Friday, July 11
Oh dear. It’s a mad dash to Cape Town’s airport after my perfectly-plotted plan unravels dramatically, so there’s little time to appreciate the trip out to PE for one of the top events on the National Rally Championship circuit. And the arrival in PE signals the start of my own little parallel rally. It’s yet another mad dash from the airport to Uitenhage where a massive crowd mills about the plant entrance, bright yellow VW SasolRacing peak caps bouncing the dull sunlight off their heads as they cheer on their favourites while gazing at smartphone and GoPro screens.
I’m in time to see VWSA MD David Powels send the cars on their way in the 32nd Volkswagen Rally, departing from the AutoPavilion parking lot, a hook left through the plant’s entrance, a 180-degree turn and back out to the first stage. Then it’s into a T5 bus to catch some stages!
The first leg takes us out of Uitenhage tracing along the edges of the Lady’s Slipper mountain peak, past the newly-minted J-Bay wind farm and to the Cape Pine plantations above Jeffrey’s Bay with local journo Gareth providing commentary as we zip along in convoy. Faced with a tight schedule, we elect to skip the first stage and head to the viewing point on the second to catch a glimpse of the cars tearing through the Longmore Forest. Gareth is a local who’s been attending the VW Rally for as long as he can remember and we’re so impressed with his knowledge, he soon becomes our designated driver and de factor tour guide.
On the Culturama stage (the longest in the rally) we get the chance to see the cars come past in a blurry red-dust cloud. From my vantage point on the inside of the corner, it’s great to see the cars pass within metres, but after most of the S2000 cars are through, and I’ve been pummelled with enough stones, its back into the bus to head to the service park in the forest. There’s no spectating on Stage 3, so we use the time to see the teams beavering away behind the scenes as eager kids collect posters as souvenirs.
At Gareth’s pre-appointed time, we pile back into the bus and head into the forest to take in the spectator point at PPC (Stage 4). Shuffling past families with kids and cooler boxes, and guys out for a weekend cruise with boozy coolerboxes, we pop across the road to view the action from inside the 90-degree corner the cars have to negotiate at breakneck speed. There’s a thrill as we hear the cars well before we see them, the noise carrying as the little hatches pop in and out of the dips along the road. The first car clears the crest at the limiter and immediately veers to the right of the road. It’s nervy stuff for the spectators along that side of the road, but it’s business as usual for the team as the car’s positioned for the right-angle sling onto the next stretch of road and out of our view.
Several dust sandwiches later, our tummies have started grumbling, but it’s back into the cars for the trek to the spectator-friendly stage at Fountains Mall in Jeffrey’s Bay. Here, European imports Hans Weijs and Bjorn Degandt show off their tar skills with a spectacular display of car mastery and kerb avoidance… Nerves not quite frazzled, it’s dark when we head back to PE for some much needed food, showers and sleep before tackling it all again the next day.
Saturday, July 12
It’s a later-than-expected start to the PE Oval Track Raceway but we arrive with ample time to catch the final of the two Super Specials where two cars run simultaneously on the same course for added thrills. I’m precariously perched on a lime mound, but it’s high enough to give me a great view of most of the course, take in the wonderful cacophony of high-revving engines and crunch through more dust as the cars come screaming past for a flying finish.
According to Gareth’s calculations, we don’t quite have enough time to take in the next Culturama and Hankey stages, so we head back to the service park for a cup of tea and a biscuit before piling into the bus for the next round. It’s back to the spectacular PPC, but this time, since we have slightly more time on our hands, we head a way down the road to see the cars come through at pace. It’s another display of just how close to the ragged edge these drivers come, clipping apexes at full throttle, but also demonstrates just why the VW Rally has so far been a proper battle of attrition with several S2000 starters falling victim to the tough course.
As we head back to the cars, Gareth declares it’s time for us to make a tough decision: either we press on, deeper into the forest, to catch the final gravel stage and possibly miss the chance to catch the final stage at the stadium, or we skip Sinkdam (stage 14) and head to the stadium instead. We decide to compromise with a quick stop at Sinkdam followed by a sprint to the stadium, but the route to the spectator point’s not yet open so we head back to watch the stage start instead. This leaves us with plenty of time to get back to PE to see the final tar stage at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. We pass race leader Cronje with a friendly hoot-and-hazard salute; it’s hard to believe these cars can go at ‘normal’ speeds…
The stadium proves to be a fantastic venue with the cars bouncing over the fields and careering across the parking lot while the crowds take in the action from the stadium’s elevated steps. Once the dust clouds settle and the ears stop pinging, it’s time to take stock of the results. Hosts VWSA have had a torrid time although the Dutch/Belgian pairing of Weijs and Degandt restores some pride with a position on the third podium step after Toyota’s Giniel de Villiers/Greg Godrich retire with 7.5 points and Yaris engine problems. Mark Cronje/Robin Houghton (Ford Fiesta) take the overall honours, but second place for Toyota’s Leeroy Poulter/Elvene Coetzee is enough to ensure they extend their championship lead midway through the season.
There’s nothing like a rally experience to awaken the senses and it was good to see many locals of all ages taking in the motorsport action on the weekend. For keen rally fans in Gauteng, the Ford Dealer Rally heads to Cullinan on August 15 and 16.