Brian Joss –
Championship on a knife-edge
The South African National Rally Championship is heading for a titanic battle on Friday and Saturday 18 and 19 September in the Cape when the leading contenders, including the Ford Performance team of Mark Cronje and Gerhard Snyman, set out on the penultimate round of the 2015 season.
Notably, this will be the first rally in five years that Cronje will be partnered with anyone but long-serving navigator Robin Houghton, who has elected to give up the co-drivers seat due to unfavourable weight regulations that put the number 24 Ford Performance Fiesta at a disadvantage.
“The current regulations allow for a minimum weight of 1 200kg for the car, and 80kg each for the driver and co-driver, but we are running 34kg over the combined weight of 1360kg which hurts our performance, particularly in these tight and technical rallies that have become the norm this year,” Cronje says.
“Robin and I have been discussing this and requested the rally commission to investigate a change to the regulations in order to level the playing field, but they have decided to not change the rules during the season. So our only option now, with the championship at stake, is to go for a lighter navigator.”
As a result, Gerhard Snyman, who was navigating for fellow Ford Fiesta driver Japie van Niekerk, will be reading the pace notes to Cronje for the remainder of the season as the team gives it their all with aim of snatching their third national rally title.
Although the Cape Rally will be the first with Snyman sitting alongside double rally champion Cronje, the team has done several test sessions in the build-up and feel confident with the change.
“It’s very disappointing for me to step aside, but it’s in the best interests of the team,” Robin Houghton says. “I’m still very much hands-on and involved with the logistics, documentation and preparation before and during the rally, even as far as writing the pace notes for Mark.”
The Cape Rally will certainly be a challenging event, as the crews face the prospect of completing the four tarmac stages on Friday with their gravel suspension set-up as the rules dictate that this can’t be changed during the rally.
“The Cape Rally will suit us with the fast and flowing roads, and I think we’ll do well on the Killarney stages too, but we will have to push hard right from the start,” Cronje says.
Due to the team’s misfortune with a broken steering arm on the Tshwane Rally, they lost the championship lead to Toyota’s Leeroy Poulter and Elvéne Coetzee who currently hold a seven-point advantage over the Ford duo. However, the teams are able to drop their worst result of the year, which currently leaves both crews with three wins and two second places heading into the Toyota Cape Dealer Rally.
Accordingly the championship is poised on a knife-edge, and it will be a case of maximum attack from the moment the flag drops in Cape Town next weekend in order to claim the advantage heading into the season-ending Polokwane Rally in October.
The rally starts at 2.40pm on Friday from the McCarthy Toyota dealership in Killarney Gardens, and consists of two tar stages at the Killarney race track followed by two popular night stages at the Cape Gate shopping centre in Brackenfell which start at 6.20am.
On Saturday the rally brigade takes on nine gravel stages through the Swartland wheat fields. The start is at 7am from Malmesbury Toyota and covers the remaining 195km of spectacular special stage action, including the notorious 26.3km Langgewens stage which will be run three times, including being used as the final stage of the rally.