The Ford Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM) Puma Lubricants team scored a resounding victory at the Battlefields 400, the second round of the South African Cross Country Series (SACCS).
Brian Joss – Treacherous conditions faced the competitors when the action got underway on Friday for the short 46km qualifying loop, with heavy runs in the Dundee area resulting in extremely wet and muddy terrain becoming a defining feature of the entire weekend’s racing.
Nevertheless, the Ford NWM came out on top, with Lance Woolridge and Ward Huxtable scoring their maiden win of the year in the mighty V8-powered Ford Ranger. Team-mates Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer made it a Ford NWM one-two by securing their second consecutive runner-up finish.
In all likelihood, this was the first time brothers finished in the top two positions in the premier Production Vehicle category in a South African cross country race – with Lance and Gareth extending the Woolridge family’s impressive legacy in the sport, initiated by father and NWM team principal Neil.
Unfortunately, the tricky conditions caught out Henk Lategan and Barry White who failed to finish the race after an end-over-end roll during the second loop. Although battered and bruised, they were unhurt in the incident thanks to the exceptional strength of the NWM-built Ford Ranger.
After heading to the Battlefields 400 with winning intent, the Ford team completed the short, wet and extremely muddy 46km qualifying loop on Friday largely on the back foot.
Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer set the outright fastest time for the session, even beating the faster FIA-specification vehicles, with Lategan and White following close on their heels in second place. However, both crews were subsequently penalised – along with a couple of other teams – for misjudging a road crossing, which didn’t have the obligatory warning signs placed on the approach to the crossing.
Due to the hefty 10-minute penalty applied by the race officials, they were relegated to 10th and 11th places in Class T respectively, with a mammoth task awaiting them come race day in an attempt to salvage crucial championship points.
Fortunately, Lance Woolridge and co-driver Ward Huxtable had a clean and cautious run, finishing the tricky prologue in sixth place.
The heavy rains experienced in the Dundee area over the past couple of days continued throughout Friday night and into Saturday, making the Battlefields region a truly treacherous outing for all the teams. Surviving to the end of the race would be a victory on its own.
Indeed, the conditions were extremely challenging on race day, with the crews having to navigate through numerous water crossings, sliding their way across clay muddy sections and attempting to keep all four wheels pointing in the desired direction on the slippery grass for two 173km loops.
Lance Woolridge and Ward Huxtable made the most of the challenge, progressively picking off the leading contenders with a faultless and mature drive to score a well-deserved victory.
Further back, the other two NWM Fords traded places several times during the first lap until Lategan and White picked up a puncture. This allowed Woolridge and Dreyer to take the advantage once again, thereafter maintaining a hassle-free run to the finish to notch up two second-place finishes in a row this season.
Sadly, the same couldn’t be said of the newcomers to the team, who have impressed with their amazing pace and looked set to wrap up a clean sweep of the Class T podium with several of their rivals falling by the wayside.
Approximately a third of the way into the second loop, Lategan and White went slightly off line in the slippery mud, and hit a fast bump in sixth gear which pitched their vehicle into a multiple end-over-end roll. To the relief of the team, they emerged shaken and stirred, but largely unscathed.
Neil Woolridge (Team Principal), said: “This is a fantastic result for the team and the championship. I’m very happy for Lance and Ward picking up the win in these very difficult conditions.
“Last night Gareth and Boyd were devastated about the penalty, but to come back today and finish second shows true character and determination. It’s all part of cross country racing, which is a tough sport.
“It’s a huge pity what happened to Henk and Barry, but that’s also part of learning this game, and this was only their second cross country race. The penalty probably put them under pressure, and the conditions were very treacherous and unforgiving, but the important thing is that they weren’t hurt.
“Henk is a very talented driver and is extremely quick, so they will bounce back. It just takes time to convert the rally mentality into cross country racing, and we’ve seen from many other top drivers, such as Leeroy Poulter, that this takes time.
“For us, it’s all about the championship. The Rangers were perfect and we didn’t have to do any work on them after qualifying or at the service between the two loops, so it’s a credit to the hard work the team has put into the vehicles for this season.”
Lance Woolridge (T34), explained: “My aim for this event was just to have a good, clean race, and we achieved just that. During qualifying I really wasn’t all that comfortable with the conditions as it was very slippery. So I erred on the side of caution and was 40 seconds slower than the leaders over the 46km, but I prefer starting further back and picking off the teams ahead, and it worked out perfectly during this race.
“We picked off the other teams one by one as they had problems or slid off the road. The weather made things very interesting, and at times it was a lot of fun. Some corners I was on full lock with the power on in a full four-wheel drift, and on others the car was all over the place under braking.
“We had a fantastic 60km dice with the two Malalane and 4×4 Mega World Toyota crews, swapping places and finding gaps to get passed again which was fantastic. That’s what racing is all about.
“It was nice to get a better result after a difficult start to the season in Lichtenburg, where I was disappointed finishing in sixth place, so this is good for the championship.”
Gareth Woolridge (T77), said: “We started with the goal of just putting our foot down and making up as many places possible during the race, as we really had nothing to lose after what happened during qualifying.
“Within about 30km Henk and Barry caught up to us and we let them pass, but for the next 60km we stuck with them and, at times, I felt we could have gone faster. When they pulled over for a puncture we pulled away and passed about five cars, and never looked back.
“The route was very difficult because it was so unpredictable. It was extremely slippery in some places, then relatively dry and dusty in others, plus the rain kept on coming and going. But I really enjoyed the last 100km section of the route which was fast and flowing. I’m pleased with the result after being really unhappy after qualifying, and it’s good for the championship.”
Said Henk Lategan (T17): “We came from way back after the penalty, and had a clear run, except for the puncture near the end of the first loop. We didn’t have a great rhythm as it was so slippery, but we felt comfortable with our pace – maybe a bit too comfortable.
“On the second loop there was a really fast section with a right-hand corner, which we went over fine during qualifying and the first lap. But this time I was probably a bit too fast, and when I braked it pushed us wide in the mud. We hit a really bad part of a jump in sixth gear, and it kicked the back up and pushed the front into the ground, sending us end-over-end. I’m not sure how many times we rolled.
“We’re a bit shaken and bruised, but otherwise we’re fine. Hopefully we can fix the vehicle for the next race.”
The next event is the Toyota Botswana 1000 Desert Race in Jwaneng, in June.