Tour Natal Rally Promises Much

The Tour Natal Rally, opening round of the 2015 SA National Rally Championship that will get under way in KwaZulu-Natal on 27 and 28 February, promises fast stages, a spectator-friendly route and some interesting and exciting innovations.  The route for this year’s Tour Natal will be quite similar to last year’s, Deputy Clerk of the Course Jimmy Dewar said, with the first three stages after the start at the Scottburgh Country Club to be repeated – for a total of six stages on the first day.  Another five special stages on the fast loose gravel roads in the sugarcane fields of the South Coast will be run on the second day, for a total of 11 stages over a distance of 462.34  kilometres.

According to Dewar a spectator-friendly “power stage” on the final day at Isontevideo will see the running order being reversed so the slower competitors will run the stage first.  Besides the inverted grid there will also be a knock-out (or rather a knock-off) competition:  At the end of the stage a hot seat area will be demarcated adorned with a couch where competitors setting the fastest time for the stage will sit in waiting.  As the faster cars negotiate the stage and the stage times tumble, the crews setting the previous fastest time will move down the couch until literally being knocked off the bench… In the end only the stage winners will remain on the couch.

The stage is right next to the Scottburgh airport runway, so ample parking space will be available. It will be run three times on the last day of the rally, the “power stage” being the final run.  A spot in the stage where the cars will get airborne will create even more excitement.  Prizes and trophies will be awarded to the teams entertaining the crowds with the longest and most spectacular jumps, said Dewar.

Another change this year is that the teams will have two opportunities to reconnoitre the route ahead of the rally, giving the crews enough opportunity to refine their pace notes for the event.  Dewar said a total of 25 entries were received for the rally.  Seven teams will contest the premier S2000 class for modified, normally-aspirated, four-wheel drive cars with engines not exceeding two litres, while ten will vie for honours in the Two Wheel Drive Championship – the S1600 class for two-wheel drive normally aspirated cars with engines not exceeding 1.6-litres.

Two teams have entered the new NRC4 Challenge for existing S2000 Challenge and N4 cars (4WD with turbocharged engines not exceeding two litres and limited modifications), while six entries have been received in the NRC2 class for older pre-2000 4-cylinder two wheel-drive cars.  The Castrol Toyota team, that include the reigning champions Leeroy Poulter and Elvéne Coetzee, has not yet finalised its line-up for 2015.  However one can expect Poulter and Coetzee to be on the start line in their Castrol Toyota Yaris S2000 to defend their title.

Their biggest challenge will come from the 2012 and 2013 champions Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton in their Ford Fiesta S2000, recently upgraded and rebuilt by M-Sport in Britain.  Volkswagen Sasolracing’s Hans Weijs Jnr from the Netherlands and Belgian co-driver Björn Degandt will want to prove a point in KZN.  Weijs was runner-up in the 2014 drivers’ championship and the pair won the final rally of the year in their VW Polo S2000, so for them nothing short of a victory will suffice.

The talented young Henk Lategan, with Barry White reading the notes, was consistently fast in 2014.  This year the Volkswagen Sasolracing pairing, who acquitted themselves well in the recent Monte Carlo Rally, will be eager to put a win or two under their belt.  The experienced Gugu Zulu could prove to be the revelation of the season.

Last year the VW Sasolracing driver showed winning pace, and with Pierre Arries alongside him he will be looking for stage wins and podium positions in his Polo S2000.  Ford’s onslaught will be strengthened by top privateer Japie Van Niekerk in his New Africa Developments S2000 Fiesta.  Van Niekerk was a consistent front-runner last year and now has the experienced UK-based navigator Gordon Noble sitting next to him.

With the team’s Fiesta S2000 having received a full mechanical make-over, Van Niekerk could be a serious challenger this year.  In the S1600-class the battle between defending champions Guy Botterill and Simon Vacy-Lyle (Yato Tools Toyota Etios R2) and last year’s runner-up, Matthew Vacy-Lyle and Schalk Van Heerden ( Toyota Etios R2) will continue.  They will be hard pushed by Ashley Haigh-Smith and Damian Van As (Ford Fiesta R2), ) Paulus Franken and Henry Kohne (Manitou Group VW Polo R2) and young Richard Leeke and Rikus Fourie (ATS Ford Fiesta R2).

Also in the thick of the S1600 action will be AC Potgieter and Tommy Du Toit, the experienced Andrew Heine and Robbie Coetzee, as well as Nico Higgs and Etienne Lourens, all in VW Polo R2’s, while Ernie Van Der Walt and Rowan Robbertze will round of the entries in their Ford Fiesta R2.  In the NRC4 Challenge Namibian Wilro Dippenaar and Kes Naidoo have entered their Toyota Auris S2000 Challenge car, and they will be up against Piet Bakkes and Shaun Visser in a similar vehicle.  Six teams will contest the NRC2 class for older pre-2000 4-cylinder two wheel-drive cars; including the Toyota Corolla of Hanno Ehlers and Kevin Cunningham, Vaughan Robinson and Edward Standen in a Ford Escort, veteran Tony Ball and Wade Harris (Lancia Fulvia), Bertus Labuschagne and Peter Chadwick (VW Polo), Trevor Graham and Brian Clifton (Nissan Skyline) and Bryan and Keith Heine in their trusty Datsun SSS Coupe.

‘The crème of South African special stage rally teams have gathered for the traditional opening round of the national championship and we look forward to an exciting and successful event,’ said Dewar.

Photo: 2014 Tour Natal winner Leeroy Poulter in action
Photo credit: B Smith