It was a battle of endurance and survival on the only three-day marathon event on the 2017 South African Cross Country Series (SACCS) calendar, but the Ford Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM) Puma Lubricants team emerged with two Rangers on the overall Class T podium at the 2017 Toyota Kalahari Botswana 1000 Desert Race.
Brian Joss – After winning last time out at the Battlefields 400 in Dundee, Lance Woolridge and Ward Huxtable (T34) produced a determined and focused effort to claim second place in the combined results, with Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer (T77) securing third place and extending his consistent run of podium finishes during the first half of this season.
Although Henk Lategan and Barry White (T17) were unable to complete the first race – which included Friday’s qualifying and the Saturday heat – they were in flying form for the second heat on Sunday and blitzed the field to set the fastest time and secure the race two victory.
This ensures that the Ford NWM Puma Lubricants crews are well positioned for the second half of the 2017 championship, and entrenches their status as leading contenders for this year’s title along with overall Desert Race winners Johan and Werner Horn (Malalane Toyota Hilux).
With the Desert Race comprising a two-part event with double points up for grabs, it was guaranteed to be full of excitement and drama – and so it proved when Race 1 kicked off with qualifying on Friday, comprising a short 61km sprint.
Gareth Woolridge and co-driver Dreyer led the charge in Class T, finishing the opening section a mere 5 seconds ahead of Lance Woolridge and co-driver Huxtable, with the Horn brothers close on their heels just 19 sec adrift.
After crashing heavily at the Battlefields race, and sporting a practically brand new car for this event, Lategan and White adopted a cautious start for their Desert Race debut. Nevertheless, they posted the 6th fastest time in the fiercely competitive Class T, proving significantly quicker than many seasoned cross country crews.
An additional 420km of racing awaited the teams on Saturday, comprising two 210km loops split by 20 minutes of service.
However, Gareth was suffering from flu that started on Thursday, and he began feeling ill in the twisty section 60km into the first loop. After some food and medicine during service, he began pushing hard on loop two but hit a rock and picked up a puncture – only to encounter a second puncture while chasing the Horn brothers in the dust. Nevertheless, they finished fourth in Class T.
Lance and Ward set a superb pace in the first 50km of the race until a puncture halted their progress briefly, which allowed their Toyota rivals to surge ahead. While fighting back, the Ford suddenly stopped, and Lance managed to trace the fault to a connector for an electronic control unit that had worked its way loose – but the delay cost them about four minutes.
Fortunately, they had a clean run through the second loop, setting the fastest time amongst the Class T contenders to bring the T34 Ranger back into contention, ending the first combined heat in third place, less than two minutes behind the Malalane Toyota and 38 sec adrift of Jason Venter and Vince van Alleman (4×4 Mega World Toyota).
It was an even more challenging day for Lategan and White, as their vehicle sprung a fuel leak when a filter came loose shortly after the start of the stage. Coasting back to the pits, they literally made it back on fumes, and resumed their challenge on the second loop. It was all going well until they too had a puncture, only to have their wheel studs shear off around 100km later which ended their race.
The two-part nature of the Botswana 1000 Desert Race meant that a whole new race was lined up for the teams on Sunday, comprising an all-new, very fast and challenging route covering a total of 420km. The starting order was determined by the results from race one, with the Woolridge brothers setting off third and fourth.
A puncture early on dropped Lance and Ward back slightly, but they replaced the wheel in record time and resumed their challenge to chase down the two Toyotas ahead. They passed Venter/van Alleman when they too suffered a puncture, and then aimed for the Malalane crew – but it was not to be as their rivals managed to complete the race without a single puncture to earn the overall Class T victory based on the combined results from the two heats.
Despite still suffering from flu, Gareth and co-driver Boyd fought tenaciously through the physically demanding, high-speed 210km loops.
Although the bodywork of the T77 Ranger took a beating in the thick bush, the crew were on form throughout the race, with the only setback being a puncture on loop two. Having also passed the Toyota of Venter/van Alleman, they were able to cement a solid third overall for the Desert Race – their third podium finish on the trot.
The second race saw a fantastic change in fortune for the third Ford NWM Puma Lubricants crew of Lategan and White. Relegated to the mass start at the back of the field, the ex-rally aces scythed their way through the field and enjoyed a faultless run through both 210km loops to set the fastest time in Class T for race two – a full 2 min 13 sec quicker than Johan and Werner Horn, who were second quickest for the day. Lance and Ward posted the third-fastest time, with Gareth and Boyd fourth.
Neil Woolridge (Team Principal), said: “The Botswana Desert Race was tough as always, and that’s why we put in a huge effort before this event and I’m very proud of the team to have all three cars finishing with some good results.
“Although we dropped back slightly in the championship, it’s still a decent result for the championship which has become a three-horse race going into the second half of the season, with Lance and Gareth competing head-on with Malalane Toyota for the title this year.
“They both drove very well, and their speed at times was unbelievable.
Punctures definitely impacted the results, and Gareth hasn’t been feeling well all weekend, which is a real pity as they have put a lot of work into preparing for this season, including training hard in the gym four times a week. But overall, it’s a great result for them and the entire team.
“I’m also really happy for Henk. He had a huge accident in Dundee, and then had some bad luck yesterday. He came back today and drove exceptionally well. He didn’t have any punctures and drove a clean race to win this heat, so all credit to him and Barry. They kept the flag flying high for the team and it’s fantastic for them to do so well early on. This will have done Henk’s confidence a lot of good.”
According to Lance Woolridge (T34), the result is slightly frustrating.
“We had the pace throughout the weekend, but the puncture we had each day, both of which happened early on when the teams were all close, just threw time away.
“We managed to make back the time we lost due to the punctures, but not gain any further advantage, and without this we would have been way ahead. We also had the technical issue that cost us time on Saturday, so I know we could have done even better. But that’s the way it turned out, and although our aim is to win, we scored two third-place finishes in the heats and second overall, so we can be relatively pleased with the result. “The competitiveness in Class T is great, but it means that one mistake or puncture can decide the race, so we have to be fast and clean all the time.
It’s exciting to race like this.”
Gareth Woolridge (T77), said: “I came here this weekend hoping for a win, but some hectic flu hit me on Thursday night which made things more difficult than it should have been. I felt strong in the prologue on Friday, but Thursday wasn’t easy. We pushed hard today and had a puncture on the second lap while trying to push hard for the lead and get as many points for the championship as possible.
“Saturday’s route was more open but a lot more physical. The higher the speed the more taxing it was, and I really had to hang onto the steering wheel with the car moving around a lot in the soft and deep sand. I think it was a good call by the organisers to introduce a new route for the second loop, as it wasn’t nearly as rough as last year’s stage, but was very challenging to drive.”
Henk Lategan (T17), commented: “We had a tough weekend to start with, but it definitely improved by the end. After our crash in Dundee I was cautious during qualifying and wasn’t pushing hard on the jumps and bumpy terrain. I also struggled a bit with the sand, but got used to it as the race progressed.
“Our pace was good on Saturday, but it all went wrong with the fuel issue and then the puncture. While changing the tyre we dropped the wheel nuts in the sand by mistake, and this caused the wheel to work loose and the studs sheared off around 100km later, so we couldn’t carry on.
“On Sunday we started right at the back, and it was very tricky to overtake in the dust and with all the trees and bushes next to the track, but we had a good rhythm and passed at least eight cars.
“The first loop went very well, and we then got stuck in the dust of other cars a lot on loop two, so we had to take it easier. But we didn’t have any punctures and were fastest on the day, which we are really happy with.
“I’ve finally figured out how to drive in the sand, and this is a fantastic way to end our first Desert Race. Hopefully this bodes well for the next race too.”
The next event takes place in Harrismith on 28 and 29 July.