South Africa’s finest gravel rally drivers and co-drivers are in for a tough weekend when the 5th round of the NRC gets underway at the Heidelberg Mall at 16h00 on Friday afternoon.  Not only will there be a level playing field for all the competitors because it is a new event for everyone, but three stages take place after sundown, putting an even greater emphasis on driver and navigator communication skills.

The route features 163km of rally mileage spread over 14 special stages and motorsport fans don’t have to travel far to catch the action, with most stages within 11km from Rally HQ and the service park.  And Heidelberg is just 96km from Centurion and 55km from Johannesburg, making it easily accessible to the economic heartland of the Continent.

Leeroy Poulter and Elvéne Coetzee

Image by David Ledbitter

Rally crews have travelled to Welkom in the Free State, Sabie and Secunda in Mpumalanga and most recently, to Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.  Wherever the road has taken them, the outcome has been Leeroy Poulter and co-driver Elvéne Coetzee taking the trophies home, the Toyota Gazoo Racing Yaris pair victorious on each occasion.  four consecutive victories leaves the 2014 Championship winners with a handy 16-point lead in the title chase – equal to one victory – over their Toyota team-mates Giniel de Villiers and Carolyn Swan.

De Villiers has chased hard and come close to snatching victory, particularly in Secunda, where the lead changed no less than six times and 2.1 seconds was the winning margin.  The warring Toyota crews are going to slug it out over the remaining three rounds, and with no team orders, it is going to be a spectacular fight for supremacy.

Third in the championship standings – by a single point ahead of his privateer S2000 rival – is Ernie van der Walt/Gerhard Snyman in their Vecto Toyota Yaris S2000.  The young student left Port Elizabeth with his car in a ditch so will be looking to make amends this time out.  After missing the Volkswagen Rally last month, Namibian Wilro Dippenaar and his Cape Town-based co-driver Kesevan Naidoo (PZN Panelbeaters Ford Fiesta S2000) will fight over third place in the championship rankings.

The result could go either way, and the two youngsters are too closely matched to call.  Theuns Joubert/Mari van der Walt (Salom Toyota Auris NRC4) will keep the young guns honest as they chip away at their stage times.

In the Super 1600 class, which will become the main rally class next year, the championship is heading towards Guy Botterill/Simon Vacy-Lyle after powering their Yato Tools Toyota R2 to four straight victories.  Behind the double-championship-winning Natalians, the championship is a four-way fight:  AC Potgieter/Tommy Du Toit (Lake Umuzi Volkswagen Polo R2) is on a roll after banking two runner-up podiums, leaving them a point ahead of Paulus Franken/Pierre Arries in their similar Manitou VW Polo R2.  Reliability is usually the deciding factor in this rally-within-a-rally, so the result is likely to be out of their hands.

Ten points adrift is the very quick but perennially unlucky Richard Leeke/Henry Kohne combination in their beautifully prepared P1 Nutrition/ATS Ford Fiesta R2.  Two non-finishes have not helped their cause, so they will look for a fast and reliable event.  Chris Coertse/Robbie Coetzee (Electrothread Toyota Etios R2) are 2 points behind Leeke and could mount an attack to move up the leaderboard.

George Smalberger/Chris Brand (Shield Car Care VW Polo R2) are propping up the bottom of the log after three non-finishes from four starts.  Their luck is due to change and maybe the magic of Heidelberg is their opportunity.  The same could be said for Ashley Haigh Smith and Niall Burns in their AHS Racing Ford Fiesta.

A good field of Northern Regions Rally Championship competitors is expected in the line up.

Route

Headquartered at the Heidelberg Mall, the first stage (repeated as the final 14th stage) is a short warm-up located just 250m from the start, kicking off at 16:06.  After two further gravel stages, crews return to the Dunlop Service Zone to fit their lights ahead of three night stages, all within close proximity of the town.  The final stage is a really exciting 3.6km blast through Heidelberg, starting at 19h23.

Saturday’s action gets underway at 08h00 and sees crews tackling four groups of 2 stages, returning for a service break after each loop.  The rally ends at 15h20 at the Heidelberg Mall where the podium ceremony will take place.