The forests around Sabie in Mpumalanga come alive this weekend as the second round of the South African Rally Championship heads that way for the York Rally – with the famous Spaghetti Junction stage reinstated after a few hiccups in the organising phase.
Young Richard Leeke and Henry Köhne head to the event eager to cement their lead at the top of the South African Rally Championship, knowing they face massive competition from the Toyota Gazoo Racing pairing of Guy Botterill and Simon Vacy-Lyle.
The Speedglas Welding Ford Fiesta crew are off to the best possible start – especially with their arch-rivals failing to score in KZN in February but are acutely aware of two things: success and disaster on a rally is a matter of millimetres, and that reigning champs Guy Botterill/Simon Vacy-Lyle will be calling on all their considerable resources to ensure the best chance of success in the forests.
Round Two of the championship, which gets underway on April 20 from the timber industry town, is also the longest of the year, with a total event distance of just under 500 kilometres and 220 kilometres of special stages. This includes three tarmac stages.
Says Leeke, recently nominated for the South African Guild Of Motoring Journalists’ Motor Sportsman Of The Year award: “Being longer than usual means the York requires a slightly different strategy but it is not as if you can settle down to a cruise and wait for the rally to come to you. You still need to be on it from the start!”
Leeke expects to encounter the familiar blend of fast but undulating roads where there is little room for error between the timber. Thanks to a local dealer, Nelspruit Ford, the team has enjoyed some much-appreciated support, including the use of a vehicle to recce the route.
“A driver needs to be precise in these conditions and the co-driver needs to be extremely accurate in his calls too,” he says. “In many ways this event is the essence of the sport so we are looking forward to it more than ever before. Our test last week was a success and we are ready to get to Mpumalanga and repeat what we did in KZN!”
Defending South African National Rally Champions, Guy Botterill and Simon Vacy-Lyle, are set to fight back after failing to score any points during the opening round of the championship. The Toyota Gazoo Racing SA crew had to retire their normally highly reliable Toyota Etios R2 rally car in the closing stages of the Trade Brands Tour Natal Rally, held during March this year.
“We were bitterly disappointed to get our campaign started with a retirement,” says Botterill. “We were very excited to get our season under way, and the updated Etios R2 showed a lot of promise in pre-season testing.”
However, gearbox trouble early in the opening round saw the crew drop behind the Ford crew of Richard Leeke and Henry Köhne (Ford Fiesta R2). The Toyota Gazoo Racing SA crew, however, fought back after installing a new gearbox during a service stop. They made up time hand over fist, and were soon back in the lead of the rally.
“Unfortunately, we ran into a problem with the front differential near the end of the event,” explains Botterill.
“We were going along at a fantastic pace, when all drive to the wheels suddenly ceased. We had no choice but to retire from the event.”
The crew stripped the Toyota Etios R2 down after the event, tracked down the problem, and Botterill is confident that the car is in perfect shape for the upcoming York Rally – Round 2 of this year’s South African National Rally Championship.
“We have double, and triple checked every component, nut and bolt,” says Botterill. “By its very nature, the sport of rallying is unpredictable, but we feel that we have done everything in our power to prepare the car.”
Proceedings get underway at 10:00 on Friday April 20 and with the York Rally forming part of the FIA African Rally Championship, spectators can look forward to seeing some rally exotica in action. However, the local interest will focus on the R2N category which is the top class in South Africa.
The battle between the Fiesta of Leeke/Köhne and the Etios of Botterill/Vacy-Lyle is expected to be a highlight. However, the Polo of AC Potgieter and Nico Swartz seems to be coming on song and could make it a three-way tussle.
Rally fans can follow the event via the National Rally championship’s Telegram handle: SA Rallying, or the live timing facility on the NRC website: http://www.sarallying.co.za/livetiming/
“Winning the York Rally is certainly something that all rally drivers aspire to,” says Botterill. “But a lot has to happen before the podium celebrations, and as much and we are confident, we also recognise this is probably the toughest event of the year, often punctuated by wet and cold weather. Even so, we can’t wait to get going in Sabie.”