The excitement and anticipation are building for what is expected to be one of the most competitive and thrilling seasons to date in the South African Rally-Raid Championship (SARRC) – and the Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM) Ford Castrol Rally-Raid Team is preparing to be at the sharp end of the action when racing commences at the Nkomazi 400 in Malalane, Mpumalanga, on 24 and 25 March 2023.
The team will once again be fielding two Ford and Castrol-sponsored T1+ Rangers, which are designed, manufactured and campaigned by NWM, based in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal. Following an intense year of racing and development during the inaugural season for the T1+ cars, the twin-turbo 3.5-litre V6 EcoBoost-powered Ford Rangers start their second year as serious contenders for the overall SARRC Production Vehicle title.
“Our main focus last year was to learn and develop our new T1+ Ranger as the radical design, tyre and suspension changes took us into completely new territory,” says Neil Woolridge, team principal of the NWM Ford Castrol Team. “We had already proven the impressive performance of our new EcoBoost turbo engine during the 2021 season by scoring two wins and finishing second overall in the FIA T1 class championship, but the new T1+ regulations required a total redesign of our car.
“Although there were some minor issues that hampered our results in 2022, we proved that the potential was there after scoring several podium finishes and a string of qualifying race wins,” Neil says. All of the team’s hard work and dedication eventually paid off, as Gareth Woolridge and co-driver Boyd Dreyer (#277) scored their first overall victory, and the first outright win for the T1+ NWM Ranger, at the rain-soaked 2022 season finale in Parys. “This win was the boost the team needed, and we are confident that it sets the tone for 2023 as we aim to challenge for top results from the opening race,” Neil adds.
The NWM squad certainly hasn’t been resting on its laurels and embarked on an intensive testing and development project for the T1+ Ranger. “Last year we announced a partnership between NWM and M-Sport in the UK for our rally-raid programme. One of the key objectives was to accelerate the development of our car and create the foundation to start racing internationally with this vehicle. We have already covered more than 3 000km of testing locally and overseas together with M-Sport, and this has led to an extensive range of upgrades and improvements that we’ve incorporated for this year,” Neil says.
The 2023 SA Rally-Raid Championship will certainly be one of the most fiercely contested in many years with a burgeoning T1+ field, and the NWM Ford Castrol Team is looking forward to kicking off the action in Malalane. “None of this would be possible without our valued sponsors, and we appreciate the continued support from Ford South Africa and the Ford dealers for backing the team and believing in motorsport at the highest level to represent their product.”
The NWM and Ford association spans more than 26 years, with numerous race wins, podiums and championship silverware added to the trophy cabinet. “The NWM team has certainly raised the bar with the T1+ Ranger, proving that it will be a major contender for the SARRC title this year,” says Doreen Mashinini, General Manager for Marketing at Ford South Africa. “The Built Ford Tough heritage of the race cars and what our customers can buy off the showroom floor is now closer than ever following the recent launch of our exciting new 292kW Next-Gen Ranger Raptor, as both are powered by similar EcoBoost V6 turbo petrol engines that deliver exceptional performance.”
The 2023 SARRC season will be the fifth consecutive year with Castrol as a major sponsor of the NWM team. “It’s fantastic to have Castrol and its enthusiastic team on board once again,” Neil says. “Aside from the sponsorship, we exclusively use the full spectrum of premium Castrol lubricants in our race vehicles, which have been tested and proven to deliver optimal performance in the toughest racing conditions.”
According to Jenny Heyes, BP Castrol’s Marketing Director for Africa, Castrol is proud to once again be a co-sponsor to the NWM rally-raid team for a further two seasons. “Our partnership with NWM is a great way to showcase Castrol EDGE, which is our fully synthetic high-performance lubricant that works well under extremely harsh conditions to deliver the best results for your engine. The NWM Ford Rangers are pushed to the limits in the most demanding terrain, making Castrol EDGE the perfect lubricant for this extreme sport.
“In 2023, Castrol will continue supporting the NWM team with all vehicle and drivetrain lubricants to fuel the joint passion for winning with superior driving skills and quality products,” she adds. “We look forward to seeing Lance and Gareth Woolridge fighting for podium finishes in the SA Rally-Raid Championship.”
There are several other sponsors and partners that make a valuable contribution to the team too. “I would like to thank Ford Credit, Mastercraft, Würth, Brembo, Motorcraft, Sparco, Tiger Wheel & Tyre, Ironman 4×4, Shatterprufe and Tracking Africa for the role each of them plays in our success,” Neil adds.
Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer (#277)
The young duo of Gareth Woolridge and co-driver Boyd Dreyer will be competing in their 10th season together in rally-raid competition, having finished as the top-placed NWM Ford Castrol crew in 2022.
The long-time friends started on the national scene in 2014 contesting the side-by-side (SxS) championship, and came desperately close to winning the title. They moved up to Class T in the V8-powered NWM Ford Ranger in 2015, and have consistently been among the top contenders ever since.
With their first overall win in the premier T1+ category in the bag at the season-ending Parys event last year, they have their sights firmly set on regular visits to the SARRC podium. “Our pace last year was good, despite the technical niggles we had to sort out on the new T1+ Ranger. With all the testing and development we’ve done on the car, we are looking forward to taking the fight to our rivals and challenging for more race wins,” Gareth says.
Lance Woolridge and Kenny Gilbert (#234)
Two-time Class T champion Lance Woolridge will be joined by a new co-driver for the 2023 season, as multiple South African off-road motorcycle champion, Kenny Gilbert, takes over the navigator’s seat from Elvéne Vonk.
“I’ve enjoyed three great seasons with Elvéne, who is fantastic to work with. She has been an enthusiastic part of our team and is a wonderful ambassador for the sport. The energy and passion she put into our time together are immensely appreciated,” Lance says. The pair achieved multiple successes, with the most notable highlights including powering the FIA T1-class EcoBoost Ranger to two wins in its debut season in 2021, and being in contention for the championship title right to the end, eventually credited with a hard-fought second place overall.
“Looking forward to the long-term goals for our global NWM rally-raid programme, Kenny will be a great asset to the team with his local and international racing experience,” Lance says. Kenny set out to achieve his Dakar Rally dream by competing in the arduous 2019 edition in South America. He crossed the finish line in a highly commendable 19th place overall, second in the rookie division and the top-placed South African rider. He followed this up with a ninth-place finish at the 2019 Merzouga Rally in Morocco.
“Motorcycle rally-raid competitors are renowned as excellent co-drivers, as they have to ride flat-out on two wheels over challenging and unpredictable terrain, while simultaneously navigating using the supplied road book and GPS,” Lance explains. “These attributes will play an important role in my ambitions, and that of the team, as we set our sights on an international campaign with our T1+ Ranger.”
Although it will be a radical change for the business owner from Ermelo, Kenny is up for the challenge and relishes the opportunity. “I am privileged to partner with a team that is as passionate about motorsport and performance as I am,” Kenny says. “While being in the car is very different from what I’m used to, it gives me the same thrill as we are pushing the limits.
“I have a lot to learn and it’s baby steps for now, but I’m already having a lot of fun in the car with Lance. I am confident that my experience will benefit the team,” Kenny says.
Aside from his rally-raid exploits, Kenny has numerous SA off-road motorcycle titles that bear his name, including the 2013, 2014 and 2015 overall championship wins. He was runner-up in 2016 and 2018, won the senior national off-road title in 2022, and remains a top competitor this year.
First NWM T1+ privateer
For the first time, the two NWM Ford Castrol Rally-Raid Team entries in the premier T1+ class will be joined by a privateer squad in a third EcoBoost V6-powered NWM Ford Ranger (#241).
Wors Prinsloo, a Class T race winner in the NWM Ranger V8, withdrew from the championship during the 2022 season and sold his vehicle with one goal in mind – to compete at the top level of the series with the mighty new T1+ Ranger. He will once again be partnered by co-driver Andre Vermeulen.
“We are delighted to have a third T1+ EcoBoost Ranger competing in the South African championship along with our two official entries, and Wors has been eagerly awaiting the arrival of his new car,” Neil says. “It is a significant step up from Class T to T1+, but Wors has done an initial test with us, and he did a regional event this past weekend ahead of the Malalane race to find his feet with the new vehicle.”
It will be a steep learning curve for the crew, but Wors is looking forward to the first national race of the season. “The T1+ NWM Ranger is a completely different animal compared to the Class T V8 Ranger,” he says. “It’s going to take a bit of time to get my head around the beating this car can take as the limits are so much higher, particularly in rough conditions. It requires a whole new driving style, but it really is an amazing vehicle.”
Ranger Raptor route vehicle
While remaining a series sponsor of the SA Rally-Raid Championship, Ford South Africa has renewed its sponsorship of the route reconnaissance vehicle, which is used by the SARRC route director to plot the race, identify and mark safety cautions, as well as pre-run the course at realistic recce speeds.
The SARRC team will once again benefit from the race-developed Ford Performance DNA, high-performance suspension with FOX dampers, the specially tuned Baja drive mode and the exceptional all-round capability of the unrivalled Ford Ranger Raptor. The SARRC team received one of the last 2.0-litre Bi-Turbo diesel Ranger Raptors assembled in South Africa.
Demand for the even more exciting and astonishingly capable 292kW EcoBoost V6-powered Next-Gen Ranger Raptor, which is now fully imported and was launched in February 2023, far exceeds supply with all of the first allocation already sold – a testament to the immense success and strong following generated by the already segment-defining outgoing model.
“The route reconnaissance vehicle plays such an instrumental role in the extensive preparations for each of our races. Over the past two seasons the Ford-sponsored Ranger Raptor has enabled us to significantly improve our route planning, marking and pre-event reconnaissance, particularly when it comes to ensuring the safety of competitors, landowners, officials and spectators,” says Archie Rutherford, CEO of the SA Rally-Raid Championship. “Despite being a completely standard vehicle, the Ranger Raptor has proven astonishingly capable in even the roughest terrain that the race routes traverse, and we are extremely grateful that Ford South Africa has continued its vehicle sponsorship for 2023.”
Nkomazi 400 race programme
The Nkomazi 400 in Malalane returns to the SARRC calendar for the first time in six years. The event will be based at the Nkomazi Fuel & Gas Depot, which will also serve as the race headquarters, designated service park and start/finish.
The 2023 season roars into action with a 65km qualifying race on Friday 24 March, starting at 12:30, which will determine the starting order for the main race. Saturday kicks off with the first 175km loop at 08:00, followed by a mandatory service stop before repeating the route for a second time.
Spectators will have easy access to multiple viewing points located close to the N4. Fans can also follow all the action and track the position of the crews throughout each of the 2023 season’s seven races using the RallySafe app which can be downloaded free of charge for iOS and Android devices from the relevant app stores.
ROUND DATE EVENT VENUE
- 1 24-25 March Nkomazi 400 Malalane, Mpumalanga
- 2 12-13 May Sugarbelt 400 Eston, KwaZulu-Natal
- 3 23-25 June Toyota 1000 Desert Race Jwaneng, Botswana
- 4 & 5 18-19 August Parys 400 Parys, Free State
- 6 6-7 October Welkom 400 Welkom, Free State
- 7 10-11 November TBA TBA
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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