A week ago, it seemed that the Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM) Ford Performance Class T championship hopes had evaporated in the blaze that destroyed the team’s Pietermaritzburg workshop, as well as its two race cars.
Brian Joss – But Chris Visser and Ward Huxtable kept their title aspirations alive in the 2016 Donaldson Cross Country Championship by crossing the finish line at the Lichtenburg 450 fifth in class, thus scoring valuable points to hold onto second place with three events remaining.
During Friday’s 83km qualifying, the duo charged through the extremely dry and dusty farmlands around the dry and dusty North-West town to end with the second-fastest time, just 11 sec adrift of front-runners Gary Bertholdt/Geoff Minnitt (VW Amarok) – despite suffering a rear puncture just 3km from the end of the stage.
This was an exceptional effort, considering that this was in a Ranger built in 2013 by NWM, hastily borrowed from fellow competitor Kobus van Tonder and almost completely rebuilt in a matter of days. Just making the Lichtenburg race was a miracle in itself.
Two loops of 191km each awaited the teams on race day, but unfortunately Visser and Huxtable’s charge suffered an early setback with a puncture just 5km into the stage. The soft ground exacerbated the problem as they struggled to find a solid surface in order to jack the car up and replace the tyre – costing them 15 min in the process.
They resumed their charge with determination and passed several cars, only to suffer another puncture 30km from the end which allowed the same competitors past again. An erratic electrical fault had also developed, causing the car to cut out.
The 20 minutes of service was completed without incident, and they set off again to make up lost places. However, the electrical problem returned 70km into the second loop, causing the car to cut-out regularly – both at speed, and when stopping for road crossings – thus severely hampering their progress.
Nevertheless, Visser and Huxtable commendably soldiered on and completed the full race distance, ultimately finishing fifth in Class T. Although this saw them relinquish their championship lead to race winners Jason Venter/Vince van Alleman (Toyota Hilux), they remain in contention, just 17 points adrift with 90 points still on offer over the three remaining races – a great result for the team, considering the adversity that faced them just a week earlier!
Neil Woolridge (Team Principal), said this obviously wasn’t the result they were hoping for. “But considering everything we’ve been through in the past week I think we can be reasonably satisfied.
“After the news of the fire, if someone had said we would still make the race and score 12 points I might have thought they were crazy. But we did it, and I have to say thank you to Kobus for lending us his car, and a huge thanks to the team for their huge and tireless efforts to get it ready.
“The qualifying result proved that the car is still competitive, but the punctures didn’t help, and it’s clear that there are some niggles that need to be worked out.
“Now we will return to the workshop, assess the fire damage and determine our way forward. Hopefully Kobus will let us use the car for the remainder of the season, and we can spend the next couple of weeks getting it ready so that we can fight back in Malalane.”
Chris Visser (T8): said: “I really didn’t think that we would be racing this weekend, so it’s great to actually be here. At the same time, it’s very disappointing to not have had our new car, as I’m sure we would have been able to set a winning pace.
“The punctures were a big problem, especially the first one where we couldn’t get the car jacked up and lost a lot of time. The car was actually going really well at times, although the suspension was too hard, and then we had the electrical problems.
“But we got some good points, and we’re very much still in the fight for the championship. Hopefully we can be more competitive at the next race, and give it a good shot.”
The next race is the Malalane 450 in Mpumalanga, on August 26 and 27.