This weekend past the Mpumalanga countryside played host to the 21st annual Sasol Rally: an event that this year proved to be as colorful as BP Volkswagen navigator Pierre Arries’ trademark Oakley sunglasses.
Kicking off on a muggy Friday afternoon, the second round of the SA Rally Championship had spectators gaping and gasping from the moment the first cars left the service park. Conditions were tough and thanks to some unusually rocky roads Basil Read Ford Team hotshots, Charl Wilken and Greg Godrich, were afflicted by a puncture on the very First stage – a mishap that saw them and their Fiesta lose eight minutes.
Also falling prey to the stony terrorists were the BP Volkswagen Racing duo of Hergen Fekken and the aforementioned Arries. Fortunately their tyre changing skills were, excuse the pun, a little sharper so they didn’t fall that far behind stage winners Johnny Gemmell and Carolyn Swan driving the factory-backed Castrol Team Toyota Auris.
But the Stage One drama certainly didn’t end there. Proving that there are far worse things in life than a puncture, Mohammed Moosa and Andre Vermeulen gave their mechanics something to swear about when they rolled their Team Total Toyota Auris. Luckily the damage sustained to their car was negligible so they managed to soldier on for the rest of the event.
Clint Weston and Herman Groenewald, on the other hand, were not as fortunate. In what is becoming a rather expensive habit, the privateer duo once again turned tortoise early on in the rally; returning to the service park at the end of Stage Two with what can only be described as a Citroën C2 bakkie. However to the crew’s credit they both managed to rejoin the action early on Day Two. Yep, it is amazing what a little gaffer tape, ingenuity and some bushveld panel beating can do.
But as Twitter-worthy as these mishaps may have been, the meat of the Sasol Rally action was still focused around the ongoing battle between Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton in their Team Sasol Ford Fiesta and Gemmell and Swan piloting the Castrol Team Toyota Auris.
And after running pretty much neck and neck for most of Friday afternoon, it were the Toyota drivers who would finish at the top of the leader board on Day One after the Sasol boys got slapped with a 20-second penalty. Much to their annoyance, Cronje and Houghton went into Day Two with a 14.3-second deficit.
Failing to strike a steady rhythm in the first two Saturday stages (a race through the streets of Nelspruit followed by a crowd-pleasing blitz around the biggest white elephant the North has known, the Mbombela Stadium), the Sasol hopefuls began eating into Gemmell’s lead as the day wore on. In fact thanks to the Auris getting a puncture in Stage Nine and some utterly superb driving from a red-misted Cronje, the gap was back down to a miserly 0.8-seconds after the end of Stage 11.
And even though the Toyota duo did everything in their power to stay ahead, actually reinstating their lead in Stage 12, there was simply no stopping the champagne-thirsty juggernauts in their yellow-white-and-blue Ford Fiesta. Winning the penultimate stage, Cronje and Houghton then pulled out all the stops to finish the final 0.55km sprint through the Nelspruit Show Grounds some 3.1-seconds ahead of their rivals.
Victory now secured, Gemmell and Swan had to be content with second place while third would go to the imported talents of Hans Weijs Jnr and Bjorn Degandt – a result that gave the all-new 2012 BP Volkswagen Racing Polo its first ever podium finish.
But for me the real champions of the 2012 Sasol Rally was the pairing of Gugu Zulu and Carl Peskin in their little BP Volkswagen Racing Polo Vivo. For not only did they win the new S2000 Challenge class with a lead of over 20-seconds, they also finished a magnificent sixth overall ahead of some more powerful and more competitive S2000 machinery.
Nice going chaps – here’s hoping we see more of that dirt-slinging magic on the Toyota Dealer Gauteng Rally happening from 8 to 9 June.
[Pictures: David Ledbitter and Thomas Falkiner]
Thomas, your post made me think of Sarel van de Merwe in his glory days for some reason!