Ford Crew Leads The Charge On First Day Of Tour Natal Rally
- First outing for new Ford Performance-branded team
- Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton dominate the first day, winning four of the six stages in their Class S2000 Fiesta
- Team starts day 2 with 23.8 sec advantage
SCOTTBURGH, SOUTH AFRICA, 27 February 2015 – The Ford Performance team of Mark Cronje and Robin Houghton has dominated the first day of the Tour Natal Rally, opening round of the 2015 South African Rally Championship.
This is the debut outing for the new-look outfit, rebranded in the distinctive blue and red colour scheme synonymous with the new Ford Performance brand. And it proved an extremely successful outing for the crew, who won four of the day’s six stages – including the first three in succession.
After the start order draw, Cronje and Houghton, who won this event in 2012 and 2013, set off second behind reigning champions Leeroy Poulter and Elvéne Coetzee (Toyota Yaris) in overcast and cool conditions following light overnight rain.
Despite the less-than-ideal starting position on this extremely slippery event, the Fiesta crew were on form right from the outset and comfortably set the fastest times on all three opening stages.
The Fiesta entered the service park at the Scottburgh Country Club at the end of SS3 requiring no major attention, and despite Poulter/Coetzee upping their pace on the repeat stages, the Ford duo consolidated their position on the subsequent two stages. They finished a mere 0.2 sec behind their rivals on SS4 and clocked the fourth fastest time on SS5 after losing 7 sec when they went off the road briefly.
Cronje and Houghton hit back again on stage six, claiming a further 4.7 sec advantage, ending the day with a solid 23.8 sec lead over the Toyota pair. Henk Lategan and Barry White (VW Polo) are currently third overall.
“Starting second wasn’t ideal, but we made the most of having Leeroy sweeping the road ahead of us as we could see his lines and braking points,” Cronje said. “We pushed hard to set competitive times from the start and it paid off, allowing us to win four stages and ending the day with a decent lead.
“The roads are slippery with fine gravel covering the hard surface underneath, but the fast, flowing roads make it a great rally, a favourite for most drivers.”
The cool conditions haven’t compromised grip, but they have helped keep the dust levels and temperature down, both of which can often be problematic in the South Coast’s notoriously tricky sugar cane fields.
According to co-driver Houghton, most of the stages are identical to last year, with the first three stages repeated on day one. “We have kept it nice and clean, and it’s great to be behind Leeroy for a change after he followed us the whole of last season. Unfortunately we sweep the road in the morning, but with our lead and Poulter behind us we’re ready to fight hard to stay ahead.”
“We are really happy with the car and the way it’s performing, and we hope to finish the rally the way we started,” Houghton said.
John Nagel, Ford Motorsport Manager, added: “It’s the perfect start for Ford Performance, with a great result so far and a really positive response to the new car design. The whole team has done a fantastic job.
“In spite of having to sweep in the morning, we’re in a great position for the second day, and the team’s consistent approach to the rally will serve them well.”
The cars depart at 08:15 on Saturday morning, and the competitive action resumes at 08:40 on the Montevideo stage adjacent to the Scottburgh airport runway. The same stages are repeated after the scheduled service, before heading to the thrilling Montevideo power stage which begins at 13:40 and is expected to be a true crowd-pleaser.