The Ford Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM) Puma Lubricants team had plenty reason to celebrate at the end of this weekend’s Harrismith 400, round four of the South African Cross Country Series (SACCS).
Brian Joss – Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer scored their first-ever victory in Class T, after a faultless performance throughout the two days and 448km of racing.
In addition, team-mates Lance Woolridge and Ward Huxtable brought their Ranger home in second place, giving the two young crews maximum points, and significantly bolstering their challenge for this year’s championship title in South Africa’s premier cross country racing category.
The team’s third entry, featuring Henk Lategan and Barry White, once again showed their impressive pace in their debut season, but were hampered by a technical issue in the first part of the race. Nevertheless, they fought on tenaciously, and were rewarded with sixth place in Class T.
The Harrismith round of the South African cross country championship returned to the calendar this year following a one-year hiatus, but now featured an all-new route located north of the historical eastern Free State town.
Best described as fast and furious, the challenging route was dominated by lots of high-speed farm tracks interspersed with numerous switchbacks, sharp turns and a seemingly endless array of treacherous jumps ready to catch out any overly confident competitors.
The teams had a short and sharp first taste of the route during Friday’s 46km qualifying section, which would be repeated as part of the longer main race route on Saturday.
The sprint format for the prologue produced an exciting tussle at the sharp end of the Class T field. Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer led the charge in the Ford NWM Puma Lubricants Ranger, crossing the flying finish just eight seconds ahead of Lance Woolridge and co-driver Huxtable.
They, in turn, held a slender 6 sec advantage over Chris Visser and Phillip Herselman (Toyota Hilux), while Lategan and White were snapping on their heels just two seconds adrift. Just 16 seconds covered the top four contenders, thus setting the scene for a great battle.
Having started the Harrismith 400 tied for second place and 22 behind championship leaders Johan and Werner Horn (Toyota Hilux), it was essential for both Woolridge brothers to score maximum points – a task made marginally easier with the Horn brothers only managing seventh fastest during qualifying.
Predictably icy early morning conditions greeted the teams on race day, which was set to be an all-out attack by the Ford crews. However, having only experienced a quarter of the race route thus far, the challenge was to find the perfect balance between outright speed without breaking the cars or picking up punctures, particularly over the many daunting jumps.
During the first 201km loop Gareth and Boyd produced the goods, scorching through the intensely dry and dusty conditions without incident to set the fastest time once again – but with Lance and Ward hot on their heels as they entered the mandatory 20 min service, with a scant 18 seconds separating the leading Fords.
Although Henk and Barry set quick times during the opening section, their vehicle suffered a wheel bearing failure which caused havoc with their brakes for the remaining 150 km and saw them lose 3 min in the process. The bearing was replaced during service, but this cost them an additional 22 min over the allowed 20 minutes of service, which put them on the back foot.
The second loop saw an exceptionally mature and measured drive by Gareth and Boyd yet again, and they completed their weekend with a clean sweep of fastest times, handing them a well-deserved inaugural Class T victory.
Lance and Ward also enjoyed a fault-free performance throughout the race, taking home a solid second place – thus positioning both crews extremely well in the championship battle with two events remaining. Title rivals Johan and Werner Horn finished fourth, behind Visser/Herselman.
After their early troubles, former rally aces Henk and Barry surged through loop two to set the second-fastest time, proving once again that they are very quick, and are serious contenders for the top step of the podium. An overall result of sixth place in Class T was a commendable result and proved their determination and tenacity.
Neil Woolridge (Team Principal said: “It was an almost perfect weekend for the team, with first and second place in Class T, and I’m delighted that Gareth and Boyd earned their sought-after first win. They’ve been in the hunt since entering the Production Vehicle championship in 2015, and this is the perfect reward for their efforts.
“Picking up the one-two result is exactly what we needed for the championship, and our goal coming into this event was to close up on the Horn brothers and give us the momentum going into the final two races of the season.
“It’s a pity that we had an issue with Henk’s car, as I’m confident we were on track to lock out the Class T podium. But that’s racing, and Henk and Barry continue to impress with their outright pace, and have gained valuable experience in this event.”
Gareth Woolridge (T77), said that he was hoping to win. “But I didn’t want to put all my eggs in one basket. We won the prologue which felt good, and then on the first lap we managed to open a little bit of time and ended fastest there as well.
“We continued the same way throughout the rest of the race, and it was a perfect weekend for us. The car was fantastic and we didn’t have a single puncture. We couldn’t have asked for anything better, particularly to claw back some of our points deficit in the championship.
“This new route was open and flowing, and a lot of fun, although it was dangerous in places.”
Lance Woolridge (T34), added: “We had a good weekend. Although I would have liked to win, only one of us can stand on the top step of the podium and I’m really glad Gareth got it. The results from this race are crucial for the championship.
“I really enjoy racing in this area, and it was a great event. However, we felt that it was dangerous at times with some of the serious jumps not being marked at all, and others only being indicated by a single caution when they should have been a triple caution. We had a couple of scary moments, and it was the same story for other crews that we spoke to.
“Fortunately, our suspension setup is very good now, and we were able to keep the car under control. We didn’t have any problems with the car, and this is great for the team as we prepare for the next race in Sun City.”
Henk Lategan (T17), said: “We started the weekend well, but had a couple of overshoots and got lost during qualifying. The navigation was quite tricky for us, having come from rallying, as the routes are not nearly as well marked and, in this event, there were numerous tracks you could follow.
Overall our pace was fairly good though.
“On the first day’s first loop, up to where the prologue section ended, we were running quickest but that was where our problems started. A rear wheel bearing collapsed, which resulted in us having virtually no brakes, and I had to pump the brake pedal before every corner. This made it very difficult to drive the car, and we had lots of overshoots. We also got lost a couple of times as we struggled to find the road.
“We lost about 3 min, but managed to get back to the pits and the team fixed the car, but this took 22 minutes longer than the designated 20-minute service interval, so the lateness was added to our time.
“The second loop went much better, and was good practice for us. It was a very good learning experience for Barry and I, as this was probably the trickiest race we’ve done this year from a navigation point of view.
“The route was very fast, but the problem is that a lot of the dangerous jumps were not marked. We had a few moments over really bad jumps, which wouldn’t have been the case if they were marked, but luckily we didn’t have any incidents.”
The next event takes place at Sun City on 15 and 16 September.