Brian Joss –
The Ford Performance team of Lance Woolridge and co-driver Ward Huxtable scored their second podium in a row by finishing third overall on the Sugarbelt 450, round two of the Donaldson Cross Country Championship which finished in Eston, KwaZulu-Natal at the weekend.
In what were hot, dry and extremely dusty conditions, the Pietermaritzburg-based crew led home their team-mates, Chris Visser and Japie Badenhorst who finished fourth in the Production Vehicle category.
Based in the Eston farming area, less than 40 km from the Neil Woolridge Motorsport base located in nearby Pietermaritzburg where the Ford Performance Rangers are built and prepared, the team was looking forward to a great weekend of racing.
However, the region hasn’t had rain in more than two months, and the resulting dust played a critical role in the weekend’s race.
In the 112 km qualifying loop, Visser and Badenhorst were enjoying a clean run until hitting a gulley extremely hard when they crossed over a small bridge approximately half-way through the section. The resulting impact damaged the vehicle’s chassis and, although not immediately hampering their performance, they elected to back off slightly to ensure they got the Ranger home.
The vehicle was repaired overnight, but it set them up for a third-placed starting position for Saturday, 1 min 44 sec behind Leeroy Poulter/Rob Howie (Toyota), and 1 min 28 sec adrift of Taylor/Murphy (Toyota).
Woolridge and Huxtable, eager for another podium result after scoring second place on the RFS Endurance in Harrismith, had a frustrating qualifying session. They caught Bertholdt/Rousseau within the first 30 km, but were severely hampered by the dust with absolutely no way of getting past. They eventually finished 3 min 41 sec adrift of the leaders, giving them a fourth-placed starting position for Saturday.
Race day dawned clear and hot, giving the crews a tough time on the route which is renowned for being extremely physical due to the tight and twisty sections through the sugarcane fields and timber plantations.
Visser and Badenhorst were running well for the first part of the opening 151 km loop, but yet again had a cruel turn of luck when the engine developed an erratic misfire, which slowed their pace. The problem was traced to a faulty engine map sensor that was replaced at the 20 minute service, but the chance of a top result was already out of the window.
Woolridge and Huxtable had closed on their team-mates during the first loop, but once again the dust made it impossible to come within shouting distance of an overtaking manoeuvre. The Ranger required minimal attention during the scheduled service, and they set off on the second loop just behind Visser and Badenhorst.
The running order of the Ford Performance Rangers was ultimately reversed 67 km into lap two when Visser/Badenhorst drifted into a rock at high speed, leading to a puncture which cost them around 3 min while changing wheels.
This allowed Woolridge and Huxtable to surge ahead, and the remaining race distance was completed without incident for the two Ford Performance entries, giving the local pair third overall and a well-deserved second podium finish in a row, with Visser/Badenhorst coming home a solid fourth. The race was won by Poulter/Howie, with Taylor/Murphy in second.
Neil Woolridge (Team Manager) said, “To get both cars home on a tough event like this is a decent result, especially after the dusty conditions made it so difficult during qualifying.
“The Sugarbelt 450 is always a very demanding race on the crews and the vehicles, as it’s extremely tight and twisty for a lot of the route. The tyre wear on this race was far more severe than I’ve seen in many years.
“We’re happy with the third place result for Lance and Ward, which helps keep the championship alive, but this year is going to be tough with only six rounds, so we need to score maximum points at each race.
“The team is going to be working hard preparing the cars for the Desert Race in Botswana, and we have some changes lined up that should make the Rangers faster.”
According to Lance Woolridge (T34), “The dust made this race very difficult right from the start, but we salvaged what we could and scored valuable championship points with third place, and we’re tied in second place with Taylor and Murphy. “It was a great route this year, but was very rough in places, tight in others and had some extremely fast sections, so it was a good test for driver, navigator and the Ranger.”
Chris Visser (T28): said, “We really hoped for a good result on the Sugarbelt after the difficult Harrismith race, but the misfire set us back on the first loop and then we hit a rock while going really fast on the second lap which caused the puncture, and eliminated any chance of a podium finish. “For the rest of the race we were going well, and really enjoyed the route. Hopefully we can come back on the Desert Race.”