Cape Town - A tale of two teams, two halves, two drivers and three navigators…
Mark Cronje won the 2015 SA National Rally Championship in fine style for the Ford Performance team in the Polokwane Rally, the last event of the season, while Elvene Coetzee was crowned the navigators’ champion after the penultimate round in the Cape.
Here are 20 defining moments of the championship season, which from the outset was a battle between Cronje and Robin Houghton, the 2012 and 2013 champions in their Ford Performance Fiesta S2000, and Leeroy Poulter and Coetzee, the defending champions in their Castrol Toyota Yaris S2000.
Top rally moments
1 Cronje and Houghton dominated the narrative in the first event, the Tour Natal, held in the sugar cane fields of KwaZulu-Natal in March – winning by a full 44.6 seconds from Poulter and Coetzee.
2 In Class S1600 Paulus Franken and Henry Kohne (Manitou VW Polo S1600) capitalised on the bad luck of fellow Capetonians Ashley Haigh-Smith and Damian van Ass (Castrol Ford Fiesta S1600) who were forced to retire 2km from the end with a broken wheel on their car, to win the class.
Watch: SA driver avoids huge rally crash
3 Misty and wet weather made the slippery gravel roads in the forests of Mpumalanga virtually undrivable, making the Sasol Rally the most difficult and challenging rally ever in the Lowveld. Again Cronje and Houghton showed their class, winning the rally in emphatic fashion.
4 The rally will also be remembered for the dramatic accident involving Henk Lategan and Barry White in their Sasolracing Volkswagen Polo S2000 and Japie van Niekerk and navigator Gordon Noble (NAD Ford Fiesta S2000).
In slippery conditions Lategan spun on the famous “spaghetti junction” tarmac stage, and while recovering got in the way of the fast-accelerating Ford. Both cars were extensively damaged and both teams withdrew. None of the crew or spectators was hurt.
5 The treacherous conditions in Mpumalanga lead to a high attrition rate in the S1600 class, but Chad van Beurden and Nico Swartz (Jem Sport VW Polo) gave good account of themselves against international competition, finishing first in class and eighth overall.
6 The Sasol Rally also saw the overseas crew of Hans Weijs and Bjorn Degand losing their drive with the Sasolracing VW team. Hergen Fekken was called back to be reunited with Pierre Arries in a VW Polo for the Secunda Rally, while Gugu Zulu teamed up with Hilton Affray.
7 Cronje and Houghton won the inaugural Secunda Motor Rally in dominant fashion, leading from start to finish, chalking up their third victory for 2015 on the trot. Zulu and Auffray, in their first outing together for the VW team, scored a podium position.
8 Defending S1600 champions Guy Botterill and Simon Vacy-Lyle (Yato Tools Toyota Etios S1600 R2) bounced back in Secunda, delivering an impressive performance to win the class in style. Marko Himmel and Francois Schoombee (North Panelbeaters VW Polo R2) showed good sportsmanship by stopping to assist Nico Higgs and Etienne Lourens after their VW Polo caught fire in a stage.
9 Just as it seemed Cronje and Houghton were unstoppable in their quest to secure a third national title, Poulter and Coetzee stage a comeback in the Bela-Bela Motor Rally in May, winning the event in Limpopo convincingly ahead of Cronje/Houghton, while the NAD Fiesta crew of Japie van Niekerk and Gerhard Snyman (who replaced Noble after the Sasol Rally) finishing third in Van Niekerk’s spare rally car. Botterill and Vacy-Lyle celebrated their second consecutive class victory in Bela-Bela.
10 The heavens opened up during the Volkswagen Rally in the Eastern Cape, turning the stages into quagmires. Poulter/Coetzee kept up the momentum in the waterlogged rally, slip-sliding their way to victory the shortened event.
Read: 2015 VW Rally in 5 awesome tweets
11 The Imperial Toyota Group announced their sponsorship of the Tshwane Motor Rally which now started in Pretoria before moving to the town of Cullinan. While Cronje and Houghton led the rally until the penultimate stage, a steering problem put their Ford out of the running, handing victory to Poulter and Coetzee.
12 The event will also be remembered for the spectacular roll of Matthew Vacy-Lyle and Schalk Van Heerden, up to that point the log leaders in Class S1600, which virtually destroyed their Fragram sponsored Toyota Etios S1600. They secured the only other Etios rally car in the country, belonging to Chris Coertse, for the final two events of the season.
Watch: Whoa! Rally car flips multiple times
13 The two leading teams were now level-pegged on points, setting the scene for a thrilling final two races in the series. Such was the tension leading up to the Toyota Cape Dealer Rally in September that the Ford Performance team took the unprecedented step of replacing Houghton with Gerhard Snyman, Van Niekerk’s regular navigator – to save weight in the car.
14 Poulter and Coetzee, after an altercation with a wall on the stage at the Killarney race circuit, crashed out of the event with two stages to go. Their Castrol Toyota team mates Giniel de Villiers and Carolyn Swan did the same in very spectacular fashion. Cronje and Van Niekerk won the event.
WATCH: SA rally ace Giniel rolls car in dramatic crash
15 Cronje, on 88 points, was now 7.5 points clear of Poulter (who earned 1.5 points under Superally rules). This meant he only needed to finish third overall in the final event, the Polokwane Motor Rally, to regain the national rally crown. However, in Houghton’s absence Elvene Coetzee won the 2015 National Rally Navigators’ title with one event left to go.
16 The Battle in Polokwane turned out to a bit of a non-event when Poulter lost 20 seconds on the first day due to a puncture and suffered power steering problems on the final day.
Cronje romped home virtually unchallenged, winning the rally and the 2015 South African Rally Championship in fine style.
17 Henk Lategan and Barry White were second, 22.9 seconds adrift, scoring what turned out to be the final points for the Sasolracing Volkswagen motorsport team in their Polo S2000, as Volkswagen South Africa announced their withdrawal as an official factory team from the sport.
18 Houghton, while not participating in the final event, accumulated enough points in the first six rallies to keep his runner-up position in the 2015 Navigators’ championship.
Read: 5 awesome moments from the Cape Dealer Rally
19 In S1600 Botterill and Vacy-Lyle gained another class victory in the Cape rally to all but wrap up the season. They had to finish sixth or higher in Polokwane in order to secure the championship.
While the Namibians Marko Himmel/Gert Nienaber won the class in the final rally, Botterill and Vacy-Lyle finished fifth in class to secure their second consecutive championship, as well as the S1600 drivers’ and navigators’ titles.
20 Cronje’s victory in the Drivers’ championship moves him to the sixth position overall in terms of national rally titles won, and fifth in terms of national rally wins (22) behind rally legends Serge Damseaux (74), Sarel van der Merwe (66), Jan Hettema (36) and Jannie Habig (36). Toyota again secured the Manufacturers’ title in the 2015 championship, its 23rd since 1968.