Trinityhouse Old Boy, Richard Leeke, made big waves on the South African motorsport scene in 2017, coming within a hairs-breadth of winning the National Rally Championship.
Leeke, who played First Team rugby in 2013/14 and First Team cricket 2012/13/14, lost out in the final event of the season, his Ford Fiesta suffering a terminal mechanical problem which forced his retirement, whilst leading. If he had finished the event and taken the titular crown, he would’ve also rewritten the history books and become the youngest-ever national champion in the sport. But there aren’t any ‘ifs’, ‘buts’ or ‘maybes’ in motorsport…
What he did achieve however was to become the youngest-ever rally driver to a win a national event, achieved with victory on the VW Rally in July and eclipsing a record which had stood since 1966. Leeke was 21 years and four months at the time.
Leeke had a busy motorsport year by any standards and as well as the National Rally Championship he also competed in the South African Cross Country Series in a Ford Ranger bakkie. As in the rally car, he had co-driver Henry Köhne alongside, reading the ‘pace notes’ which serve to give the driver the best possible picture of what lies immediately ahead. The two of them popularly became known as the ATS Motorsport Young Guns, despite the youthful-looking Kohne turning 30 in the course of the year!
In 2017 they took part in eight rallies and six cross country events, making them the busiest team in non-circuit racing circles.
Their rally season looked like this:
2017 got underway with the Hallspeed regional rally on which they finished second overall and first in class. They missed out on the overall win by a few second from a potent, all-wheel-drive Subaru.
The Nationals started with the Tour Natal. The Young Guns finished second behind Guy Botteril, fighting their way back to the runner-up position from fourth place after a burst brake pipe cost them time.
On the York Rally in Mpumalanga – the longest and most arduous of the year – they rolled while in second place. They righted their car and continued despite a missing windscreen (they wore motorcycling goggles instead) and persevered to finish sixth.
The Secunda Rally was going brilliantly and Leeke/Köhne were leading until they experienced electrical problems, eventually pushing the car into the service area so that technicians could attend to it. They eventually finished third, keeping their championship hopes very much alive.
Everything fell into place on the Volkswagen Rally and Richard became the youngest-ever overall winner of a national championship rally.
Next up was the Electrothread Rally. The tussle with arch-rival Botteril continued, and Richard finished third, behind double national champion Hergen Fekken who made a come-back to keep the youngsters on their toes. Botterill won the event overall and re-took the championship lead. Just 18 seconds separated the three cars after 142km of special stages.
The penultimate event of the year was the Caledon National Rally and the pressure was on. Second in class and third overall was enough to take the championship lead again, helped by Botterill retiring with a mechanical failure. It wasn’t a perfect event by any means for the Young Guns though and the chance of a class win was lost due to ignition problems.
The team’s only retirement came on the event which mattered most – the Carnival City Rally. A showdown with Botterill would decide the 2017 championship and the cards were definitely stacked in Richard’s favour. Essentially, Botterill had to win to take the title. The Young Guns raced into an early lead and were 12 seconds ahead after the fifth and final stage of the first day of the event. Inexplicably, on their way to parc ferme (a controlled area where the cars are held overnight before a restart the next morning) the car cut out and refused to fire up again.
Their event was over…and knowing that they would end the season as runner-up in the overall championship was scant reward.
Leeke, needless to say, was devastated: “When the car just stopped it was almost like a bad dream…Henry and I just looked at each other, speechless. We tried everything we could to get the engine running again, but it was as if we had left the battery back in the service park!”
But he was also gracious in defeat: “It was a great season of close fighting and in particular the tussle with Guy and Simon has been epic. I think everyone has had to be at the top of their game and that’s what it is all about.”
Richard’s Cross Country campaign (his first) was always going to be about learning the ropes and the only goal was to try get as much race mileage as possible. But in motorsport, things seldom go according to plan:
Lichtenburg 400 – The Young Guns, first taste of Cross Country Racing. The rear differential of the Ranger broke after just 30 kilometres.
Battlefield 400 – Bam! Leeke won Class S in only his second Cross Country event and finished 12 overall!
Toyota Desert 1000 – Long and extremely challenging, the Botswana-based “Desert Race” is a huge test of man and machine. It is scored as two events and Day One was character-building. Three punctures and only two spare wheels is the kind of arithmetic which doesn’t have a logical answer and despite borrowing a wheel – which didn’t fit properly – the Young Guns were eventually time-barred (excluded based on exceeding allowable time).
Nevertheless, Day Two was approached with a different philosophy and they enjoyed a clean run en route to finishing second in class.
Harrismith 400 – A DNF (Did Not Finish)
Sun City 400 – Another DNF…
The Atlas Copco Gold 400 at the end of October was Leeke’s final motorsport event of the year, coming just a week after the disappointment of their rally retirement. And 2017 did end on a high note: he drove the Ranger bakkie to another Class S victory and 11th overall, despite a fraught start to the event.
It was sufficient to move the Young Guns into third place in class S for the year – a reasonable way for things to end, even if the goal of finishing every event wasn’t achieved!