Dis­as­ter averted in rally

Ford driv­ers dom­i­nate Mpumalanga rac­ing both on the podium and on so­cial me­dia

The Witness - Wheels - - MOTORING -

NEL­SPRUIT — 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 on Satur­day.

The rally nearly ended in dis­as­ter, with swift re­ac­tions by Ford Fi­esta rally driver Japie van Niek­erk avert­ing a crash into the fans lining the streets of Nel­spruit on Satur­day morn­ing.

As is ev­i­dent from video footage which has al­ready gone vi­ral on so­cial me­dia, VW Henk Late­gan driver spun his Volk­swa­gen and then in­ex­pli­ca­bly restarted — rac­ing straight into the on­com­ing Van Niek­erk, who was ar­riv­ing on the scene at 120 km/h-plus in his New Africa De­vel­op­ments Ford Fi­esta.

“I had nowhere to go, I just knew I had to avoid go­ing into the crowd,” said a shaken Van Niek­erk. “I don’t know what Late­gan was think­ing — it was an act of gross neg­li­gence and a hor­rific ac­ci­dent was nar­rowly averted. At the point of im­pact, there was very lit­tle of sub­stance to pro­tect spec­ta­tors and I just tried to steer the car through a gap which was shrink­ing fast.”

The Ford hit the Volk­swa­gen, be­fore con­tin­u­ing straight on three wheels, nar­rowly miss­ing the spec­ta­tors stand­ing less than a me­tre away.

“I’ve hurt my neck a bit and my nav­i­ga­tor Gor­don Noble has a bruised an­kle but I’m just re­lieved that there weren’t any by­standers in­volved — it was an un­be­liev­ably lucky es­cape. Un­for­tu­nately, how­ever, the dam­age to my car is ex­ten­sive and I es­ti­mate that it could ex­ceed a mil­lion rand.”

At the front of the race, Cronje and Houghton 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.

The pair stretchd their gap on the sec­ond-placed Poul­ter/Coet­zee by a sig­nif­i­cant mar­gin when the Toy­ota lost four-wheel drive at the end of the rally.

At the che­quered flag Cronje/ Houghton were a com­fort­able three min­utes, 38 sec­onds ahead of the crip­pled Toy­ota Yaris of Leeroy Poul­ter and Elvine Coet­zee, with the Sa­solrac­ing Volk­swa­gen Polo of Gugu Zulu and Pierre Ar­ries clock­ing an un­ex­pected third place at 3:29.3 adrift, to the ela­tion of both the Volk­swa­gen rac­ing team and the event spon­sors.

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 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.

“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 head-on crash caused by Late­gan.

SO­CIAL INI­TIA­TIVE

A group of 23 Grade 1 pupils from Umthom­bopho­lile Pri­mary School vis­ited the Ford Per­for­mance team dur­ing the Sa­sol Rally on Satur­day. They watched one of the stages, vis­ited Cronje and Houghton dur­ing the last ser­vice break of the event, took a tour of the Ford ser­vice area and each re­ceived a snack pack for lunch.

Cronje signed flags and posters and showed them his car, while the tech­ni­cal team gave them a tour of the ser­vice truck — to show them how a ve­hi­cle fits in­side. For a week be­fore the race they learnt about cars and road safety at school, in­clud­ing cross­ing roads and ba­sic road signs.

The loved ev­ery minute of it and left ex­hausted but star-struck. Meghan Baioc­chi, a teacher at Umthom­bopho­lile Pri­mary School, was thrilled with the out­ing.

“Ev­ery­one in the team went out of their way to make the kids feel wel­come,” said Meghan. “One or two are al­ready bud­ding rac­ing driv­ers”.

— Sup­plied.

PHO­TOS: QUICK­PIC

Fu­ture rally fans: Grade One pupils from Umthom­bopho­lile Pri­mary School with Robin Hough (left) and Mark Cronje. The pupils learnt about cars be­fore be­ing hosted by the Ford Per­for­mance team dur­ing the Sa­sol Rally over the week­end.

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