Brian Joss –
The Ford Performance rally team of Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton secured a solid second place on the Bela-Bela Motor Rally this weekend, consolidating their position at the top of the championship table.
Heading into the fourth round of the series with three wins on the trot and a comfortable 19-point margin over Toyota rivals Leeroy Poulter and Alvéne Coetzee, the Ford Performance pair was keen to continue the winning streak, but also ever-cognisant of the need to score vital points.
The conditions in Bela-Bela were very difficult though, as it was extremely dry and dusty. “These stages are not ideal for the Fiesta which is better suited to forest-type rallying,” co-driver Houghton explained. “And now that the same stages are used several times over the two days, the track becomes heavily churned up with very soft sand.”
Special stage rallying is intense and unpredictable though – especially at the flat-out pace that the top echelon of drivers. Cronje and Houghton had their sights set on snatching their fourth win in a row, but an unfortunate encounter with a fence 2km into the first stage saw their newly facelifted S2000 Ford Fiesta losing some of its bodywork, and a bit of time in the process.
“We hit a jump and flew further than expected,” Cronje said. “Although we landed well there wasn’t time to brake for the sharp right hander and we had the choice of hitting a tree or going through the fence. The car just picked up some cosmetic damage and we lost about 10 sec, so it wasn’t serious.”
Despite the minor off, they secured the second-fastest times on all four of the day’s stages and headed into the overnight stop 19 sec adrift of the leading Toyota – with the two front-running cars once again in a league of their own.
Heading into day two Cronje and Houghton pushed hard in the opening stages in an effort to claw back time on the Toyota crew. But with the tight stages being increasingly churned up and offering very little traction, they simply weren’t able to make up time – and after an off on stage seven they elected to back off slightly and settle for second place. They ultimately finished 28.8 sec behind winners Poulter and Coetzee.
“It’s not the result we were hoping for but we pushed really hard in the first few stages of the day and didn’t gain any ground so decided we’d be better off settling for second than pushing too hard and risking not earning points,” Cronje said.
To the delight of the Ford fans, Japie van Niekerk and Gerhard Snyman brought their S2000 Fiesta home in third place, giving Ford two spots on the podium – a sterling effort for the privateer team.
“It was great to have both Fiestas on the podium,” commented John Nagel, Ford Performance Motorsport Manager. “As much as we’d have loved another win, it’s good for the sport when our competitors also win. It definitely makes the series more interesting for everyone.”