Brian Joss –
Defending South African National Rally Champions, Leeroy Poulter and navigator Elvéne Coetzee drove a near-perfect race in Bela-Bela, winning Round 4 of the South African National Rally Championship in fine style. The Castrol Team Toyota pairing won every stage on day one of the rally, and continued to put the competition under pressure throughout day two. They eventually completed the 10-stage event 28.8 seconds ahead of former champions Mark Cronje and navigator Robin Houghton, in their Ford Fiesta.
“Our Castrol Team Toyota Yaris S2000 ran absolutely faultlessly, and we were very happy with our pace throughout the event,” said a smiling Poulter after the rally ended in Bela-Bela, formerly known as Warmbaths. “This is exactly what we needed in order to keep our championship alive.”
The town and surrounding area first hosted a round of the National Rally Championship in 2014, but that was in early summer. This year’s mid-winter running of the event saw extremely dusty and sandy conditions that offered a stern test to the competing crews.
“Despite the conditions we set the pace right from the start,” explained Team Principal Glyn Hall. “We made some changes to the car after the previous event, and those changes clearly paid dividends today. Especially bearing in mind that Giniel and Carolyn were also right on the pace on day one.”
Giniel de Villiers and Carolyn Swan, in the second Castrol Team Toyota Yaris, traded blows with Volkswagen’s Hergen Fekken and navigator Pierre Arries over the first three stages of the event, fighting for third place behind Poulter and Cronje. But a puncture on Stage Four, the final stage of day one, cost De Villiers/Swan the best part of 50 seconds, sending them tumbling down the order.
“It was a crushing blow to our event,” said former Dakar winner, De Villiers, of the incident. “On an event as tight and short as this one, you simply can’t afford to lose nearly a minute. It just takes you right out of the running.”
With that said, the pair continued to push for good stage times on Day Two, while ahead of them a number of key players faltered. Fekken/Arries seemed on track for a podium finish, but they hit an embankment, destroying one of the wheels on their car in the process. This not only promoted privateer Japie van Niekerk, with navigator Gerhard Snyman beside him, to third place – but it also allowed De Villiers/Swan to climb back up the leaderboard.
“In the end we were lucky to be able to fight for third place again,” said De Villiers, “but Japie managed to hold both us and Gugu Zulu in the Volkswagen off. He got the last podium spot, with Zulu in fourth and us taking fifth place.”
In Class S1600, for front-wheel-drive cars with engines of 1.6 liters, it was again defending champions Guy Botterill and Simon Vacy-Lyle who took the honours. The pair drove their Yato Toyota Etios to a second consecutive victory, putting the defense of their title back on track, after a rocky start to their season.
“We didn’t do too well on the opening rounds of the championship,” said Botterill after spraying sparkling wine from the top step of the podium. “But then we won in Secunda and again here in Bela-Bela. So we’re right back in the fight.”
Botterill/Vacy-Lyle beat Ford driver Chad van Beurden and his navigator Nico Swartz by more than a minute. Van Beurden/Swartz, however, were lucky to take second place by just 1.4 seconds over the third-placed crew of Matthew Vacy-Lyle and Schalk van Heerden (Fragram Toyota Etios).
Van Beurden/Swartz incurred a penalty of twenty seconds on day two, but managed to do just enough to pip Vacy-Lyle/Van Heerden for second place.
With Toyota taking first place overall, as well as first and third in Class S1600, the manufacturers award was also won by Toyota.
With the Bela-Bela Motor Rally done, the South African National Rally Championship has officially reached its mid point. Round five of the eight-round championship is the spectacular Volkswagen Rally, which again takes place in and around Port Elizabeth. This year the event will be held on July 17 and 18, and promises to be as wet and wild as ever, with some of the traditional stages in the fearsome Longmore forest on the menu again.