Disaster averted in rally
Ford drivers dominate Mpumalanga racing both on the podium and on social media
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.
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”.
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.