Volkswagen Rally shaping up to be a thriller

The Volkswagen Rally, one of the most popular and demanding on the eight-event national championship calendar, promises yet another close contest when the cream of the country’s special stage racers line up for the start of the two-day event in Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape on Friday 13 July.

After three rounds the championship is delicately poised, with no less than five crews covered by just 10 points and the sixth crew only a further four points adrift. There have been only two winners thus far, but seven different stage winners, and most of the top contenders have performed consistently well so far with the notable exception of two former champions and a potential new champion.

Leading the official entry of 18 four-wheel drive S2000 cars, 14 two-wheel drive Super 1600s and nine S20 regional competitors, are championship leaders Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton in an S2000 Sasol Racing Rally Team Ford Fiesta. With wins in the first two rounds and 16 stage victories out of 38 to their credit to date, they have 60 points and lead Castrol Team Toyota’s Johnny Gemmell and Carolyn Swan (Toyota Auris) by just three points. They’re also looking for a second successive victory in the Eastern Cape event.

Gemmell, like Cronje, is looking for his first overall championship after being runner up on three occasions and finishing third last year. He is also seeking a rally victory that has eluded him since he won the VW Rally in a Toyota in 2010. He has finished second five times since then. Between them, Cronje and Gemmell have dominated the stages this season, taking 25 between them.

Only four points behind Gemmell and Swan are Jon Williams and Cobus Vrey, winners of the Toyota Gauteng Dealer Rally five weeks ago in the second Sasol Ford. Breathing down their necks are former champions Jan Habig and Robert Paisley in a Basil Read Ford Fiesta, who are just two points behind. Fifth with 50 points are the Dutch/Belgian combination of Hans Weijs Jnr and Bjorn Degandt, who are impressing in their first season in South Africa in a BP Volkswagen Polo. Just four points behind the VW pair are Jean-Pierre Damseaux and Grant Martin in a Team Total Toyota Auris.

Making up the top ten in the championship and all set to come under starter’s orders on Friday for the first of the rally’s 12 stages are Charl Wilken/Greg Godrich (Basil Read Ford Fiesta), Gugu Zulu/Carl Peskin (BP VW Polo), Hein Lategan/Johan van der Merwe (SAC Peugeot 207) and Mohammed Moosa/Andre Vermeulen (Team Total Toyota Auris).

Also serious contenders for an overall win in the Eastern Cape are the BP VW Polo team’s former champions Hergen Fekken/Pierre Arries, winners of the 2009 VW Rally, Enzo Kuun/Guy Hodgson and the Castrol Toyota team’s Leeroy Poulter and Elvéne Coetzee. Between them the VW crews have recorded an uncharacteristic three DNFs as their new-for-2012 Polos have experienced teething problems and find themselves in 12th and 15th places respectively in the championship.

Poulter and Coetzee won two events last year in their first season together in the top S2000 class, but have only managed to finish round two so far this year and are a lowly 20th in the championship.

Making their first appearance in this year’s championship after finishing 13th and 12th respectively in their debut together last year are Giniel de Villiers and Ralph Pitchford in a brand new Imperial Toyota Auris built and entered by Toyota Motorsport.

Zulu and Peskin have impressed in their first year in the premier class in an old-specification VW Polo in which they are leading the newly created S2000 Challenge. Their main competition in the Challenge will be second-placed Wilro Dippenaar/Morne du Toit (PZN Panelbeaters Toyota RunX), third-placed Henk Lategan and Barry White (Q8 Oils VW Polo) and Werner Koekemoer/Etienne Lourens (Glasurit Toyota RunX).

Characteristic consistency sees former champion Craig Trott and Robbie Coetzee (Team Total Toyota RunX) leading the Two Wheel Drive Championship for S1600 cars. Despite a non-finish in round two, a win in the opening round and second place in the recent Toyota Gauteng Dealer Rally has them on 46 points, four ahead of Nic van der Westhuizen and Henry Dearlove (SA Earthworks Ford Fiesta R2), class winners in round three. Matthew Vacy-Lyle and Schalk van Niekerk (Fragram Tools Toyota RunX) are third with 38 points.

Two DNFs in the first three rounds have hurt the championship chances of pre-season top contender 19-year-old Ashley Haigh-Smith and his non-scoring Welsh co-driver Chris Parry (Castrol Ford Fiesta R2). Haigh-Smith and co-driver on the VW Rally, Patrick Vermaak will be keen to redress this. Also potential class winners are Tjaart Conradie and Kes Naidoo (Galvadip Toyota Auris), who scored their first points of the season in the last round, and Guy Botterill/Simon Vacy-Lyle (Yato Tools Toyota RunX), who have yet to finish a round.

Competitors in the 30th Volkswagen Rally will contest 12 stages – five on Friday and seven on Saturday -over some 200 kilometres in the Gamtoos Valley, the Longmore Forest, Uitenhage and at Port Elizabeth’s oval track in Greenbushes. They will also contest the very popular Kings Beach spectator stage, the traditional grand finale on Saturday afternoon.