The economic heart of South Africa has also become the focus of motoring and sport this weekend, as the best drivers and co-drivers tackle Round Three of the South African Rally Championship.
The Toyota Gauteng Dealer Rally started this morning from Centurion’s McCarthy Lynnwood Toyota dealership before heading out to the spectacularly fast gravel roads around Bapsfontein for four speed tests before an overnight halt at the RallyStar Motorsport Academy. Five stages were scheduled for action today, but the fourth stage was cancelled. This left the eager drivers with 79.6km to prove themselves over the four demanding stages.
The 37 registered teams took to the first test, a 28.24km stage, with aggression in order to position themselves for an attack from their rivals on the remaining stages. However, a rocky section saw the majority of the field sidelined with punctures. Championship leaders and winners of the previous two rounds on the calendar, Mark Cronje/Robin Houghton (Ford Fiesta S2000) retired from the event as result of hitting the loose rocks at speed. Twice second-place finisher in 2012, Johnny Gemmell/Carolyn Swan (Toyota Auris S2000) too suffered from punctures to drop a handful number of minutes in this stage and thus turned the expected leader board upside down.
The following two stages saw the leader board stabilise somewhat to allow fans, teams and crews alike to settle into a rhythm. The day’s final encounter was a Super Special Stage on RallyStar’s renowned purpose-built track with a massive jump wowing the hundreds of cheering spectators.
Team Total is South Africa’s largest privateer squad, boasting four Toyota rally cars in two categories. Jean-Pierre Damseaux/Grant Martin (car #10) and Mohammed Moosa/Andre Vermeulen (car #13) compete in the premier Class S2000 in Toyota’s Auris S2000 rally weapons and battle it out against their factory-backed rivals for the prestigious Drivers’ Championship title. Craig Trott/Robbie Coetzee (car #62) and the only all-female rally crew in South Africa of Stefanie Botha/Angela Shields (car #74) proudly fly the Team Total livery in Class S1600 with Toyota RunX machines.
Damseaux emerged unscathed from the torturous first stage in second place overall ahead of a charging field. The sweeping bends and narrow mielie field roads made for challenging rallying, but this talented Somerset West-based driver rose to the occasion. Fighting off his rivals in the dry and dusty tracks, Damseaux arrived at the overnight halt in third place overall (and the first Toyota entrant), with just 09 seconds separating him from the second position and 44.9 seconds from the leaders.
“The first stage was key: we didn’t hit it hard,” said Damseaux. “We kept it on the road, keeping our driving lines tight and we survived what was a tough stage. To be third overnight is a good position to attack from on tomorrow’s stages, and we will be aiming for second place.”
His Class S2000 team-mates Moosa/Vermeulen suffered two punctures in stage one. After completing the test, their car’s rear suspension unfortunately failed. The crew decided to retire from the event rather than further damage their rally weapon, and the failed suspension has been replaced and Moosa will re-start the rally on Day Two under SupeRally regulations and will be fighting for valuable Championship points.
Team Total’s Class S1600 entrants were embroiled in a fierce battle for the podium on the opening three stages of the event. Sadly, an electronic gremlin sidelined Stefanie Botha and co-driver Angela Shields in stage three.
“It was just one loose wire,” said Botha. “We had done so very well until that moment the engine just died. We felt so very good in the car, and we had a good feeling for the conditions. I was pushing for third place.”
The electronic problem has been rectified, and Botha will join Moosa by restarting the event on Day Two under SupeRally rules.
Mr Consistency was once again the picture of calm during the chaos that ensued around him. Craig Trott and co-driver Robbie Coetzee managed to pick their way through the rocky sections in the first stage without consequence and continued their job of reeling in their faster rivals. Trott finished Day One second in Class, with a healthy lead over third place chasers.
“We drove neat, and kept it clean all day,” said Trott. “The car is going very well and the last three stages of the day were great. The rocky first stage we had already decided beforehand to pick our way through it, and we did. We pushed faster and faster the rest of the day, and we are happy with our position for Day One. Tomorrow we start it all again and we will work hard to stay on the podium.”
The Next Day:
Five stages await crews on Sunday spread over 96.6km of competition. The rally concludes at Zwartkops Race Circuit near Pretoria at 12h50 with what promises to be an action-packed finale.
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