Brian Joss –
Japie van Niekerk has been given a green light to compete in this weekend’s Secunda Rally and is raring to get back behind the wheel of his New Africa Developments Ford Fiesta. The all-clear from his doctors is the perfect birthday present: Van Niekerk celebrates his 50th on May 14 – the day before the event starts.
But less than a month ago South Africa’s top rally privateer narrowly avoided what could’ve been the country’s biggest rally disaster, crashing into the wayward VW Polo of fellow competitor Henk Lategan – rather than avoiding him and going off and into spectators lining a Nelspruit street.
Van Niekerk, who initially seemed to suffer little more than a soft tissue neck injury, was subsequently hospitalised with internal bleeding and spent three nights in intensive care.
The Fiesta was seriously damaged in the accident and while some repairs are being undertaken locally to reduce costs, it will have to go back to M-Sport in the United Kingdom for the bodyshell to be straightened on a chassis jig specific to the S2000 Fiesta rally car. Van Niekerk will, therefore, use the similar practice, car, which last saw action in Enzo Kuun’s hands at the end of last year.
Says Van Niekerk: “Missing a rally is something to be avoided at all costs and I’m happiest when I’m behind the wheel! I went for a long bicycle ride on Sunday and felt pretty good apart from some neck pain afterwards. As a further precaution, I went for a scan on Tuesday and the doctors gave me a thumbs-up, so it is all systems go!”
Van Niekerk is confident that the second NAD Fiesta will be as competitive as the one he usually favours, and another change comes in the shape of reverting to his ‘old’ navigator, Gerhard Snyman for the event. Due to the lateness of the decision to enter the Secunda Rally, Ulsterman Gordon Noble, who has called the notes for Van Niekerk in the opening two rounds of the South African Rally Championship, is not available.
“The crash on the second day of the Sasol Rally was a major setback, but it could’ve been a lot worse and I’m just glad that I managed to keep it on the road,” said Van Niekerk philosophically. “But we’re not going to let it derail our 2015 campaign, and we’re going to be going all out this weekend, and as before we’re aiming for a podium finish.”