The adventures of world travelling co-driver Niall Burns continues! In this episode he takes us on alongside as he competes in his first South African National Championship event.
Episode 5 – South Africa Championship Round 1 by Niall Burns
Having spent the last number of weeks in South Africa training and competing in the first round of their national championship, The Goldfields Rally, a lot of people have asked me what the events and atmosphere is like. As I’m currently sat in Dubai on route to my next event in Europe I will do my best to answer this one and to quote the locals it is “ lekker “. The South African Championship has 7 gravel events in total contested across the country. The sole manufacturer entry is from the Toyota team in S2000 Yaris’s,who have Dakar regulars Giniel De Villiers and Leeroy Poulter as its lead drivers. There are several private teams running Ford Fiestas including current champion Mark Cronje and there are a few Volskwagon Polo S2000s also. Volskwagon did have a works team competing here last year backed by local company Sasol but due to budget cuts the team did not enter this year. I am Co-Driving in the hotly contested S1600 class of the series with Capetown driver Ashley Haigh Smith a former Drive DMACK Fiesta Trophy WRC contender. We competed in a Ford Fiesta R2 and we faced competition from several other Fiestas, Volskwagon Polos and Toyota Itos.
The Goldfields Rally was based in the town of Welkom close to Johannesburg and are run according to the MSA rulebook which offers quite unique challenges. The HQ was located at the Pakisa Raceway which featured a stage around the track incorporating it’s NASCAR style oval which was quite interesting to attack in an R2 rally car I must say. It was the first time in 47 years since an event was run in this part of the country so the route was new to starting crews and the sport of rallying itself was new to a lot of the locals. Several groups of new fans were in service during tech inspection to ask questions about what the sport was all about and how it worked. Out on the rally route we passed through small townships with locals lining the stages to witness all the action. The first pass was obviously still a learning phase as on the second pass of the stages they certainly were not shy to encourage us to go faster!!
The stages are mostly based around local farms and include wide open flat out sections, narrow tracks between farm buildings and quite rough sections through forests. Surfaces can change from smooth gravel, to sand, to concrete lanes and sometimes these sections are surrounded by high game farm fences that you certainly would not want to crash through!! Another real challenge here of course is the heat. With temperatures at this rally reaching 93 Degrees Fahrenheit it can prove to be quite tough in the car to keep concentration as stages can vary from 15 to 34 kilometres in length. This is why if you follow me on social media you see me train so much physically as it helps me cope with these conditions.
The organisers of The Goldfields Rally were extremely helpful and issued us plenty of information before and during the event. I also must acknowledge the South African Rally Championship organisers who do a fantastic job promoting the series, check out the website SArally.co.za. They have a fantastic media and TV package, and the coverage of this particular event will certainly be worth a look. The friendly atmosphere between the organisers and competitors was also keen to see with the organisers even treating competitors to cake at the drivers briefing to acknowledge upcoming birthdays (by the way just in case you see this Jackie or Elanore mine is in August!!). The event was based over two days and Leeroy Poulter took the overall win this time, unfortunately for us on this occasion our engine expired early on day two. We were on the pace with the leading S1600 crews so that gives us confidence moving into the next round. Speaking of which, the next round is the Sasol Rally which is a counting round of the African National series in addition to the South African Rally Championship so it promises even more competition from Kenyan and Nigerian crews. It is based in Sabie and is one of the most popular events of the series and promises big crowds as the whole town actually shuts down for the rally. Schools and local business’s close as the rally is one of the highlights of Sabie’s year. This is an atmosphere I can not wait to witness and of course I will let you all know how it goes.
Unfortunately I did not make the 100 Acre Wood Rally this year due to a clashing event in Ireland. I hope to catch up with you all on the west coast. So that’s another “ view from the right seat “ done again keep your questions coming to me or Mike and I’ll do my best to get round to answering them. Niall