Brian Joss –
The Ford Performance rally team of Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton endured treacherous conditions on the Volkswagen Rally in Port Elizabeth this weekend, finishing second overall with the focus on retaining their championship lead.
Although the VW Rally is traditionally one of the Ford pair’s favourite events of the year, the new, more compact format comprised a series of repeat stages and only two held in the famed Longmore Forest where the Class S2000 Ford Fiesta really excels.
The rally started out in cold but dry conditions on Friday, tackling six of the planned 12 stages. They finished the first special stage second in their Ford Fiesta, just 5.5 sec behind Leeroy Poulter and Elvéne Coetzee (Toyota), then posted the fastest time on SS2, 2.7 sec quicker than their rivals.
On the following stage Cronje and Houghton were well placed to score their second stage win in a row, only to pick up a puncture 6 km from the end due to the extremely rocky terrain. They lost over 17 sec limping to the finish, but recovered on SS4 to end a mere 1.1 sec adrift of the lead Toyota.
“Conditions were already slippery and very dusty, and some parts of the route extremely rocky,” Cronje said. “We even picked up a puncture on my Ford Ranger during the recce due to the rough terrain, and the puncture on stage three of the rally cost us dearly.”
The Ford crew settled in for the night 35.8 sec behind the front-running Toyota with the aim of coming back with all guns blazing to try and claw back the advantage the next day.
However Mother Nature threw a spanner in the works on Saturday morning as heavy downpours turned the VW Rally into a pure drive for survival in extremely slippery and treacherous muddy conditions.
On the day’s first stage near Hankey, Cronje and Houghton ended a mere 2.5 sec behind the leaders, and went on to snatch their third win of the event on the famous Sinkdam stage in Longmore Forest.
With the roads drenched and ready to punish even the slightest mistake, the Fiesta crew halted their chase and set out to simply make it to the finish. They landed up second fastest on SS9 and SS10 which were won by Giniel de Villiers/Carolyn Swan and their Toyota team-mates Poulter/Coetzee respectively.
The organisers were eventually forced to cancel the two waterlogged final stages at the Port Elizabeth Oval Track Raceway as the route became impossible to navigate. Ultimately Cronje and Houghton finished second overall, just 27.2 sec behind winners Poulter and Coetzee – with both crews in a league of their own, having shared all but one of the stage victories.
De Villiers/Swan rounded off the podium, 1 min 46.7 sec behind the Ford Performance Fiesta, while Japie van Niekerk and Gerhard Snyman brought their NAD Fiesta home in fourth overall.
“We started out pushing quite hard today but realized quite quickly that we were better off bringing the Fiesta home in one piece and being satisfied with second,” Cronje said.
“This is obviously not the result we were hoping for but under the circumstances, we’re happy with the points we get for a second place,” co-driver Houghton added. “We’re still leading the championship and will regroup before the next event to make sure we try to wrap it up as quickly as possible since there are only three races left in the season.”
Motorsport manager, John Nagel commented: “It was a hard-fought rally in trying conditions. The new roads took their toll on the field and the attrition rate was extremely high, even on day one when the weather was far better.
“A puncture early in the rally put us on the back foot but we’re pleased with a second. As much as we’d like to see the championship wrapped up already, it’s good for the sport to keep the excitement alive until the end of the season.”