Weather, infringements and off-road excursions meant plenty of surprises in the two final rallies of the South African National series – two day, two rallies and changes in the lead right up to the finish but it was a huge event for the Mazda 2 pairing of Chris Coertse and Greg Godrich who emerged overall winners on both days.
What should have been a straight fight in the dust on the fast special stages around the trout-rich town of Dullstroom in Mpumalanga, turned into a fight for surival for many of crews contesting the final two rounds of the 2023 South African National Rally Championship.
Clear skies and bright sunshine greeted competitors at the start of the TRACN4 Rally and all eyes were on the expected tussle between the NRC 1 Rally Technic Mazda 2 of Chris Coertse and Greg Godrich and the NRC 2 Just Tools Volkswagen Golf crewed by Benjamin Habig and Barry White – this fight for second overall in the series with the actual champion having been crowned at the previous event.
“It would be nice to claim that second place, but our goal the whole season has been to win the class,” said White.
It all went wrong for them shortly after the start of first special stage when the Polo lost drive and could not be recovered until all the cars had passed, forcing their retirement for the day and leaving the way open for the Maza duo to forge ahead.
However, the big mover of the morning was the Salom Toyota Auris of Theuns Joubert and Schalk van Heerden who stormed through the opening stage to win by 10 seconds from Coertse/Godrich with newly-crowned SA Champions JJ Potgieter and Tommy du Toit in the NTT Toyota Delmas Hyundai R4 visibly taking things easier than their normal all-out charge.
“I was taking it easier,” said Potgieter, “but we were also battling with a misfire that kept us off the pace.”
Stage 2 was a blinder for Mandla Mdakane and Kes Naidoo in their Toyota Gazoo Racing Starlet and they howled through taking 10 seconds from Joubert/Van Heerden and 14 seconds from the Mazda – just rward, perhaps for a troubled season that saw the Starlet retire from several events.
However, the pair made an error during the clock-in procedure at the start of the stage and were then penalised by four minutes, dropping them to the back of the field and this was compounded at the end of the day when and engine problem meant they could not get the car back to the parc ferme.
By the end of Stage 3 Joubert and Van Heerden had extended their lead to 17 seconds over the Mazda with Potgieter/Du Toit now slotted into third place ahead of Gerald Klopper and Etienne Lourens (GK Racing Toyota Auris) fourth overall and the leading NRC 2 contender ahead of Gustav Potgieter/Armand du Toit (Atlas Oil Ford Fiesta R2).
Stage 4 saw much o the same but with Mdakane trying to eat up as much of his deficit as possible and racking up third quickest time over the 12, 6 kilometres of Safcol Highway 2 – this pulling them up to seventh overall.
Then, the weather intervened and a sudden, short rain and lightning storm descended with the cars in Stage 5 where everything changed as the gravel road turned into an ice-rink, setting off a chain of events started by Gerald Klopper who lost a wheel and veered off into a tree, leaving the car in a vulnerable position.
With Lourens waving oncoming competitors to slow down, Gustav Potgieter stopped on the stage (after having been stuck in the mud for more than minute earlier) without realising George Smallberger/Shaun Visser (Shield Q20 Volkswagen Polo) had closed right up.
“I saw him stopped on the stage and tried to go around but with the mud and the slide we ended up beached on the edge of the road and lost plenty of time trying to get free.” Said Smallberger.
But, it was up front where the real drama happened as Theuns Joubert suffered a front left tyre puncture and with 10 kilometres of stage left, decided to continue. The delaminating tyre then dmaged the front end of the car but they made it to the flying finish, losing 58 seconds in the process.
This giffted Coertse a 35 second lead overall, cemented by the fact the Clerk-of-the-Course then cancelled the final stage of the day for safety reasons.
So, Coertse/Godrich took top step of the podium from Joubert/Van Heerden and Potgieter/Du Toit with Mdakane/Naidoo fourth on the road but excluded because of the engine issue on the way to the overnight parc ferme.
Thus, Gustav Potgieter finish fourth ahead of Lynton Swatton and Tommy Coetzee (RBS Plumbing Toyota RunX).
Overnight the weather cleared and Saturday dawned bright and clear with Joubert/Van Heerden following the TRAC N$ catchline for the event of ‘going all out’ and they opened proceedings – much of which involved the previous day’s stages in reverse – with an eight second advantage over Potgieter/Du Toit and taking 29 seconds from Coertse/Godrich.
Back in the running, Habig and White ran a conservative fifth quickest on the stage a second behind Gustav Potgieter and five ahead of the Johan Strauss/Elzaan van der Schyff Agri Online Subaru WRX that was forced to withdraw before the start of the Friday even with engine problems.
“It is still not properley sorted,” said Strauss “and there is a throttle problem. If I drive slowly there is some response but if I try to go quickly it does not respond.”
With the Hyundai now cleared of its misfire, JJ Potgieter decided it was time to get moving and raced through the second stage two seconds to the good over Joubert with Coertse maintaining an edge over Habig who headed the NRC 2 class.
The AR Panelbeaters Ford Escort Cosworth of Anton Raaths and Marie Ducasse had a good run to notch up fifth place on the road.
The rally then looked as if it was settling into a pattern with Joubert/Van Heerden taking the top honours on Stage 3 followed by Potgieter/Du Toit with Coertse and Habig in close attendance – Potgieter then upped the pace to take Stage 4 to set up the scene for the final stages by reducing Joubert’s lead to just 0,1 seconds after the former lost time in the stage due to a faulty oil temperature sensor caused the engine to go into limp mode.
Coertse was just 1min07 sec off the lead at this point.
However, this time it was not the weather to influence things – Car 0, which has the task of going through the stage ahead of the field to check the marshals are in place, arrowing is correct and no spectators are in dangerous places, had a mechanical issue. This is then followed by Car 00 half an hour before the first competitor enters the stage.
Stage 5, which was also being run as Stage 6, had to be cancelled to allow Car 00 to do the work of both lead vehicles.
This stage, a repeat of Stge 2 from Friday, featured a downhill run to a shallow water splash with a disconcerting bump on the exit and Habig – not having done the stage the previous day – came flying in, uymped, got hugely sideways, corrected and went up on two wheels.
He landed back on the road but minus a wheel and carried on to finish the stage. However, he transgressed regulations by driving on a public road on three wheels then replacing the wheel in the control area of Stage 6, resulting in his exclusion.
Stage 6, Lakenvlei, worked for Coertse who took 1,8 seconds off Joubert with Potgieter third quickest through the 27,4 kilometre section just ahead of Habig who would have been third overall at that point had it not been for the exclusion he was yet to hear about.
The final stage of the event and the season, Legends, saw Coertse again take the stage win, this time taking 11, 9 seconds off Joubert to end up as overall winner for the day and second overall in the National standings behind Gustav Potgieter who ended on the third step of the podium for the day and first car in the NRC 2 category.
JJ Potgieter finished fourth overall, ahead of Magriet Potgieter and Rikus Fourie (Ford Fiesta R2) and Bruce Swatton/Adrian du Plessis (RBS Plumbing Toyota Auris S2000).