The Ford crew, who also won this rally in 2012 and 2013, led the Toyota Yaris of Leeroy Poulter and Elvéne Coetzee by 25.5 seconds at the overnight stop, and they stretched this to 44.4 seconds by the second-last stage.
Then the Toyota challenge faltered as the Poulter/Coetzee car lost all-wheel drive, while Giniel de Villiers and Carolyn Swan, sitting in a comfortable third in the second works Yaris, had their engine let go at high speed.
That gifted factory Volkswagen Polo pair Gugu Zulu and Pierre Arries an unexpected podium finish; Cronje and Houghton finished an emphatic 3m38s ahead of the crippled Poulter/Coetzee Yaris, with Zulu and Arries another 3m29.3s adrift.
Cronje said afterwards: “It was the most difficult Sasol Rally I've done. The conditions were treacherous and, while it was already bad on the first day, it was even worse today because of the inconsistent road surfaces.
“In these circumstances you were never sure when you could push or where you should hold back.”
The high attrition rate - only 13 of the 26 starters were still running at the finish - promoted Namibians Wilro Dippenaar and Kes Naidoo (Toyota Auris) to fourth, 58 seconds behind the VW crew, and also to a class win in NRC4.
Thilo Himmel and Armand du Toit (Volkswagen Polo) came in fifth, with the luckless De Villiers and Swan classified sixth.
‘NOWHERE TO GO’
The final day started with a bang when Henk Lategan and Barry White, running third in their factory Polo, only 12 seconds behind Poulter and Coetzee, were caught out by low cloud and fine rain on the first stage in the centre of Nelspruit - the infamous “spaghetti junction” tarmac stage and got into a vicious spin.
As they recovered, however, they turned in front of the next car on the road - the privateer Ford Fiesta of Japie van Niekerk and Gordon Noble, accelerating hard towards them at about 120km/h.
A shaken Van Niekerk took up the story: “I had nowhere to go, I just knew I had to avoid going into the crowd. There was very little of substance to protect spectators at that point and I just tried to steer the car through a gap that was closing fast.”
The Fiesta lost its right front wheel in the collision and continued straight on, narrowly missing a group of spectators standing less than a metre away.
“I've hurt my neck a bit and Gordon has a bruised ankle but I'm just relieved that there weren't any bystanders involved, although the car is badly smashed - I estimate the damage could exceed R1 million.”
As oil from the damaged Ford leaked onto the tarmac it was decided to cancel the stage. The next six stages were all won by Cronje and Houghton, but Zulu and Arries sneaked the short final stage win at the Lowveld Showgrounds in Nelspruit by 0.1sec.
AFRICA RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP
The international competitors found the going very difficult, since they're not used to these kinds of conditions.
In the end it was the Kenyan pair of Jaspreet Chatthe and Craig Thorley (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo RC2) who took class honours, beating Zambians Jassy Singh and Sajid Khan (Subaru Impreza), by almost three minutes and finishing seventh overall.
Chad van Beurden and Nico Swartz (VW Polo) won the S1600 class, finishing eighth overall and beating current log leaders Paulus Franken and Henry Kohne (VW Polo R2), who finished 10th overall, by more than two minutes.
Original source: Ford unstoppable on wet Sasol Rally