Brian Joss –
Ford Performance rally driver Mark Cronje claimed his third South African National Rally Championship this weekend after a dominant performance on the Polokwane Motor Rally.
Cronje went into the rally as the firm favourite, holding a 7.5-point advantage over 2014 title-holder and championship rival Leeroy Poulter and co-driver Elvéne Coetzee (Toyota). The Ford ace, partnered with co-driver Gerhard Snyman in their Class S2000 Ford Fiesta, simply had to finish third to secure the title, even if Poulter won the rally.
The crews faced three action-packed special stages on Friday, skipping the first stage which was cancelled due to muddy conditions resulting from the rains experienced in the area. Cronje and Snyman set off on SS2 with a cautious approach, ending fifth fastest just 11.8 sec behind stage winners Henk Lategan and Barry White (VW).
They romped to the fastest time on SS3 and ended fourth on the next stage, rounding off day one in third place, 8.8 sec behind overnight leaders Giniel de Villiers/Carolyn Swan (Toyota) and Lategan/White.
Meanwhile Poulter’s challenge faltered as he broke a rim and lost time, putting him in fourth place overnight which took a lot of pressure off the Ford Performance team.
“The day went exactly as planned,” Cronje said. “We wanted to finish in about third place and we did just that to avoid sweeping the road on day two.”
Aiming to find the perfect balance between speed and consistency, Cronje and Snyman claimed the first stage of the day, settled for third on SS6, and followed this up with second on SS7.
With the end in sight, they snatched the final two stages of the Polokwane Motor Rally in emphatic style, crossing the line with 22.8 sec in hand over Lategan/White and 30.4 sec over De Villiers/Swan. Poulter and Coetzee had to settle for fourth, 59.9 sec behind the Ford crew.
This handed the Ford Performance team the overall rally victory and ensured Cronje claimed the overall 2015 National Rally Championship title on a winning streak.
“It was really tricky out there,” an elated Cronje said with the championship in hand. “The pressure was on us not to make a mistake or push too hard and end up with a puncture. It was about trying to strike a balance between keeping it clean and still keeping up the pace. We didn’t give the opposition too much thought so the win was a bonus.
“What a great end to a really tough year,” he stated. “We’ve had to fight hard and make some tough decisions, and it really hasn’t been easy.
“We couldn’t have scripted a better final rally if we had tried. The car was faultless from start to finish thanks to the marathon effort of our team. They virtually stripped and rebuilt the whole car for the final event, and this victory would not have been possible without them.”
Snyman added that it was a text book event. “Everything was about bringing the championship home, and Mark was pacing himself to ensure we got to the finish. The huge effort from the team really paid off.”
John Nagel, Ford Performance Motorsport Manager, was delighted with the result. “We’re thrilled about the winning the championship. It’s a great achievement for Mark after a tough battle throughout the year.
“Credit and thanks to Stuart Thompson and the technical support team for their meticulous preparation and total dedication throughout the season, and thanks to Gerhard for stepping in and working so hard for the last two races of the season.
“Finally, a big thank you to Robin for getting us most of the way and for continuing to play such an integral role in the team right to the finish line.”
Cronje won the first three rallies of the season on a trot, partnered by regular co-driver Robin Houghton. They backed this up with two second places and a single non-finish almost within sight of the end due to a broken steering arm on the sixth round of the championship. Despite not competing in the last two rallies of the year, Houghton earned second overall in the co-driver’s championship.
With two solid victories to round of this year’s campaign, with Gerhard Snyman fulfilling the co-driver duties in order to reduce the team’s overall weight and go on maximum attack, Cronje secured the 2015 title – making it his third to go along with the consecutive championship victories in 2012 and 2013.
This is the 11th time a Ford driver has won the South African Rally Championship.