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The long and winding rally road

By 2007 SA Rally Champion Jan Habig.

We start every event with the intention to drive as hard as possible - with one single aim in mind, to win. Truth is though, one small hiccup can seriously set you back. This means adjusting your game plan and considering just finishing instead and banking the points.

The 2007 SA Rally Championship season-opener proved itself a good example of this. The Toyota Dealer Rally in the Western Cape was the first round of the series this year. It wasn't a particularly difficult rally and we had a new car. Although they look identical, each car has its own personality and character. That first event I concentrated on building trust in the new car so second overall was a good start for the year.

Round two was the very popular Sasol Rally - and a particularly short one for Douglas and I. Just how short? First stage, first corner, rock, puncture and broken suspension. Time to go home. That was really disappointing, especially since I really enjoy the Sasol Rally and it also left us languishing in 10th place in the championship.

Next round to consider was the Zulu Rally. As a native of KwaZulu-Natal, there is always extra pressure to perform "in your own back yard". Things were going well initially and we were just two seconds off the lead after the first day. Then we had the power steering fail in the tight mountainous bits and lost a significant amount of time. Somewhere along the way I slid wide and bashed the suspension breaking a rose joint. After all this, fifth place overall was acceptable for that event. It is extremely difficult to overcome major time lost in the S2000 class. With six very evenly-matched cars and their very determined drivers in competition you have to make the best of a bad situation, settling for what you have in the bag and the safer option of finishing. By the end of the Zulu Rally we had clawed back two places to sit in eighth place in the championship.

We finally got our long overdue win on the Ermelo-based Total International Rally. This win was helped by a near-perfect BP Volkswagen Polo and it ended a dry spell dating all the way back to August last year. Dusty conditions with the late afternoon sun hanging low on the horizon seriously affected visibility on the event and the safety notes really came into play. I put complete faith in Douglas and his every instruction, giving us a distinct advantage.

Between us we spend around five days preparing our notes for every rally and this really pays off in low-visibility situations. Our long-standing relationship as team-mates also pays dividends and we've developed an instinctive trust.

Now, when you get to the Volkswagen Rally in Port Elizabeth, the hometown fans expect a BP Volkswagen win. This year there was plenty of tar in the mix and I made a judgement call on the setup. A few stages in we realised my choices weren't having the desired effect. Still, there was an amazing showdown on the final 1.2 km stage at Kings Beach. BP Volkswagen team-mate and defending champion Enzo Kuun and I were tied for second place. I cannot describe the elation when we beat him by just one second! These tight spectator stages are a double-edged sword - you can win a lot, but you can also lose everything.

Then we headed to the Osram Rally which takes place around Bloemfontein and Dewetsdorp where we claimed fourth place overall. By now we were even on points with Serge Damseaux and suddenly the race for the title was "all systems go!"

At this event most of the roads used call for high-speed driving and there are just a few corners and rough bits. The car wasn't quite to my liking so Douglas and I just hung in there to claim some more championship points.

The first quarter of the season was a disappointment but, with a possibility of claiming another championship a reality once more, we redoubled our efforts. A great deal of time was spent with the team in the workshop, honing the car to my liking..

We had decided to play the odds, determined more than anything to finish every remaining rally for the season. We know where the limits are, and also what the margin for error is. Both Enzo Kuun and our other BP Volkswagen team-mate Hergen Fekken were pushing each other hard, and something simply had to give. And give it did.

The Total Swartland Rally proved a source of frustration as my car developed a misfire after every water splash and Douglas and I were bogged down in fourth place. The penultimate stage was 49km long and we decided to give it everything we had. Every corner was perfect, 110 % all the way, over the edge and we survived to tell the tale. Suddenly we jumped from fourth to second place, just four tantalising points off the championship lead - another straight fight between the older warhorses.

When we arrived for the final event showdown at the Toyota Dealer Rally in Gauteng, conditions could not have been worse. The heavens opened and the stages were turned into a quagmire. The event started badly for us with a puncture on stage two. Conditions had turned the rally into a lottery and Douglas and I knew we would have to work for this one - there was simply no alternative. Our luck turned though. Serge had slid off the road, and was forced to retire the Toyota and his race for the title. Over the next one-and-a-half kilometres of that stage Douglas and I debated if it was indeed Serge that was off the road. When that bit of news was confirmed, we settled in for a cruise to the finish - our fourth place across the line in the event would be more than enough to secure the championship.

Enzo and Hergen were forced to try for a win and hope I had problems to claim the title. So they went hell for leather the whole weekend. Things just weren't going their way though, and Enzo bowed out on the penultimate stage with Hergen's car the worse for wear.

So in the end we claimed second place on the event - more than enough to also claim the championship title. It was a tough finale to the year and conditions made the roads incredibly difficult to read. Whenever I hit that middle pedal I didn't really know what to expect.

By the end of the season Douglas and I had survived 93 stages (well, most of them) and around 1 750 racing kilometres, all spread over those eight punishing events between late March and the end of October.

When speeds during these events peak around 200 km/h on gravel stages, driving requires more than the average level of concentration. The rewards though, are worth it. The title this year makes a hat trick of victories for the BP Volkswagen Rally Team. We've now won three S2000 titles since the introduction of the class in 2005. This once again proves that the dedication and expertise in the workshop is the backbone of the team's success.

It was an amazing year and one championship in the current S2000 class is worth at least two in the days of the Audi Quattros - the early 1990s. There are six cars in the class with an equal chance of winning and there have been four championship leaders during the course of the year. Douglas and I were just in the right position when it mattered most.

There will be more S2000 competitors than ever entering the fray come March next year - when my BP Volkswagen Polo will be displaying the coveted number one. I'm expecting it to be even tougher come the fight for championship title number seven.

While eight events in a season might not be a great many to observers, they create a punishing schedule that demands serious commitment. It also creates a great many opportunities for memorable moments. While some might matter on only a personal level, there are highlights that carry great importance. I'll share some of the top moments with you.

When campaigning a works rally car in the eight-round championship, you create memories and we rather enjoy the highlights of a season. This year the highlight was winning the national championship with my long-time navigator Douglas Judd. This is our second S2000 championship since the introduction of the class, and we were able to keep flying the BP Volkswagen team banner, giving these two main sponsors their third consecutive championship

There are actually a number of other notable events that took place this year, with one particular event head-and-shoulders above the rest. I have to single out the achievement of Gugu Zulu during the 2007 championship. Gugu has been competing on the national rally scene in a class A5 BP Volkswagen Citi Golf. He has also been quite happy to tell everyone that what he really wanted was to compete behind the wheel of a VW Polo in class A7. It isn't that easy to progress through the ranks on the rally scene though.

To move up in the rally world requires commitment and effort. Well, Gugu showed his commitment to the sport by winning the class A5 title - and that at the sixth round of the national series. The reward for this effort and achievement was a seat in class A7, behind the wheel of that Polo he wanted so much. No doubt we'll be hearing from him soon again, but this time his eye will probably be firmly fixed on an S2000. In the meantime he'll be expected to continue showing class-winning form with his navigator Carl Peskin to back him up and keep them both on the road.

Then I also have to make mention of another team-mate, Hergen Fekken, who, along with his navigator Pierre Arries, claimed two top podium finishes this season. For Hergen this has been a long road to claiming his first national rally victory, and I'm sure at one stage he even thought it might never happen. Well he certainly made his own fortunes on the Zulu Rally, and he backed that up at the end of the season with a second place overall. This is a very good performance for a driver and navigator new to the S2000 class. Driving a four-wheel-drive rally car is an experience unlike any other. With the exception of the production car class (N4), all other classes of rallying are only for two-wheel-drive entries.

The S2000 class is a steep learning curve but, with all the new entries and the new cars expected for next year, it is going to be one of the most hard-fought and hotly-contested classes on the national scene.

While not on the list of highlights, there's definitely the retirement of Serge Damseaux that must be mentioned. At the season finale Serge announced his competitive national career is now at an end. That's a sad day for the sport of rallying.

During his career Serge has amassed 10 championship titles and 74 rally wins. That's no mean feat for any rally driver. With a rally career that trails back as far as 1981 he really is one of the sport's old boys. No doubt he will be missed. Besides being a thorn during events, meaning that every competitor in his class had to constantly factor Serge into the equation and try to predict his strategy, he is also a first-class competitor. With his retirement from the sport there is a pair of very large racing boots to fill for the coming seasons.

For now, it's the start of the silly season and the speculation about cars, sponsors and teams. When the 2008 season kicks off in March next year, its back to work and Douglas and I will be out to defend our title.

In the meantime, to all rally organisers, officials, sponsors and supporters, from everyone at the BP Volkswagen rally team, have a blessed Christmas and travel safely wherever you go this festive season.

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