South Africa’s first rally of 2014 is GO!

The 2014 South African National Rally Championship will be all about who can prevent reigning champions Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton (Ford Dealer Team Fiesta S2000) from winning their third successive title.

After taking seven victories in last year’s eight-round Championship and winning more than half of the stages, the Ford pair starts the new season as hot favourites. But they will have to contend with a strong challenge from the S2000 factory teams of Toyota and Volkswagen.

Toyota will be represented by Leeroy Poulter/Elvéne Coetzee and Hergen Fekken/Carolyn Swan, both in Castrol Team Toyota Yaris S2000s, and Giniel de Villiers/Greg Godrich (Imperial Toyota Yaris S2000). Fekken makes his debut for the Toyota team after winning two championships with Volkswagen.

Volkswagen is fielding a four-car team of Sasolracing Polo S2000s. Henk Lategan/Pierre Arries and Gugu Zulu/Carl Peskin, graduating from the S2000 Challenge, which they won in 2012 and were runners-up last year, will represent South Africa while visiting crews Raimund Baumschlager/Walter Illmer of Austria and the Dutch/Belgian combination of Hans Weijs Jnr/Bjorn Degandt will add a European flavour to the Championship.

Baumschlager, who won the Austrian Rally Championship for the 11th time last year, is partnered with his regular engineer for his South African safari after finishing third in the opening round of the European Rally Championship, the Jännerrallye in Austria in January. The Austrians are making a guest appearance in KwaZulu-Natal while Weijs/Degandt will contest the full season after their impressive debut South African season in 2010.

Privateers Japie van Niekerk/Gerhard Snyman will team up again in the New Africa Developments Ford Fiesta S2000 in which they won the 2013 Tara Rally in Namibia. The car has been upgraded by M-Sport since its debut last year and will compete in the S2000 Class instead of the S2000 Challenge category.

Four crews will contest the S2000 Challenge category for older specification four-wheel drive cars. With the top four finishers in the 2013 Challenge no longer a factor – winners Jean-Pierre Damseaux/Hilton Auffray and third-placed Mohammed Moosa/Andre Vermeulen not entered, and runners-up Zulu/Peskin and Van Niekerk/Snyman contesting S2000, the field is wide open.

Nic van der Westhuizen/Stefan Cilliers (SA Earthworks Toyota Auris S2000) face Namibia’s Wilro Dippenaar and South African co-driver Kes Naidoo in their PZN Panelbeaters Toyota Auris S2000, with Piet Bakkes/Johan Aucamp in the Accident Guru Toyota RunX S2000, and Namibian Thilo Himmel steps up from S1600 to contest the Challenge Class with Armand du Toit in a Volkswagen Polo S2000.

Himmel, who was 2013 S1600 Champion, Clint Weston’s closest challenger, winning three rounds and regularly recording fastest stage times, will be one to watch.

A strong field of 16 entries will contest the S1600 two-wheel drive Class. Defending champions Clint Weston/Christoff Snyders in the R2-spec Reef Tankers Citroen C2 R2 will be the team to beat. They won three rounds last season and were runners-up in two others, finishing five points clear of former champion Craig Trott and rookie national championship co-driver Janine Lourens.

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Trott has retired after a distinguished career during which he won eight class titles and Weston/Snyders can expect stiff competition from a host of younger crews. Prominent among these are Matthew Vacy-Lyle/Schalk van Heerden (Fragram Tools Toyota Etios R2), who finished third in last year’s Championship, Ashley Haigh-Smith/Damian van Ass (Castrol Ford Fiesta R2), Chad van Beurden/Nico Swartz (Beurden Construction Volkswagen Polo R2) and Guy Botterill/Simon Vacy-Lyle (Yato Tools Toyota Etios R2).

Botterill, who finished a disappointing tenth in last year’s Championship after an impressive second place in the season-opening Tour Natal Rally, will be hoping his move from an elderly Toyota RunX S1600 to the new Etios R2 will bring a change of fortune. Chris Coertse will be back in the Electrothread Etios R2 in which he finished seventh last year, behind Haigh-Smith and Van Beurden, and will have 16-year-old Mari van der Walt as his co-driver. Andrew Heine (Toyota Auris S1600) will have former co-driver champion Robbie Coetzee in the passenger seat this season, Lourens van Rensburg/Pierre Jordaan will crew the 7 Films Ford Fiesta R2, and Paulus Franken will again be teamed up with Henry Kohne (Manitou Group Volkswagen Polo R2).

Talented youngsters who will be contesting the full season after only occasional appearances in 2013 include Richard Leeke Jnr (ATS Ford Fiesta R2), AC Potgieter (Volkswagen Polo R2), Ernie van der Walt (Ferodo Ford Fiesta R2) and Namibia’s Marko Himmel (Volkswagen Polo R2), who won the final round last year with Francois Schoonbee.

Leeke will have experienced British co-driver Michael Gilbey alongside him, Potgieter will have Tommy du Toit reading the route notes, Van der Walt will be accompanied by James Aldridge and Himmel will be partnered by Schoonbee.

The Tour Natal Rally starts at noon from the Scottburgh Country Club. The rally is split over two days of action, with a total of 194.72km. Today, crews face 6 stages for 71km – a loop of 3 stages (Esperanza 13.74km, Invernettie 13.43km and Drumdurroch 8.63km) followed by a 30 minute Service, then repeated. 33 cars are entered this opening round.

To recap, here’s the 2014 calendar:
1) NOW: Tour Natal Rally, Durban (KwaZulu-Natal)
2) 11 – 12 April: Sasol Rally, Sabie (Mpumulanga)
3) 23 – 24 May: PMC Rally, Rallystar (Gauteng)
4) 11 – 12 July: Volkswagen Rally, Port Elizabeth (Eastern Cape)
5) 15 – 16 August: Ford Dealer Rally, Cullinan (Gauteng)
6) 19 – 20 September: Toyota Cape Dealer Rally, Cape Town (Western Cape)
7) 17 – 18 October: Polokwane Rally, Polokwane (Limpopo Province)
8) 21 – 22 November: Toyota Gauteng Dealer Rally (Northwest)

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