom competed in the top S2000 class for four-wheel drive cars, were Jon Williams and Cobus Vrey in a Sasol Ford Fiesta and Wilro Dippenaar and Morne du Toit in a PZN Panelbeaters Toyota RunX.

Prominent non-finishers in the premier class included Castrol Team Toyota’s Leeroy Poulter and Elvene Coetzee who went off the road on the long Ellingham stage on Friday after just four kilometres and were helpless to prevent their car from being burnt to a shell after the hot exhaust caused the dry undergrowth to catch on fire.

Former champions Hergen Fekken and Pierre Arries were forced to retire their BP VW Polo on Saturday with a recurrence of the electrical problems that robbed them of finishing first on Friday.

The new S2000 Challenge, for the earlier versions of the premier class cars, was won by Dippenaar and Du Toit, who finished 6 min 50 sec ahead of the BP Volkswagen Polo of Gugu Zulu and Carl Peskin. The only other competitors in the class failed to finish. Henk Lategan and Barry White in a Q8 Oils VW Polo rolled out of contention on Friday, while Nicolas Ryan and Geoff Tyrer in a Grandmark International VW Polo also had the misfortune of watching their car burn out in a similar incident to that of the Poulter Toyota. No-one was injured in either mishap.

Former champion Craig Trott and co-driver Robbie Coetzee won the S1600 class for two-wheel drive cars and were 13th overall, beating closest rivals Matthew Vacy-Lyle and Schalk van Heerden in a Yato Tools Toyota RunX by 3 min 53 sec. Third were Murray Lloyd and Ralph Lehman in a VW Polo, 6 min 33 sec behind the class winners.

Notable non-finishers included Ashley Haigh-Smith and Celeste Snyders in a Castrol Ford Fiesta (persistent loss of engine power), Clint Weston and Herman Groenewald in a Reef Tankers Citroen C2 (rolled), Tjaart Conradie and Kes Naidoo in a Galvadip Toyota Auris (engine) and Stefanie Botha and Angela Shields in a Team Total Toyota RunX (rolled).