Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer earned a well-deserved podium result for Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM) Ford Performance on the Nkomazi 450 race in Malelane at the weekend.
Brian Joss – A month ago, it seemed that their hopes of completing the 2016 season had gone up in smoke with the fire at the NWM workshop in Pietermaritzburg – especially considering their latest-specification Class T Ford Ranger was extensively damaged.
However, an extraordinary effort by the crew saw the V8-powered Ranger completely rebuilt and finished just in time for the Malalane race – and the team was duly rewarded with a third-place finish for the young duo, their second of the year.
It certainly wasn’t all plain sailing, though, with a revised route for Nkomazi 450, the fifth round of the 2016 Donaldson Cross Country Championship, taking a heavy toll on the standard 4×4 tyres being used for Class T this year.
The NWM Ford Performance Ranger of Chris Visser and Ward Huxtable set off first for Friday’s 104km qualifying loop, but succumbed to two punctures which dropped them down the order. Nevertheless, they set the fourth fastest time, behind team-mates Woolridge/Dreyer who picked up a single flat tyre.
Local competitors, Johan and Werner Horn (Toyota Hilux), led the charge ahead of Johan van Staden/Mike Lawrenson (Nissan Navara).
Only five of the finishers managed to complete the prologue without a puncture, and all competitors experienced extreme levels of tyre wear due to the highly abrasive surface. This saw teams scrambling to find additional spare tyres in preparation for the 312km main race.
Saturday dawned very hot and dry, and although the issue of dust has hampered close racing most of this year, the adoption of two-minute dust gaps between each of the cars for this event was welcomed by all in the interests of competitiveness and safety.
However, tyre preservation remained a priority over the two 154km race loops, and Woolridge/Dreyer completed the first loop without incident, coming into the mandatory 20-minute pit stop in second place behind the Horn brothers.
Unfortunately, luck seems to be an elusive commodity for former champion Visser and co-driver Huxtable during the second half of the season. They picked up two punctures on the first loop, compounded by a bent jacking point. This resulted in the Ford Ranger pair dropping down to seventh place by the time they reached the service point.
The field was regrouped after service and set off again with 2 min intervals. Visser was on a charge and set a series of fastest split times, managing to move up a couple of places in the process – only to have to deal with another flat tyre, courtesy of the unforgiving road surface.
They soldiered on to the finish and ended up fifth behind championship rivals Jason Venter/Vince van Alleman (Toyota Hilux).
Woolridge and Dreyer lost time on the second loop with a puncture, and settled for a more cautious approach for the remainder of the race to pick up a solid third overall in Class T behind Van Staden/Lawrenson and the winners of their home race, Johan and Werner Horn.
Neil Woolridge (Team Principal), said: “Overall it was a good weekend, especially for Gareth and Boyd after missing out the last race. They got a solid third, which is great to see after the hard work everyone put in.
“The team thought I was mad three weeks ago when I said that we should rebuild Gareth’s car after the fire, and have it at Malelane. But they all pulled together and worked exceptionally hard to get the car ready for this event. It was literally finished on Wednesday before the race and loaded on the truck that evening. We had no problems at all with the vehicle during the entire race, which is a fantastic result for what is effectively a brand new car. The team has really done us all proud.
“It was a very tough race. I think we all got caught out with tyres as the route and the heat were both a killer. In retrospect we definitely should have brought more tyres, but we certainly didn’t think they would wear as quickly as they did. However, the terrain was exceptionally hard on all of the tyres. Also, this is our first year running on the production 4×4 tyres, so it’s still a bit of a learning curve for everyone.
“As a result, the guys really had to look after their rubber during the race, which is not really what you want. But all the teams are in the same boat.
“Once again Chris was very quick, but all the punctures really set him back.”
Gareth Woolridge (T7), added: “I’m pretty happy. If anyone had said a couple of weeks ago that we would be racing in Malelane, and would get a podium, I’d have gladly taken it. We had a really good first lap, and we were running second on lap two, so I was really optimistic and excited about that.
“But with the tyres taking a beating I didn’t want to risk dropping off the podium, so I played it safe and finished third. I had one puncture in roughly the same place as the cars in front of us, so we all landed up replacing tyres together, which was actually quite funny.
“The terrain was rough and hard, and there was simply no margin for error when going even slightly off the track. Once the soil had been dug away by all the cars after qualifying and the first loop, it left an abrasive rock surface that just chewed up the tyres.”
“Other than the punctures, it was a good race and the car was brilliant, running faultlessly throughout the race.”
Added Chris Visser (T8):“ I don’t know when our luck is going to change. We were setting some really good times this weekend, but then we got two punctures in qualifying and another two on the first loop. We lost a lot of time with the first puncture today as the jacking point was bent and we had to try and fix it before we were able to lift the car.
“On the second loop I figured that we had nothing to lose and set some really fast times. Ironically we only got one puncture on lap two, even though we were going faster.
“We’re still figuring out how hard we can push with these tyres compared to the race tyres we used previously.
“Overall, aside from the punctures, the race was good and the car performed really well.”
The next race is the Sun City 450 on September 30 and October 1.