The build-up to the start of the 2023 South African Rally-Raid Championship (SARRC) set the scene for an epic battle in the premier T1+ Production Vehicle category – and the season-opening Nkomazi 400 in Malalane, Mpumalanga, on 24 and 25 March certainly didn’t disappoint with Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer earning a hard-fought second place overall in their Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM) Ford Castrol T1+ Ranger (#277).
From the outset, it was clear that the two NWM T1+ Rangers had the pace to challenge for the top positions, with Lance Woolridge and new co-driver Kenny Gilbert (#234) posting the second-quickest time on Friday’s intense 65km qualifying loop through the area’s lush green sugarcane fields. They were just over a minute behind the Toyota crew of Henk Lategan/Brett Cummings, and five seconds ahead of the second Toyota of Giniel de Villiers/Dennis Murphy.
Gareth and Boyd were on a charge until 15km into the loop when one of the turbocharger boost servos stopped working. Despite being down on power for most of the lap, they were remarkably fourth quickest in T1+ and fifth overall, just 35 seconds behind De Villiers/Murphy.
Friday’s hot and humid conditions carried through to Saturday’s main race, making the going tough for all competitors. It turned out to be an unfortunate and rather dramatic morning for Lance and Kenny, as their good run came to a premature end when a broken clutch pipe left them stranded just 24km into loop one.
The crew had to react quickly as the leaking clutch fluid caused a fire to develop in the hot engine bay. Lance managed to extinguish the flames before any significant damage was incurred, but in the process, he inhaled smoke and carbon dioxide from the fire extinguisher. He was treated on-site by the event medics before being transported to hospital in Mbombela (Nelspruit) for further examination, and then released a couple of hours later with a clean bill of health.
“It was very frustrating to end our race early after qualifying second on Friday, and Kenny and I felt good in the car for the first part of the race,” Lance said. “But we can be very proud of the team and all the work we’ve done on the cars since last year, which has allowed us to be on the same pace as our championship rivals.
“Kenny was thrown in the deep end on Friday as it was his first race as a co-driver, but he did really well and is learning very quickly,” Lance added. “It’s a pity that he didn’t get more mileage under the belt after our race ended early, but I am very happy with the partnership and relationship that we have, and I am excited about the future.”
Fortunately, there were no dramas for Gareth and Boyd on day two, and they were on a charge on the opening 180km loop. By mid-way through the loop they had made up significant time on the rest of the field and surged into second place overall behind Lategan/Cummings, and ahead of De Villiers/Murphy.
The second loop, which repeated the demanding route through the tall sugarcane plantations and a treacherous mountain trail, was completed without incident or a change to the podium positions, handing the NWM Ford Castrol crew a well-deserved second place overall.
“I really wanted to win this race and felt that we had the pace to challenge for victory, but I’m happy with second place,” Gareth said. “The issue we had on Friday put us on the back foot, and realistically we weren’t going to be able to make up the time we had lost to Henk and Brett. We pushed hard on the opening loop which moved us up to second place, but I backed off on the second loop as I didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks.
“It’s a great start to the year with valuable championship points, and we are looking forward to being very competitive throughout this season,” Gareth added.
For team principal Neil Woolridge, the 2023 Nkomazi 400 will be remembered for its mixed emotions. “On Friday we had a minor technical issue with Gareth and Boyd’s car, however Lance and Kenny did very well with second place and that was really encouraging, proving that our development work has paid off.
“Saturday saw the roles reversed, and we are exceptionally grateful that Lance is fine after the scare with the fire and then the smoke and carbon dioxide inhalation. We appreciate the support from the event medical crew, as well as the hospital staff that did a thorough assessment on Lance, and he was released a couple of hours later,” Neil said. “Fortunately there is minimal damage to the car.
“Gareth and Boyd did an amazing job on the first loop and made up a lot of time, and then drove an intelligent and mature race on the final loop to secure the podium position and valuable championship points. I’m extremely proud of the whole team, as we’ve really raised our game this year,” Neil said.
NWM privateers Wors Prinsloo and Andre Vermeulen (#241) also proved the outstanding performance of the T1+ Ranger – despite this being their first SARRC event with the car after making the move up to the premier category, having previously competed in a Class T Ranger V8.
They outclassed several established and highly experienced front-runners in the series during Friday’s qualifying loop by finishing 10th overall and sixth in T1+. A damaged fan belt cost them time on Saturday’s first race loop, but they fitted a spare belt in the stage and had a trouble-free run on the second loop, securing seventh place in T1+ and 17th overall.
Unfortunately there was a sad note to the start of the Nkomazi 400, as Johan Horn Snr – who did much of the preparation and organisation for the race (as he has done for many others) – suffered a stroke on Friday morning and passed away on Saturday.
“Johan Snr has given so much to this sport and to the town of Malalane for decades,” Neil said. “On behalf of the NWM Ford Castrol Team, I extend our heartfelt thoughts and condolences to the Horn family, the TeamHilux crew and everyone at Malalane Toyota during this extremely difficult time.”
The next race is the Sugarbelt 400 in Eston, KwaZulu-Natal, on 12 and 13 May 2023.
The Neil Woolridge Motorsport Ford Castrol Rally-Raid Team is proud to be supported by the following sponsors and partners: Ford Credit, Mastercraft, Würth, Brembo, Motorcraft, Sparco, Tiger Wheel & Tyre, Ironman 4×4, Shatterprufe and Tracking Africa.
Follow the team’s updates and progress on the following social media channels:
- Facebook: www.facebook.com/FordPerformanceSA
- Instagram: instagram.com/fordperformancesa
- Twitter: twitter.com/FordPerformanc3
Published by: Colin Mileman
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