The South African Rally Raid Championship (SARRC) raised the ante for competitors on 18 and 19 September 2023 by scheduling back-to-back races for rounds four and five of the 2023 season in the Free State town of Parys. The event lived up to all expectations of being a tough test for the teams and vehicles, with almost 750km of fierce competition playing out in the dry and extremely dusty winter conditions over the two days.
For championship leaders Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer (#277) it was a crucial opportunity to score maximum points in their Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM) Ford Castrol T1+ Ranger. The opening 24km qualifying sprint for Friday’s race set the scene for a thrilling duel as they posted the third-fastest time, with team-mates Lance Woolridge and Kenny Gilbert (#234) matching their time – with mere seconds separating the top crews.
The main race, which comprised two loops of 173km each, unfortunately didn’t go to plan, as a mechanical problem sidelined Lance and Kenny just 13km into the opening stint. Gareth and Boyd were running as high as second place on the first lap until a rear CV joint failed, and they eventually had to stop to remove the driveshaft. Having to contend with two-wheel drive only, they dropped back to seventh by the time they returned to the pits for the mandatory 30-minute service where the driveshaft was replaced.
Gareth and Boyd were determined to recover lost time on the second loop, and they did just that, managing to fight their way up to fourth by the end of a tough and extremely fast race which saw all the teams regularly running on the regulated speed limiter of 170km/h – with an astonishing average speed of just under 100km/h for the entire loop which primarily comprised farmlands and some district roads.
The NWM-supported privateer Ranger team of Wors Prinsloo and Andre Vermeulen (#241) was classified 11th in qualifying, but made up good ground during the race to ultimately finish seventh in T1+.
The NWM technicians set about working on Lance’s car once it was returned to the pits to ensure it was ready for Round 5 of the SARRC on Saturday, which they only completed in the early hours of the morning in icy sub-zero temperatures.
Another short 18km qualifying stage on an entirely new route for Saturday saw Gareth and Boyd set the third-fastest time, with Lance and Kenny back in action. They qualified ninth, matching the time set by Wors and Andre in the privateer T1+ Ranger. However, the team found a sensor issue that couldn’t be resolved in the short time available, so they were down on power.
There was a thrilling battle at the front of the field throughout the main race which comprised two 170km loops, as the top crews traded places on numerous occasions. Gareth and Boyd pushed hard on the opening loop, but a damaged CV boot on the final lap meant they adopted a slightly more cautious pace for the remainder of the race to end third overall. This gave the young crew their fourth podium finish of the 2023 season. Based on the provisional results, they look set to retain the lead of the overall Production Vehicle and class T1+ championships with two rounds remaining.
“We had two very fast and tough races this weekend, and it was difficult to find any advantage without taking a lot of risk,” Gareth said. “We weren’t as strong as we had hoped to be, and this kind of terrain definitely seemed to suit our rivals better. However, a fourth and third keeps the championship battle alive, and I’m sure it will go right down to the wire.”
After the disappointment of dropping out on Friday Lance and Kenny were desperate to get back in the action, but they had to contend with reduced power which hampered their pace. They completed the two fast-paced loops without any issues and were rewarded with sixth place overall and some valuable championship points.
“We pushed as hard as we could today, but lost time on both loops due to the reduced performance,” Lance said. “The route was very high speed but also rough with lots of rocks in places that could easily catch you out, so it required lots of concentration which made it really tiring. But the important thing was that we had a clean race and scored good points, and Kenny was amazing today.”
Wors and Andre made it three T1+ NWM Rangers in the top 10. They suffered a damaged front brake disc early on the second loop, and subsequently had to rely on the handbrake alone to slow the car which made the remaining 100km extremely difficult. They soldiered on to bring the car home in a commendable eighth place in T1+.
“Overall I think we can be satisfied with our results today considering some of the challenges we’ve had this weekend, and it’s great to still have Gareth and Boyd in contention for the championship,” said team principal Neil Woolridge. “The tighter and more technical terrain definitely seems to suit our car better, but we will go back and see where we can improve for these fast open races and come back stronger.”
The next race takes place in Welkom, in the Free State, on 6 and 7 October 2023.
2024 Dakar Rally
Ford Performance is set to expand its global motorsports effort by competing in the legendary Dakar Rally, one of the toughest off-road competitions on Earth.
The purpose-built, race-ready Ford Ranger will compete in the 2024 Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia in the Rally Raid T1+ class. Ford Performance is collaborating in a comprehensive test and development program with M-Sport and Neil Woolridge Motorsport to prepare for what is expected to be an extremely tough challenge come January 2024.
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:
Published by: Colin Mileman
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