Sasol's Cronjé wins Sasol Rally

Mark Cronjé and Robin Houghton (Sasol Ford Fiesta) continued their good form in the South African Rally Championship when they followed up their recent win in the opening round in KwaZulu-Natal with victory in the Sasol Rally, which ended in Nelspruit in the Mpumalanga Lowveld on Saturday afternoon.

It was a hard-fought win for the current championship leaders, who were involved in a titanic battle with Johnny Gemmell and Carolyn Swan (Castrol Toyota Auris) throughout the two-day, 600-kilometre event, just as they were in the KZN rally.

Gemmell led Cronjé by 14,3 seconds at the end of Friday's six special stages, with each winning two stages during the day. Cronjé chased down his arch rival until just 0,8 seconds separated the Toyota from the Ford at the end of stage 11. Gemmell responded on the 16-kilometre stage 12 by increasing his lead to 3,4 seconds.

Stage 13 was the last of the recognised gravel racing stages before the final ceremonial stage over just 500 metres in the Lowveld Showgrounds arena and it was clear that whoever won this stage would likely win the rally. Both crews, who were in a class of their own throughout the weekend, put in a supreme effort and it was Cronjé who took the honours, 5,2 seconds ahead of Gemmell to clinch his second successive rally victory by the slim margin of 3,1 seconds. Cronjé won four of Saturday's stages with Gemmell taking the honours in two.

Gemmell was to rue two slow punctures at the end of stages two and nine, while Cronjé did well to overcome a 20-second penalty at the end of day one, as a result of clocking in late at the final control after damaging his Ford's sub-frame. This cost him the lead at the end of the day.

A distant third overall were Dutch driver Hans Weijs and Belgian co-driver Bjorn Degandt (BP Volkswagen Polo), who had their best outing so far in their first year in the SA championship, finishing 1 min 37,4 sec behind the winners. Fourth was the Basil Read Ford Fiesta of multiple former champions Jan Habig and Robert Paisley, who were a further 29 seconds in arrears. They in turn were 1 min 11,4 sec ahead of fifth-placed Jon Williams and Cobus Vrey in a second Sasol Ford Fiesta.

Sixth overall and first in the S2000 Challenge category for older spec four-wheel-drive cars were Gugu Zulu and Carl Peskin (BP VW Polo), who delivered their best performance yet in their first year in the next-to-top class of rallying. Second in the challenge and ninth overall were 17-year-old Henk Lategan and Barry White (Q8 VW Polo), ahead of Werner Koekemoer and Etienne Lourens (Toyota RunX), who finished 12th overall.

Making up the top 10 overall were Jean-Pierre Damseaux and Grant Martin (Total Toyota Auris) in eighth place and Japie van Niekerk and Gerhard Snyman (NAD VW Polo) in 10th place.

Punctures on the rocky roads in the York Timbers forests in the Sabie, Graskop, and Hendriksdal areas took their toll of the 40-strong field, with several top crews among those who lost time completing stages on flat tyres or forced to stop in a stage to change a wheel. Among these were last year's winners Leeroy Poulter and Elvéne Coetzee (Castrol Toyota), who lost nearly four minutes on stage three on Friday and lost more time in stage 11 on Saturday. They eventually finished 11th, 8 min 37 sec behind the winners.

Former champions Hergen Fekken and Pierre Arries (BP VW Polo) recovered well from a puncture delay in stage one on Friday to climb steadily through the field to finish seventh overall, 4 min 34 sec in arrears.

Among notable retirements in the premier S2000 class were former champions Enzo Kuun and Guy Hodgson, who had the misfortune to suffer a flat battery within kilometres of the final stage in Nelspruit. They, too, had been delayed by a puncture on stage 3 on Friday and had started Saturday's stages in 15th place overall.

The S1600 class and the Two-Wheel-Drive Championship category was won by Morné van Rensburg and Rikus Fourie (VW Polo), who were somewhat surprised to find themselves in the class lead after starting the final day in fifth place. Overnight leaders Ashley Haigh-Smith and Craig Parry (Castrol Ford Fiesta) dominated the class until losing six minutes with a flat tyre on stage 9. This dropped them to second behind Guy Botterill and Simon Vacy-Lyle (Yato Toyota RunX). They regained the lead when Botterill retired with a dropped valve in the Toyota's engine only to retire themselves with a broken drive shaft.

Also casualties in the two-wheel-drive class were former champion Craig Trott and Robbie Coetzee (Total Toyota RunX), who dropped out of third place on Saturday with a broken drive shaft. Nic van der Westhuizen and Henry Dearlove (SA Earthworks Ford Fiesta) had been third at the end of the first day, only to retire with a broken oil cooler on Saturday's first stage.

The second round of the FIA African Rally Championship, which ran in conjunction with the second round of the SA championship and was won by Cronjé and Houghton from Habig and Paisley with Williams and Vrey third overall. The leading visiting crew of Mohammed Essa of Zambia and Greg Stead of Zimbabwe (Subaru Impreza WRX) finished fourth ahead of fellow visitors Giancarlo Davite and Sylvia Vindevogel, also in a Subaru Impreza. Essa was 13th overall in the SA championship event, one place ahead of Davite.