BOX 5, Westhoven, 2142
DULLSTROOM – The NWM Ford Castrol Team had a competitive first outing for its new Class FIA T1+ EcoBoost-powered Ford Rangers at this weekend’s Mpumalanga 400 in Dullstroom – the opening round of the 2022 South African Rally-Raid Championship (SARRC).
The race was split into two parts, as Friday’s session kicked off the season with a short 20km qualifying sprint, which saw Gareth Woolridge and co-driver Boyd Dreyer (277) emerge as the quickest of the Fords in fourth place. Team-mates Lance Woolridge and Elvéne Vonk (234) ended fifth, just three seconds adrift.
A new top 10 draw format added strategy and intrigue to the line-up, which saw Gareth and Boyd starting second on the road behind reigning champions Henk Lategan/Brett Cummings (Toyota), with Lance and Elvéne setting off fifth.
With a mere 36 seconds separating the top five competitors, the scene was set for a thrilling first race loop of 85km, located in the forests and undulating terrain near the small town of Belfast. Lance and Elvéne had a great opening stint, pushing hard to move up to third place overall in the mostly dry and dusty conditions, ending the day just 01:38 off Lategan/Cummings, and 38 seconds behind Giniel de Villiers/Dennis Murphy in a second Toyota.
Gareth and Boyd were less fortunate. An awkward landing after a big jump shot them off the track and into a huge rock that destroyed the right front wheel, but luckily with no further damage to the Ranger. Once a spare was fitted, they got going again and crossed the line in 10th place overall, and fifth in Class FIA T1+.
The heavens opened just as the day’s racing drew to a close, and the rain continued throughout the night and into the second day which made the conditions extremely slippery and unpredictable in places.
With two loops of an entirely new route, each comprising around 90km of racing and 50km liaison, it was all to play for as the action resumed on Saturday. Lance and Elvéne embraced the challenge with vigour and had moved into the lead of the race by the third split of the opening lap, with a margin of 01:15 over De Villiers/Murphy. Sadly, the prospect of a second consecutive victory in Dullstroom slipped out of their grasp as they slid into a tree approximately 20km from the end of the lap. Although they made it back to the pits, it was evident that the chassis was damaged and they were ruled out of the fight and into retirement.
“It was a disappointing end to the race for us, but it was very exciting and promising leading the race coming into the halfway point. This gives me a lot of confidence in our new Ranger,” Lance said. “Overall I’m pretty happy with our performance this weekend. We have a very competitive package to fight for the championship.”
With their team-mates out of the running, Gareth and Boyd were fighting their way back in earnest from 10th place, and had surged back into contention to complete the loop in third place. After the splash-and-dash during the mandatory service stop, the young pair resumed their charge and had their sights on potentially moving up a step on the podium. However a technical niggle that cropped up in the final portion of the race put the brakes on those aspirations, and they were relieved to make it to the finish after several of the top crews dropped out.
“I am very happy with third place, considering our incident yesterday and the intermittent throttle that we had at the end of the race,” Gareth said. “We’ve had a very busy build-up to this event and only finished my car last week, so we’ve done very little testing and the team has been working exceptionally hard to get us here. Based on our times over the race weekend I’m very happy with our new T1+ Ranger. We still need to do more testing and refine the set-up, but I’m excited about the potential that we’ve shown at this race.”
Team principal Neil Woolridge echoed the sentiment. “It wasn’t the perfect weekend for us, but we need to look at the positives. Lance and Elvéne went very well yesterday and had a decent lead today. I was quite surprised how quickly they caught the Toyotas of Henk and Giniel this morning, and it’s a pity that they went off in the slippery conditions. But it’s fantastic to show that we are competitive against our opposition who have had the benefit of a lot more mileage and development time with their car.
“Gareth and Boyd had an excellent run today to work their way through the field and finish on the podium,” Neil said. “It was a pity that they lost time near the end with an electrical gremlin. However, it was great to see how both crews settled into the car today after a tentative start on Friday. So this is really encouraging and heart-warming for me. There’s a lot more to come from our new Ranger, but it’s already clear that the car is very quick, particularly in the tight stuff.”
Neil Woolridge Motorsport received the Team Award for the Mpumalanga 400 thanks to another dominant performance from its V8-powered NWM Ford Rangers with a clean sweep of the silverware. Wors Prinsloo and Andre Vermeulen (T41) notched up another victory in Class T, and finished an impressive ninth overall after a faultless drive.
Bernard and Minette Johnstone (T22) brought their NWM Ranger home in second place, ahead of Christo Rose and Arno Olivier (T58).
The next race is the Sugarbelt 400 in Eston, KwaZulu-Natal, on 29 and 30 April 2022.
Follow all the action and track the position of the crews throughout each of the 2022 season’s seven races using the RallySafe app which can be downloaded free of charge for iOS and Android devices.
Ford and Neil Woolridge Motorsport are proud to be supported by the following sponsors and partners: Castrol, Ford Credit, Mastercraft, Wűrth, Bosch, Sparco, Sign Solutions, Tiger Wheel & Tyre, Ironman 4×4 and Shatterprufe.