Brian Joss –
The Ford Performance rally team of Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton maintained their perfect winning record on the 2015 South African Rally Championship, picking up their third consecutive victory today on the Secunda Motor Rally in Mpumalanga.
The Ford pair showed the opposition a clean pair of heels once again in their Class S2000 Ford Performance Fiesta on the opening day yesterday, claiming five stage wins on the trot.
Second-placed Henk Lategan and Barry White (VW Polo) took the day’s final stage, but the Ford crew had already built up a lead of 26.9 sec going into the overnight stop, with Giniel de Villiers and Carolyn Swan (Toyota Yaris) in third.
Championship rivals Leeroy Poulter and Elvéne Coetzee (Toyota Yaris) lost time when their bonnet flew open on SS3, followed by a puncture on stage four.
“Day one was seamless, and everything ran perfectly,” Cronje said. “Going into this new event, we weren’t quite sure what to expect, but the racing conditions have been great for the car, and the route turned out far better than expected after the recce.”
Cronje and Houghton went into day two with a strategy to consolidate their lead by keeping it clean and bringing the car home, but the day’s opening stage seven was already a challenge for all the teams.
The local farmer had refused to grade the road and instead just cut the grass, resulting in the car’s radiator picking up a lot of seed and grass. Worried about potential overheating, the Ford crew took it easy, and finished the day’s first two stages without incident.
They had a bit of a scare on SS9 when the Fiesta picked up a puncture, resulting in their 1 min 24 sec lead falling to just 27 sec to De Villiers/Swan.
For the rest of the day, most of the action happened behind Cronje and Houghton, who romped home to score their hat-trick of wins and extend their championship lead even further.
Poulter/Coetzee came out guns blazing and won all of the day’s stages, but were more than three minutes behind the leaders. However, a series of incidents saw the Toyota crew eventually fight back to fourth place overall, with team-mates de Villiers and Swan finishing second overall, ahead of Gugu Zulu/Hilton Auffrey (VW Polo).
SS9 saw the demise of several cars, including the VW of Lategan/White who retired from second place after hitting a gate post, while former champions Hergen Fekken/Pierre Arries dropped out with rear suspension failure.
“The support for this rally was really nice, with hundreds of spectators everywhere,” a delighted Cronje said. “This did make it a bit of a challenge to get from one stage to the next, but it’s fantastic to see so many people coming out to watch the event.
“The rally itself was great. It was more challenging than initially expected, especially the tough 30 km stage which was more like a cross country route than a typical rally stage.
“Obviously we’re very happy to have won three in a row, which gives us a strong lead in the championship, but it doesn’t mean we’ll be putting any less effort into the next rally,” he commented.
John Nagel, Ford Motorsport Manager, was equally upbeat. “The support for this event, both from a spectator and community perspective, has been unbelievable. It was virtually a case of whatever the rally commission asked for it got, and the result was an amazing event.”
The organisers added a distinct element of fun out of the scrutineering exercise, created roads specifically for the rally, and put on a spectacular prize-giving ceremony.
“It was impressive to see that spectators came in their droves from all over, which is really what the sport needs. It was very encouraging, especially considering this is a new event on the calendar,” Nagel said.
“We’re really thrilled that the team managed to produce a hat-trick. It gives them a solid lead going into the next race and is great for confidence levels all-round, especially after the run of challenges they faced last year. It’s a great achievement for Mark and Robin, and for the amazing support team that keeps the car running perfectly.”