Mark Cronje dominates on Day One of TOTAL Rally

Reigning champions Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton (S2000 Ford Racing Fiesta) dominated the first day of the season-opening Total Rally in KwaZulu-Natal today, winning three of the day’s four gravel special stages on the South Coast and finishing 32 seconds ahead of the Basil Read Ford Fiesta of multiple former champions Jan Habig and Robert Paisley.

In a day of high drama that saw the elimination of three of the top crews and the cancellation of two of the scheduled six gravel special stages, 18-year-old Henk Lategan and Barry White made an impressive debut in the factory Volkswagen Sasolracing team when they brought their S2000 Polo home in third place, 41 seconds behind the winners.

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Leeroy Poulter and Elvéne Coetzee gave the brand new S2000 Castrol Toyota Yaris an impressive shakedown by finishing fourth, 17 seconds behind the VW and 59 seconds adrift of the winning Ford. Jean-Pierre Damseaux and new co-driver Hilton Auffray (Team Total Toyota Auris) were fifth and first in the S2000 Challenge class, finishing just three seconds ahead of defending S2000 Challenge champions Gugu Zulu and Carl Peskin (VW Sasolracing Polo).

Cronje and Houghton were fresh from an impressive fifth place in the Malcolm Wilson Rally in the Lake District of Wales in the United Kingdom in a World Rally Championship spec M-Sport Ford Fiesta sponsored by M-Sport’s Malcolm Wilson as a thank-you for winning the SA championship in a car built by M-Sport.

They streaked into an early lead with comfortable wins in the first two stages in the Scottburgh and Drumdurroch areas, were second in stage three after Habig and took the honours in the final gravel stage of the day ahead of Lategan and Poulter.

There was an early upset when multiple former champions Hergen Fekken and Pierre Arries (VW Sasolracing Polo) went off the road in the opening stage and were unable to continue. Then team-mates and multiple former champions Enzo Kuun and Guy Hodgson, fighting with Habig and Paisley for second spot, crashed spectacularly within sight of the end of stage three after hitting a yump at high speed. The Polo was severely damaged after rolling end over end several times and the crew was taken to hospital for observation.

On the same stage, 2012 championship runners-up Johnny Gemmell and Carolyn Swan in the second new Castrol Yaris lost three minutes when the car wouldn’t start at the beginning of the stage. They dropped from fifth at the end of stage two to outside the top 10. Their problems continued on the following stage when they were forced to stop in the middle of the road with a fire under the engine.

A heavy landing after the same yump that caught out Kuun and Hodgson broke the Toyota’s exhaust and it is suspected this resulted in the hot gases igniting the power steering fluid in the pipes. The car was not badly damaged, but was unable to continue. The stage was stopped and subsequently cancelled as only two cars managed to complete it before the incident.

The last gravel stage of the day was cancelled as the event was running more than 90 minutes late after the incidents – both stages one and three were stopped and restarted – and darkness was fast approaching.

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The S2000 Challenge attracted a healthy entry of six of the later model four-wheel drive cars and is turning out to be a close-fought contest. Third and seventh overall, seven seconds behind Zulu and Peskin, were Namibian Wilro Dippenaar and Kes Naidoo in the McCarthy Toyota/PZN Toyota Auris. Close behind in fourth and eighth overall were Mohammed Moosa and Andre Vermeulen (Team Total Toyota Auris), just five seconds adrift of the Namibian.

Making up the top 10 overall were Dakar Rally hero Giniel de Villiers and new co-driver Greg Godrich (S2000 Imperial Toyota Auris) in ninth and Nic van der Westhuizen and Stefan Cilliers (S2000 Challenge SA Earthworks Toyota Auris).

First in the Two Wheel Drive category contested by a healthy entry of S1600 machinery were Guy Botterill and Simon Vacy-Lyle (Yato Tools Toyota RunX) who led throughout, but were subsequently penalised two minutes for clocking in early at a control. This dropped them to fifth place in their class and left Namibian Thilo Himmel and Armand du Toit the S1600 winners in the first appearance of a Toyota Etios R2. They finished 11th overall and 10 seconds ahead of 2012 S1600 class champion Ashley Haigh-Smith and Craig Parry (Castrol Ford Fiesta R2). Reigning Two Wheel Drive champion Craig Trott and new co-driver Janine Lourens were third in class and 13th overall in a Team Total RunX.

The youngest driver in the field, 16-year-old Richard Leeke Jnr, made an impressive debut in a brand new Ford Fiesta R2 backed by ATS, finishing sixth in class and 18th overall with Pierre Jordaan in only their second national championship rally together.

Saturday’s action starts from the old Durban drive-in site at 06h30, with the first of seven gravel stages on the South Coast starting near Scottburgh at 07h50. The rally will end with a tarmac super special stage at the old Durban drive-in site at 15h29.

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Mohammed Moosa