Battle for title of South African Rally Champion hots up

While the result of the recent Volkswagen Rally in the Eastern Cape saw a slight shuffle among the top four in the South African Rally Championship, the battle for the title remains one of the closest in years. Just 12 points separate the contenders as the second half of the season starts with Rally South Africa in KwaZulu-Natal on 17 and 18 August.

Their first win of the season after two second places and a sixth has given Johnny Gemmell and Carolyn Swan (Castrol Team Toyota Auris) a slim but significant three-point lead over Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton (Sasol Racing Rally Ford Fiesta). These two crews remain the ones to beat, with 82 and 79 points respectively. Between them they have won three of the four rounds to date and 27 of the 47 special stages, 16 going to Cronje and 11 to Gemmell. Both are looking for their first championship.

Just seven points adrift of Cronje and moving up to third place overall after their impressive second place behind Gemmell and Swan in the rain-drenched VW Rally are multiple former champions Jan Habig and Robert Paisley (Basil Read Ford Fiesta). In what was probably the toughest round so far, Habig won five of the nine stages on his way to a close second place and clearly signalled his intention to win a seventh championship.

Jon Williams and Cobus Vrey, the only other race winners this year in the second Sasol Ford Fiesta, are fourth in the point standings, two adrift of Habig/Paisley after their maiden success in the Toyota Gauteng Dealer Rally in June and a good fourth place behind Gemmell, Habig and Cronje in the VW Rally.

Fifth overall and also in the four-wheel drive S2000 class in their first season in the championship are the Dutch/Belgian combination of Hans Weijs Jnr and Bjorn Degandt (BP VW Polo). Weijs has shown great pace as he has got to grips with South African conditions and he and Degandt are 11 points behind Habig and Paisley.

Jean-Pierre Damseaux and Grant Martin (Team Total Toyota Auris) are sixth with 56 points after a steady if unspectacular run to date, six points ahead of Charl Wilken and Greg Godrich in the second Basil Read Ford Fiesta. Both crews are former race winners and are looking to reassert themselves in the second half of the season.

Gugu Zulu and Carl Peskin (BP VW Polo) continue to impress in their first season in the premier S2000 class. They are eighth overall and lead the S2000 Challenge for the older specification four-wheel drive cars after three successive top 10 finishes. They enjoy a 31-point advantage over S2000 Challenge rivals Wilro Dippenaar and Morne du Toit (PZN Panelbeaters Toyota RunX). Third in the Challenge are promising youngster Henk Lategan and Barry White (Q8 Oils VW Polo), on the same points as Dippenaar/Du Toit, after a fine seventh place overall on the VW Rally.

Completing the top 10 overall are Hein Lategan/Johan van der Merwe (SAC Peugeot 207) ninth with 41 points and twice former champions Hergen Fekken and Pierre Arries (BP VW Polo) 10th with 35 points. Fekken and Arries were non-finishers in the opening round and are having a quiet season by their standards, something they are sure to rectify in the rounds ahead.

Outside the top 10 but not to be discounted are former champions Enzo Kuun and Guy Hodgson (BP VW Polo) in 11th and Mohammed Moosa/Andre Vermeulen (Team Total Toyota Auris) 12th. Kuun and Hodgson, who have suffered two non-finishes in the first four rounds, showed their class in the VW Rally when they recovered from 13th on day one to finish fifth on day two, and can be expected to mount a serious challenge in the remainder of the season.

Leeroy Poulter and Elvéne Coetzee (Castrol Toyota Auris), twice winners in their debut season in S2000 in 2011, have endured a frustrating season and are 17th in S2000 and 20th overall after three non-finishes, including losing their car in a fire in the opening round.

Leading the Two Wheel Drive Championship for S1600 cars are former champion Craig Trott and Robbie Coetzee (Total Toyota RunX) with 67 points. The wily and experienced Trott, driving his ageing Toyota in its sixth season, is holding off a crop of talented youngsters that includes Nic van der Westhuizen and Henry Dearlove (SA Earthworks Ford Fiesta R2), second with 57 points, and Matthew Vacy-Lyle and Schalk van Niekerk (Fragram Tools Toyota RunX), third with 52 points.

It’s been a tight contest in this championship, with four different winners in each of the first four rounds – Trott, Morne Janse van Rensburg (GC Diesel VW Polo), Van der Westhuizen and Ashleigh Haigh-Smith (Castrol Ford Fiesta R2) – and the destination of the title is still very open.

Ford continues to lead the manufacturers’ championship from Toyota, with the gap now down to 56 points (390-334). VW is third with 273 points.

The next round of the championship is Rally South Africa in KwaZulu-Natal on 17 and 18 August.