Brian Joss –
The Ford Performance rally team of Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton looked set to claim their fourth win of the 2015 season on the Imperial Toyota Tshwane Motor Rally, but unfortunately it was not to be.
Their dominance at the front of the field for most of the weekend was dealt a cruel blow on the penultimate stage when their S2000 Fiesta suffered a broken steering linkage, ultimately costing them more than 16 minutes, which dropped them down to 10th place at the finish.
After winning the first three rallies on the trot, the duo were more determined than ever to bolster their current championship lead with another victory, having had to settle for runner-up position on the last two events – and they certainly set the benchmark on the opening day of the rally.
They were untouchable on Friday, claiming all four of the stage wins and headed into the overnight stop with a lead of 12.2 sec over championship rivals Leeroy Poulter and Elvéne Coetzee (Toyota).
“It was great to have everything go our way on Friday, but the real race was Saturday tomorrow,” Cronje said at the service park.
Houghton was equally cautious: “Being in the lead overnight is great, but it’s too close for us to relax.”
And so it proved, as the rest of the field was on the attack, and the Ford pair’s advantage was cut back to just 3.3 sec at the end of stage five as the action became even more intense.
Cronje and Houghton fought back on SS6 while Poulter/Coetzee lost a bit of time with a puncture, only for the Ford Fiesta crew to suffer the same fate on stage seven which fortunately only cost them 10 sec.
They maintained the overall lead on SS8, a repeat of the day’s opening stage, and headed into the penultimate special stage with a margin of just 1.9 sec over Poulter/Coetzee.
With the bit between their teeth they set off on SS9 and felt confident of holding onto the lead during the final two stages, but the Fiesta came to an abrupt halt with a broken steering link. They replaced the broken unit in the stage and eventually managed to get back on the road, but unfortunately the more than 16 minutes they had lost put them out of the running.
The former double champions even claimed the fastest time on the final stage, but it did little to improve their chances of glory, and they ultimately had to settle for 10th overall with their long-running Toyota rivals claiming the victory.
“Obviously the outcome was hugely disappointing, but we proved that we had the pace, and all the work the team has done to improve the car paid off,”
Cronje commented. “We’ll have to dig really deep with only two events left, and this will take the championship battle right to the final rally.”
“We fought a really good fight,” Houghton added. “We were happy with our performance and gave the spectators a good show. The team worked really hard for this event and the effort definitely paid off, so we’ll take these learnings into the last two rallies.”