The Dakar Rally is renowned as one of the world’s toughest motorsport events, and with good reason. It takes place over two punishing weeks where competitors and vehicles are pushed to the absolute limit in some of the most unforgiving terrain on earth.
For the 46th edition of this legendary race, which was held in Saudi Arabia for the fifth consecutive year from 5 to 19 January 2024, the line-up featured two official Ford entries competing in the top-tier Ultimate/T1 class through a collaboration between Ford Performance, M-Sport and Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM).
The two T1+ Ford Rangers, which are powered by a 3.5-litre V6 twin-turbo EcoBoost engine, were designed and built by NWM in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. The country has earned an enviable reputation at the Dakar Rally, with more than half of the vehicles competing in the Ultimate (formerly T1) car category being locally produced. The same cars compete in the South African Rally-Raid Championship (SARRC), which is widely regarded as the most competitive domestic rally-raid series in the world.
Featuring a combination of youth and experience, the #225 T1+ Ranger was crewed by the young South African pairing of 2023 SARRC champions Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer, while the #210 Ranger featured the Spanish crew of Nani Roma (a Dakar winner on two and four wheels) and co-driver Alex Haro.
The 2024 Dakar Rally featured 12 gruelling stages covering a total distance of 7 800km. This comprised almost 4 700km of competitive stage distance encompassing desert dunes, gravel tracks and rock-strewn paths, along with 3 145km of liaison (road sections).
“Our objective for the 2024 Dakar Rally was to finish and learn, and that’s exactly what we did, despite encountering several challenges along the way,” said NWM team principal and owner, Neil Woolridge, who became the first South African to finish the Dakar Rally in the car category in 1999, ending on the T1 podium in third place.
“It’s difficult to explain just how tough this event is but, on average over the two weeks, each day’s competitive stage on the Dakar Rally is equivalent to a normal two-day 400km race in the South African championship, plus there’s the lengthy liaisons to get through which range from just over 100km to more than 500km,” Neil said. “Competitors do this for 14 days straight with only a single rest day midway through the race where the team of technicians repair and rebuild the cars for the second week, so just finishing the Dakar is a huge accomplishment in itself.”
Stage 7 of the 2024 Dakar Rally featured the longest total distance of 873km, of which 483km was competitive stage. However, new to Dakar this year was the feared Stage 6, which was a 48-hour “Chrono” marathon stage covering 626km in Saudi Arabia’s desolate Empty Quarter with its seemingly endless dunes. With no overnight service or external communications, and having to endure remote camping in a tent with limited rations, this was undeniably one of the toughest Dakar stages in many years.
“You quickly learn that the Dakar Rally tests the capabilities of the vehicles and the team far beyond anything we would encounter in our local series, or in other World Rally-Raid Championship events,” Neil said. “That’s why Dakar has such a high attrition rate, even amongst the most experienced competitors and teams, and why it’s considered the toughest motorsport event in the world and the one everybody wants to compete in and win.”
Pushed to the limit
Gareth and Boyd showed good pace on their Dakar debut, regularly posting top 20 times despite having almost no desert racing experience. Unfortunately, a couple of suspension issues cost them considerable time on stages one and four, yet they proved their tenacity each time by making the necessary repairs and then fighting through the treacherous dust of countless competitor cars, trucks, side-by-sides, motorcycles and quads to get to the finish.
Notably, the South African champions ended Stage 4 in 164th place after having to wait for the team’s support truck to arrive, which competes in the Dakar and carries essential spares. They replaced the damaged suspension parts and had to complete the remaining 40km dune section in complete darkness. Over the next two days, they showed remarkable pace and determination along with faultless navigation, making up an astonishing 67 places in the overall standings by the time they completed the tough 48-hour Chrono and headed into the rest day in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
Nani and Alex had made superb progress with a largely hassle-free first week other than punctures, and were 13th overall by the time they reached the rest day – a fantastic result on the T1+ Ranger’s first Dakar Rally.
The team’s resolve was tested on Stage 7, though. After running as high as 11th early in the day, Gareth and Boyd were caught out by a seemingly innocuous single-caution dip that kicked the back of the car into the air and they rolled – emulating the Stage 6 incident that saw Toyota’s Yazeed Al Rajhi crash out of the race while in the lead. With the team’s never-say-die attitude, the car was sufficiently repaired so it could be driven to the bivouac, and it was a case of all hands on deck over the next 24 hours to get the #225 T1+ Ranger back in the fray for Stage 9.
Unfortunately, Nani and Alex saw their charge towards the top 10 halted with engine issues on Stage 7. They were towed to the overnight bivouac and a new engine was fitted, resulting in a 20-hour penalty being applied. They hit back with 12th place on Stage 9, only to have a gearbox bearing inexplicably let go on the liaison to Stage 10 the following morning and they were unable to start the stage. The gearbox was replaced, and the Spaniards followed this up the next day with their best result of ninth on Stage 11, and a comfortable 20th on the Dakar’s final stage. This placed them 111th overall in the car category, 44th in Ultimate and 27th amongst the T1+ competitors.
The persistence and “never give up” attitude shown by Gareth and Boyd in the face of adversity was truly commendable. They completed Stage 9 in 45th place in their hastily repaired car, were 18th fastest the following day then 13th on the long and demanding 527km Stage 11. Their ultimate reward was achieving the seventh-fastest time on the final stage, and they were finally classified 116th overall, 46th in Ultimate and 28th in T1+.
“While it was not the result that Boyd and I had aspirations of, we have to remind ourselves that it was our first attempt at the hardest race in the world, and most people don’t finish on their first attempt at the Dakar,” Gareth said. “We met Ford’s objectives to finish and learn, and hopefully showed our South African tenacity and strength to fight on and see the race through.
“Boyd and I were determined after losing the 20-odd hours in the first three days that if we had to, we would carry the car to the end. Not finishing simply wasn’t an option,” Gareth said. “We had a great run on the last stage where we were finally able to demonstrate our true pace and the performance of our T1+ Ranger.”
Neil added: “Gareth and Boyd did an amazing job and refused to give up, even when things didn’t go their way through no fault of their own. We’ve never encountered the two suspension issues we had with the car, so they were unlucky to lose so much time early on. They came into this race with just 9km of dune driving experience in a T1+ car, and they learned exceptionally fast and achieved their lifelong dream of entering and finishing the longest and toughest motorsport event in the world.
“The stage times Gareth and Boyd achieved and the way they made up places, sometimes overtaking more than 50 other competitors in a single day, was amazing to see and proved that they are genuinely capable of competing at the very top of the Dakar,” Neil added. “I’m also very proud of the robustness of our T1+ Ranger and the work done by the team to get it back in action after an almighty roll. To have it drive out the stage and then ultimately finish this year’s event with seventh on the final stage result is really impressive.
“It was a pleasure working with Nani and Alex too, as they were consistently fast throughout the race and did us proud,” Neil said. “If not for the engine and gearbox problems, which were also firsts for us, we would certainly have finished well within the top 10. Designed and built by NWM, our cars have shown the world what can be done when you have passion, determination and a great team around you.”
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Published by: Colin Mileman
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