The eight-round SA Rally Championship reached the halfway mark with the Volkswagen Rally in the Eastern Cape on July 11 and 12 and, after 52 special stages and some 700 kilometres of high-speed action on mostly gravel and some tarmac surfaces in four provinces, there is a somewhat different look to the championship standings than has been the case in recent years.
Toyota Motorsport’s Leeroy Poulter, who has proved to be one of the fastest drivers in the premier S2000 class for four-wheel drive two-litre cars since moving up from winning the old A6 class for 1,6-litre two–wheel drive cars in 2010, and co-driver Elvéne Coetzee lead in a Castrol Team Toyota Yaris with 78 points after two wins, a seventh place and a runner-up spot.
The Dutch/Belgian duo of Hans Weijs Jnr and Bjorn Degandt are second in a VW Sasolracing Polo with 62.5 points and have three third place finishes and five special stage wins under their belts. Third with 57 points is twice former champion Hergen Fekken, who switched from VW to Toyota during the off season, and Carolyn Swan in the second Castrol Toyota Yaris. They have a second, a third and a fourth place finish to their credit so far as well as a special stage win, but were hurt by a non-finish in the VW Rally as a result of an engine misfire.
Defending champions Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton (Ford Dealer Team Fiesta), seeking a third successive title after dominating the past two seasons – they won seven of last year’s eight rounds and over 50 percent of the special stages – are fourth with 56.5 points.
Cronje and Houghton’s 2014 campaign got off to the worst possible start when they crashed out of the Tour Natal Rally in KwaZulu-Natal in March on the first stage. Then they were classified eighth under Super Rally rules after retiring with suspension problems on the second day of the Sasol Rally in Mpumalanga in April. The Ford pair finally got their challenge on track with a win in round three, the PMC Gauteng Rally in May and followed this up with another victory in the VW Rally
While Poulter has taken full advantage of Cronje’s misfortunes to date, the reigning champion has still managed to outscore his closest rival in stages won – 21 out of 52 to Poulter’s 14 – and remains on course to achieve the hat-trick he so keenly desires. With 100 points still on offer and each driver allowed to drop his worst score at the end of the season, the current gap of 15.5 points between the two top contenders is not insurmountable. The fans can look forward to a battle royal between the two best rally drivers in the country in the second half of the season, which starts with the Cullinan Rally on August 15 and 16.
Fifth in the drivers’ championship with 51.5 points is the promising teenager Henk Lategan (VW Sasolracing Polo), who was second on the PMC Rally with co-driver Barry White and has won seven special stages to date.
Just 11 points separate second from fifth in the point standings and all five teams are capable of winning a round and finishing the season in the top three.
Former S2000 Challenge winners Gugu Zulu and Carl Peskin (VW Sasolracing Polo), who are contesting their first season in the S2000 class, have two excellent fourth place finishes to their credit, but a DNF and a low-scoring finish under Super Rally rules in the PMC Rally place them sixth with 39,5 points, just half a point ahead of 2009 Dakar Rally winner Giniel de Villiers and co-driver Greg Godrich (Imperial Toyota Yaris).
Namibian Wilro Dippenaar and Kes Naidoo (PZN Panelbeaters Toyota Auris) are eighth with 29,5 points, followed by Namibia’s Thilo Himmel and Armand du Toit (Investec VW Polo) with 28 points and Japie van Niekerk and Gerhard Snyman (New Africa Developments Ford Fiesta), who complete the top 10 with 27 points. Van Niekerk has shown good pace in his up-rated Ford – he has four stage wins to his credit – and if he can keep it on the road he and Snyman are also candidates for a podium finish. Like all the crews in the top 10, they have not managed to complete any of the four rounds held so far without taking advantage of the Super Rally rules.
These allow competitors who fail to finish day one to restart on day two with a five-minute penalty and score half points, or who fail to finish day two but are scored for the stages they didn’t complete according to a formula that includes a five-minute penalty and half points.
Toyota leads the manufacturers’ championship with 366 points, ahead of Volkswagen (297.5) and Ford (219.5).