The Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM) Ford Performance team got its 2016 cross country championship campaign off to a solid start this weekend with a podium finish for Chris Visser and Ward Huxtable in the revamped Class T Production Vehicle category of the Donaldson Cross Country Championship.
Brian Joss – The season-opening RFS Endurance race was held in Vryburg in the North West province, with its characteristically hot and extremely dusty conditions proving to be defining features of this year’s race.
During Friday’s 189km qualifying loop, Gareth Woolridge and co-driver Boyd Dreyer (T7) led the NWM Ford Performance Rangers and were amongst the fastest runners. However, they picked up a puncture and were delayed further due to a damaged jacking point after a minor altercation with another competitor during a passing manoeuvre. They ended with the sixth fastest time in Class T and 10th overall in the Production Vehicle category.
Team-mates Chris Visser and Ward Huxtable (T8) suffered a puncture just 8 km from the start, and finished 14 sec adrift in seventh place. Despite strong winds, the crews were severely hampered by the intense dust that would ultimately influence the rest of the race, making overtaking slower competitors virtually impossible.
Race day on Saturday dawned clear and without a breath of wind, resulting in the massive dust clouds building with every passing vehicle.
Woolridge and Dreyer certainly had the pace, but were stuck behind Hennie de Klerk/Adriaan Roets (BMW) for nearly 80km during the first loop, only managing to find their way past when the BMW slowed due to a misfire.
Unfortunately, the young Ford pair then overshot a corner while making up time and went through a fence, with barbed wire getting wrapped around the rear axle – in the process cutting through the brake lines and damaging a CV boot. They also picked up a puncture and lost time when the vehicle fell off the jack twice, yet soldiered on to finish the lap without brakes.
The service crew did a brilliant job of repairing the Ranger, only picking up an additional 3 min of lateness in the service park. The second lap was completed without any further problems, but Woolridge and Dreyer were plagued once again by dust throughout the 239km loop that put paid to their chances of fighting back through the field. They crossed the finish line eighth in Class T.
It was a less dramatic race for Visser and Huxtable, but no less frustrating. They made up a couple of places on the first lap, passing their team-mates when they stopped for repairs, and surging past the BMW crew. This gave them a bit of clear air to claw back a bit of time, but within 40km they were stuck in another vehicle’s dust yet again.
The service was completed without hassle and they set off on the second loop in fourth place. However, the dust had become much worse after more than 60 Production and Special Vehicle competitors passed through the course for lap one, with no wind to blow it away.
The Brazilian team of Marcos Baumgart/Kleber Cincea and Cristian Baumgart/Beco Andreotti Neto, competing in the newly introduced FIA class in two Neil Woolridge Motorsport-built and serviced X Rally Team Rangers, gratefully allowed Visser/Huxtable past early on.
But the leading Ford Performance Ranger was then trailing Johan van Staden/Mike Lawrenson (Nissan) and the Keith Makenete/Greg Godrich (BAT Special Vehicle) with absolutely no way of passing as the visibility was minimal at best and dropped to zero at times.
Visser and Huxtable finally brought their NWM Ford Performance Ranger home third in Class T, scoring valuable championship points on what was a very challenging event. The class win went to Jason Venter/Vince van Alleman (Toyota), followed by Van Staden/Lawrenson.
Reigning champions Leeroy Poulter and Rob Howie (Toyota) took the overall victory and the FIA class win.
All four NWM Rangers commendably finished the RFS Endurance race, with the X Rally Team’s Cristian Baumgart/Beco Andreotti Neto scoring an impressive third place in the Dakar Rally specification FIA category, with Marcos Baumgart/Kleber Cincea fourth in class.
Neil Woolridge (Team Principal): “The first race is done and we got some good points. It’s a long season, and although this isn’t the result we had hoped for after setting out to win, third place is a decent result and it’s great to see that the cars performed really well.
“This race was won or lost in the prologue, with the dust and punctures setting the tone for the entire weekend. After both NWM Ford Performance Rangers got punctures in qualifying we were immediately on the back foot, and there was simply no way to make up time with the poor visibility throughout the race.
“We’re delighted, though, that all four Rangers finished and proved that they are both quick and reliable. The modifications that we did on the NWM Ford Performance Rangers for Class T worked extremely well, and that’s a great starting point for this year.
“The Ranger definitely has the pace to win, and we saw that in qualifying where Gareth made up about 3 min on the VW Amarok that started ahead of him. Chris’ pace is also really good, so we have the makings of success, for sure, and are looking forward to the next race.”
Chris Visser (T8): “We didn’t have any problems today, other than the dust which was terrible. We overtook a couple of cars near the start and had a nice gap that allowed us to make up time on the cars ahead. But as soon as we caught them there was just no way to get close or pass. The dust was much worse on the second lap as it was just hanging in the air, making things very difficult.
“We caught up quickly to Johan van Staden on the second loop, but landed up sitting in his dust for the whole lap. At one stage I managed to get right next him, and I went wide to try and pass but the car was bottoming out and we were heading for a gate, so I had to pull back behind him.
“There was just nowhere else that I could get close enough in the dust to safely overtake, even when Keith Makenete slowed down about 30km from the end to allow both of us to pass. So I just tried to keep it clean till the end.
“It’s good to score some points in third, and we didn’t have a single problem with the Ranger which the team has improved a lot since last year, and it definitely has the pace.”
Gareth Woolridge (T7): “We had a good start, but got caught in Hennie de Klerk’s dust for around 80km. His car slowed with a misfire and we managed to out-drag him on the straight, and then were going really well.
“After that we overshot a corner and went through a fence. A short while later we lost brakes at the back, so we had to stop and cut all the wire off the rear axle, and it also damaged a front CV boot.
“We kept going but towards the end of the lap we had absolutely no brakes, and in the dust we got a puncture. Because the handbrake then wasn’t working, the car fell off the jack twice as we tried to change the wheel, so it went from bad to worse.
“Everything was sorted out during service, and we had a problem-free second lap, but we sat in dust from the start and just couldn’t get past anyone. It was a difficult race for us, but at least all four Rangers made it home.”