Sasol Rally promises high-speed excitement in the Mpumalanga forests

The normally peaceful Mpumalanga forests around Sabie, Graskop, Hendriksdal and White River are set to be shaken up on April 20 and 21 when the annual Sasol Rally returns to its traditional Lowveld home.

This year’s event, the second round of both the South African Rally Championship and the FIA African Rally Championship, is the 21st to be sponsored by Sasol and organised by the South African Motorsport (SAM) Club. There will be a total of 14 special stages covering around 200 kilometres of the 700-kilometre route, 10 of which will be on gravel roads, three on tarmac and one on grass.

There will be a shakedown stage in Sabie on Thursday afternoon and the event gets underway at 10:00 on Friday (April 20) from the market square in Sabie. Day one starts with four gravel stages in the York Timbers forests in the Sabie and Graskop areas and ends with the traditional and immensely popular tarmac night stages in Sabie and White River before the overnight stop in White River.

Saturday’s first stage, a super special, is also on tarmac and starts at 07:45 in Nelspruit before the first of the day’s six gravel stages and a new stage around the Mbombela Stadium. Competitors then return to the York Timbers forests for five gravel stages in the Hendriksdal and Sabie areas. The Lowveld Showgrounds are the traditional venue for the final, short stage on grass on Saturday afternoon.

The Sasol Rally is traditionally one of the most popular rounds of the championship with competitors and the thousands of spectators who congregate along the route at the many, well signposted spectator points. Clerk of the course Willie du Plessis promises a contest to match up to the 21st anniversary occasion. “Thanks to York Timbers, who have once again outdone themselves in making their excellent rally roads available to us and gone out of their way to accommodate us, all of the gravel special stages with the exception of the new Mbombela Stadium stage, are in York Timbers’ forests. They have been great supporters of the Sasol Rally for the past 21 years and we owe them a big thank you,” said Du Plessis.

Included in the strong entry are four drivers and three co-drivers in the premier S2000 class for four-wheel drive cars who have previously won this prestigious event. Jan Habig, the veteran among the top drivers and a former six-time national champion, has six wins to his credit and will be looking for a seventh in his second outing in the brand new Basil Read Ford Fiesta after switching from the factory Volkswagen team. His co-driver, Robert Paisley, is a former Sasol Rally winner with Serge Damseaux in 2005.

Two-time former national champions Enzo Kuun and Guy Hodgson have won the Sasol Rally five times between 1994 and 2010 and will be looking to add to their record tally by improving on their fifth place in this year’s Total Rally in a brand new BP Volkswagen Polo.

Castrol Team Toyota’s Johnny Gemmell, in search of an elusive first national championship after finishing runner-up three times (in 2001, 2009 and 2010), has won the Sasol Rally twice, with Peter Marsh in a Toyota in 2007 and 2009. He and new co-driver, the experienced Carolyn Swan, were second in the season opener in KwaZulu-Natal in a Toyota Auris behind the Sasol Ford Fiesta of Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton and will be strong contenders to score a first win of the year for Toyota. Gemmell would like nothing better than to turn the tables on team-mates Leeroy Poulter and Elvéne Coetzee, who beat him into second place in last year’s Sasol Rally to chalk up Toyota’s 100th national championship rally victory.

Poulter and Coetzee will be looking to put behind them the shocking experience of helplessly watching their Toyota Auris reduced to a smoldering shell after it caught alight on the first stage of the Total Rally. Poulter, winner of two rounds of last year’s championship in his first season in the premier S2000 class, slipped off the road and the Toyota’s hot exhaust set fire to the surrounding dry undergrowth. Toyota Motorsport has had to rebuild a privateer Toyota Auris to the factory spec in the past four weeks.

Still to record a Sasol Rally victory, but hot contenders after their convincing win in last month’s opening round are privateers Cronje and Houghton (Sasol Ford Fiesta), who showed that Ford’s dominance of the 2011 season (with five wins out of seven rounds) continues to be a threat to the factory Toyotas and Volkswagens.

Team-mates Jon Williams and Cobus Vrey showed good form in KwaZulu-Natal in finishing ninth and are showing increased confidence with each outing in the Sasol Ford since their debut in 2011. Also Ford equipped are Charl Wilken and Greg Godrich in a second Basil Read Fiesta, seeking their first win since the Toyota Gauteng Rally in 2010, and Sebastiaan Klaassen and Cindi Harding in the 2011 championship-winning Fiesta of Conrad Rautenbach, now sponsored by Monster energy drink. The Zimbabwean is not defending his title.

The factory BP Volkswagen team is represented by three brand new Volkswagen Polos built in the Uitenhage factory for Kuun/Hodgson, former champions Hergen Fekken and Pierre Arries and the Dutch/Belgian combination of Hans Weijs Jnr and Bjorn Degandt. Kuun and Hodgson fared best for the team in the round one of the championship with fifth place in an event that saw the new cars affected by development niggles.

Weijs and Degandt impressed in their South African debut with sixth place and will be a force to be reckoned with as they become more accustomed to South African conditions. Fekken and Arries will be keen to put behind them the disappointment of retiring with electrical problems on Saturday after leading the event up to the penultimate stage on Friday.

Volkswagen privateers Japie van Niekerk and Gerhard Snyman will be out to better their debut performance in their brand new New Africa Developments Volkswagen Polo, when they crashed out of the Total Rally on day two.

Team Total will be represented in the premier class by the Toyota Auris cars of Jean-Pierre Damseaux/Grant Martin and Mohammed Moosa/Andre Vermeulen, who finished seventh and eighth respectively in the Total Rally.

Contesting the new S2000 Challenge, for the earlier versions of the premier class cars, will be Wilro Dippenaar and Morne du Toit (PZN Panelbeaters Toyota RunX) and Gugu Zulu and Carl Peskin (BP Volkswagen Polo), who finished first and second in the Challenge on the Total Rally and were the only finishers out of four entries. Henk Lategan and Barry White rolled their Q8 Oils Volkswagen Polo out of contention and are uncertain starters in the Sasol Rally. 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 Poulter and will not contest this weekend’s event.

Leading the S1600 challenge for two wheel drive cars is former champion Craig Trott (Team Total Toyota RunX), who won the class with co-driver Robbie Coetzee in the opening round and also leads the Two Wheel Drive Championship. They can expect competition from Matthew Vacy-Lyle and Schalk van Heerden (Yato Tools Toyota RunX), who were runners-up in the Total Rally, Murray Lloyd and Ralph Lehmann (MLC Computer Solutions Volkswagen Polo) who were third, rookie Nic van der Westhuizen and the experienced Henry Dearlove Jnr (SA Earthworks Ford Fiesta R2) who were fourth, and Megan Verlaque and Hilton Auffray (BP Volkswagen Polo) who were fifth.

Not to be discounted for a podium finish are several crews who failed to finish the Total Rally, including Ashley Haigh-Smith (Castrol Ford Fiesta R2) and new co-driver Craig Parry, Clint Weston and Herman Groenewald (Reef Tankers Citroen C2), Tjaart Conradie and Kes Naidoo (Galvadip Toyota Auris), Guy Botterill and Simon Vacy-Lyle (Yato Tools Toyota RunX) and Stefanie Botha and Angela Shields (Team Total Toyota RunX).
– Credit: MSA South African Rally Commission.