Gemmell leads on Day One

The 21st Sasol Rally got off to a great start for Castrol Toyota on Friday when Johnny Gemmell and Carolyn Swan led in their Toyota Auris at the end of the first day after 109 kilometres of timed rallying in the York Timbers forests around the Mpumalanga Lowveld towns of Graskop and Sabie.

They finished 14,3 seconds ahead of the Sasol Ford Fiesta pair of Mark Cronjé and Robin Houghton. Gemmell and Cronjé dominated proceedings all day, just as they did in the recent Total Rally, with Gemmell winning stages one and three (a fast and stony 29-kilometre tester that was repeated) and Cronjé winning stages two and four (a 24-kilometre stage repeated).

Cronjé actually completed the six stages 5,7 seconds ahead of Gemmell, but was penalised 20 seconds for clocking in two minutes late at the final control as a result of damage to the Ford sustained in the final stage.

Third overall was the BP Volkswagen Polo of Dutch driver Hans Weijs and Belgian co-driver Bjorn Degandt, who impressed by arriving at the final control in White River 42,9 seconds behind the leaders in only their second rally on South African soil.

Veteran Jan Habig, multiple former national champion, who this year switched from the factory VW team to the privateer Basil Read Ford Fiesta team with former co-driver champion Robert Paisley, was an impressive fourth, 42 seconds behind Weijs and 48 seconds ahead of the second Sasol Ford of Jon Williams and Cobus Vrey. Williams won the day's penultimate stage, a one-kilometre night-time dash in front of thousands of excited spectators in the streets of Sabie.

Sixth was the semi-works pair of Japie van Niekerk and Gerhard Snyman (NAD VW Polo) 2 min 16,3 seconds behind the leaders. They were the winners of the final, one-kilometre stage through the streets of White River, also packed with thousands of appreciative fans standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the dark around the one-kilometre route.

Gugu Zulu and Carl Peskin (BP VW Polo) finished seventh overall and first in the S2000 Challenge for older-spec cars (all the cars ahead of him were in the premier S2000 class for four-wheel-drive machines). Eighth was the Total Toyota Auris of Jean-Pierre Damseaux and Grant Martin, 15,3 seconds ahead of the second finisher in the S2000 Challenge, 17-year-old Henk Lategan and Barry White (Q8 VW Polo). Third were the Stassen brothers, Joos and Danie, in a Subaru Impreza WRX, who finished 17th overall.

Making up the top 10 was the BP VW Polo of former champions Hergen Fekken and Pierre Arries, who finished 3 min 25 sec behind the leaders and a minute ahead of Leeroy Poulter and Elvéne Coetzee in the second Castrol Toyota Auris. Poulter's deficit was 4 min 29 sec. Both were delayed by punctures, Fekken for two minutes on stage one and Poulter for three-and-a-half minutes on stage three.

The second round of the FIA African Rally Championship is running in conjunction with the second round of the SA championship and includes two visiting crews as well as six SA crews. Leading after day one were Cronjé and Houghton by 1 min 4,9 sec from Habig/Paisley and 1min 53,3 sec ahead of Williams/Vrey. Zambian Mohammed Essa and Zimbabwean Greg Stead (Subaru Impreza WRX) and Rwandans Giancarlo Davite and Sylvia Vindevogel (Subaru Impreza WRX) were fourth and sixth respectively, sandwiching the class S1600 Castrol Ford Fiesta of Ashley Haigh-Smith and Craig Parry, who led the Two-Wheel-Drive Championship category.

Second in S1600, 2 min 41 sec behind the leaders, were Guy Botterill and Simon Vacy-Lyle (Yato Toyota RunX). Third were Nic van der Westhuizen and Henry Dearlove (SA Earthworks Ford Fiesta).

Saturday's action starts in Nelspruit at 07.00 and ends at the Lowveld Showgrounds in Nelspruit after 16.00.