The Ford Performance rally team of Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton claimed their second win in a row on this weekend’s punishing Sasol Rally which ended in Nelspruit today.
The pair, driving a Class S2000 Ford Fiesta, continued their winning form from the season-opening Tour Natal Rally by totally dominating the rally, winning 13 of the event’s 15 special stages.
It was a tough rally for both Cronje and Houghton, though, from a personal perspective. Robin lost his younger brother, Michael, a few weeks ago from a heart attack; while Mark and his wife Kirsten celebrated the birth of twins last week – and they emotionally dedicated the win to Michael from the top step of the podium, and had his racing number (43) on the car.
The 2012 and 2013 national rally champions were as focussed as ever, and set off on Friday determined to lead from the start – which is exactly what they did, despite the treacherous conditions.
The Sasol Rally’s famous forest stages were wet and muddy, with the extremely slippery surface resulting in the demise of several teams. Mist descended over the Lowveld during the afternoon, which hampered visibility.
Nevertheless, they set the pace from the outset, claiming a 0.8 sec lead over reigning champions Leeroy Poulter and Elvene Coetzee (Toyota Yaris) in the first stage, and extending the advantage to 31.7 sec by stage four.
They were on track for another win on SS5 until the Fiesta’s windscreen wipers failed, resulting in them dropping behind Poulter/Coetzee and Henk Lategan/Barry White in a VW Polo on the stage, but with a comfortable overall lead of 26.1 sec.
The Ford was flying once again on the two popular night stages in Sabie and White River, and the crew were able to sleep easy with an overnight margin of 29.5 sec.
“It was really tricky in the slippery forest stages, so we were focusing on just keeping the car on the road,” Cronje said. “It’s a bit of a lottery, and to be honest there were times when we weren’t really in control.”
According to Houghton, it was a tough day because of the long stages without service. “We’re comfortable with our pace and not taking any chances. There have been a few incidents out there and we just want to bring it home.”
Saturday morning started off with the spectacular tarmac Super Special in Nelspruit, but it was cancelled following a heavy collision between the VW of Lategan/White who spun out and then returned to the route in the wrong direction – right in the path of the fast-approaching NAD Ford Fiesta of Japie van Niekerk/Gordon Noble. Fortunately there were no injuries, but both teams were forced to retire on the spot.
The action resumed on SS9 and despite sweeping the roads, the Ford team was untouchable for the rest of the rally, stretching their gap to second-placed Poulter/Coetzee by a significant margin when the Toyota lost four-wheel drive at the end of the rally.
They ultimately had the luxury of backing off for the final spectator stage at the Lowveld Showgrounds, where they finished just 0.1 sec behind Gugu Zulu/Pierre Arries (VW Polo).
The Sasol Rally was yet another dominant outing from the Ford Performance crew, taking the overall victory with a margin of 3 min 43.8 sec over rivals Poulter/Coetzee, while third-placed Zulu/Arries were 6 min 49 sec adrift.
“I’m really thrilled that Robin and I have come through the challenges we’ve faced in the last few weeks, coped with the intensity of the race and still come out victorious,” Cronje said. “It was a very tough event, but brilliantly organised and one we always enjoy.”
John Nagel, Ford Performance Motorsport Manager, was equally elated. “Mark and Robin managed their performance perfectly in extremely trying conditions. Everything from start to finish was perfectly aligned with their race strategy. A result of this magnitude is really something for the team to feel proud of,” he said.