Satnnic Rally Natal Preview

NEEDLE ELEMENT TO STANNIC RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP PIPEOPENER The 41st Stannic Tour Natal on March 12 and 13 fulfills a traditional role as pipeopener to the Stannic Rally Championship, but there is an element to this year's event that has been...

NEEDLE ELEMENT TO STANNIC RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP PIPEOPENER

The 41st Stannic Tour Natal on March 12 and 13 fulfills a traditional role as pipeopener to the Stannic Rally Championship, but there is an element to this year's event that has been missing in previous seasons.

The added ingredient is a little needle between two of the country's top rally teams. The ill-feeling was sparked by off-season boardroom manoeuvres with Toyota winning a Motorsport SA court of appeal decision that handed Castrol Toyota pair Serge Damseaux and Vito Bonafede seventh drivers and co-drivers national titles.

The court excluded 1997 champions Jan Habig and Douglas Judd from the results of the Agip Rally in the Western Cape, and that was enough to give the Toyota crew the title ahead of the factory Volkswagen rivals - by a single point. Bonafede has subsequently retired from rallying, and Damseaux will this season be partnered by experienced Guy Hodgson, who immediately steps into a situation where during the year there will be little love lost between the teams.

Toyota and VW will watch each other like hawks this season, and that could produce two scenarios. The first is a superb battle by two top teams, and the second is less palatable with constant finger pointing upsetting what has the makings of a great battle.

Be that as it may the two crews start the season as the overwhelming favourites in Class A8. Daewoo's withdrawal from rallying robs the field of the talents of multiple champion Sarel van der Merwe and the exciting Enzo Kuun, but a third manufacturer in the form of Ford keeps the factory pot boiling.

Paolo Piazza Musso is joined this year in the Sasol Motorcraft Ford Escort by experienced Springbok Richard Leeke, and has set himself targets that could worry the Damseaux/Hodgson and Habig/ Judd combinations. Piazza Musso won once last year and is capable of doing so again this season.

The Class A8 field for the KwaZulu-Natal event is rounded off the locals Etienne Lourens and Robert Paisley, who again have Team Total backing in a Toyota Conquest. The pair are also capable of winning, but will be looking to greater consistency this year.

Consistency has not been a problem in the past for Class A7 champions Tjaart van der Walt and Cindi Harding, in the Riek's 7 Eleven VW Golf, who will again fancy their championship chances. The category has, however, been beefed up a little with seven entries for the Stannic Tour Natal.

Apart from Team Total VW Golf regulars Barry Grobbelaar and Mike Burrows, notable additions include Natalian Tony Ball and Martie Olivier (Bulwer Park VW Golf) and Eastern Cape crew Gys Kleyn and Johan Barnard in a Team Total VW Golf. Ball and Olivier can be expected to be among the frontrunners, but Kleyn makes the move into Class A7 from the Group N category and may take a little time to find his feet.

Class A6 has also drawn a provisional entry of seven cars with reigning champions Hergen Fekken and Dave Lewkowicz, in the Dunair Toyota Conquest, topping the list. Fekken looked to come of age as a rally driver last season, and he and Lewkowicz had a tremendous year.

NEEDLE TWO

That installs them as favourites with main rivals again Jean-Pierre Damseaux and Pierre Arries, and local lad Craig Trott and Brian Duncan in Team Total entries. The provisional entry list has the Fekken/Lewkowicz and Damseaux/Arries combinations down to drive Toyota Conquests, but word has it the two crews will this year campaign 20 valve Corolla RSi models.

Fernando Rueda and Johan Sieling and Nico Higgs and Menno Havelaar, with both crews running Toyota Conquests, could also have their moments. Dirk Badenhorst, in a lone VW Golf, is also a steady performer but Fekken and Lewkowicz will be the kingpins in the class.

Down in Group N there is no entry from last year's champions, Hannes Grobler and Dave McGregor, and this opens the way in the overall championship and in Class N3 for Team Total Nissan Sentra pair Cliff Blackman and Johan Klaasen. The Natalians pushed Grobler and McGregor all the way to the wire last season, and if they manage to maintain a good reliability record Blackman and Klaasen could succeed where they failed last year.

A real dogfight looks on the cards in Class N2 where any of five crews looks capable of winning. Reigning champion Schalk Burger is joined this season by former South African champion Martin Botha - who sat alongside van der Merwe last season - and the pair form a formidable partnership.

Also out in Toyota Corollas will be Cape crew Diffie Marais and Danie de Waal, Natalians Dean Sanders and Graham Hooper and Kobus Roos and Neil Fourie. Richard Behm, with a navigator still to be nominated, leaves the Opel Corsa camp to run a Toyota Corolla, and cannot be left out of the picture.

Only a handful of points separated the top crews last season - and one cannot see any change this time around. Roos is highly talented, Behm won the Group N category on last year's Stannic FML Tour Natal and the category is set to provide some of the closest rallying of the season.

Much the same can be said of Class N1 where a little needle also creeps into the situation. The MSA court decision to exclude Habig and Judd from the Agip rally results moved Rodney Visagie and Chris Olsen up a notch or two.

That was enough to give Visagie the drivers title - by one point - ahead of Allen Worms. Both have Team Total backing this season with Visagie linking up with Caroline Cimma in a Toyota Conquest Tazz and that adds to the rivalry that is sure to emerge between the two drivers.

Worms links up again with Ashley Gericke with the pair again campaigning an Opel Corsa. Eastern Cape crew Johan Strydom and Morne Ferreira will be out in an Opel Kadett with the steady father and son combination of Dave and Wayne Watt and Mike Houghton and Bryn Doherty out in Toyota Conquests.

With Class S20 entries - where Doug Kemsley and Gerry Gericke will again run the Castrol Toyota Hilux - and Stannic KwaZulu-Natal regional championship entries bolstering the provision field to 50 cars, the season is set for a good send off. Roads on the Stannic Tour Natal are always in superb condition with this year's event - if the weather stays fine - shaping up to be a high speed affair.

The needle element in Class A8 adds further interest to proceedings, along with a couple of fierce rivalries in lower classes. It all adds up to a highly interesting start to a season that sees Rally Management CC, who own the rights to South African rallying, also embarking on a project to see South Africa back on the FIA World Rally Championship calendar within three years.

NEEDLE THREE

The event starts in Pietermaritzburg with the overnight halt in Umhlanga Rocks. The event ends back in the popular holiday resort and with a number of innovations - including inverted grids at special stages at Alexandra Park and in Umhlanga - there will be no shortage of action for rally enthusiasts.

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Series Other rally
Drivers Sarel van der Merwe