The Sun City 400 cross country race lived up to its name, with clear skies, a scorching sun and an unforgiving landscape setting the scene for the fifth round of the South African Cross Country Series (SACCS).
Brian Joss – Featuring a relatively short route of 359km and an ultra-competitive battle in Class T for Production Vehicles, the Ford Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM) Puma Lubricants team ended the two-day event with a useful haul of points for Lance Woolridge and Ward Huxtable in their V8-powered Ford Ranger.
Having dominated qualifying and ultimately ending third at Sun City after a fast-paced event, Woolridge and Huxtable are now the only remaining championship challengers against race winners and points leaders Johan and Werner Horn (Toyota).
Once again team-mates Henk Lategan and Barry White showed superb speed, but weren’t able to translate that into a finish at the sharp end of the field.
They ended sixth in Class T after suffering three punctures during the race weekend.
After heading into the Sun City 400 just seven points behind the Horn brothers and hoping to score another crucial victory this year, Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer unfortunately saw their impressive championship campaign come to an abrupt end when a gearbox failure brought their vehicle to a halt early in the race.
As the penultimate round of the SA cross country championship, the Sun City
400 was a crucial opportunity for the three championship contenders, comprising the Horn brothers, second-placed Gareth Woolridge and co-driver Dreyer, and Lance Woolridge and Ward Huxtable – with just 14 points separating first and third place in the standings.
On the sprint-style 41km qualifying loop, Lance and Ward drew the first blood by setting the fastest time in Class T, 15 seconds ahead of team-mates Henk and Barry who ended the opening stint on a flat tyre.
Gareth and Boyd, in the third Ford NWM Puma Lubricants Ranger, adopted a slightly more cautious pace, ending seventh. However, with a mere 31 seconds covering the top seven places, the scene was set for an exciting battle between the main contenders on race day.
Blitzing the Class T field during qualifying was an impressive showing by the lead Ford crew of Lance and Ward, but heading out onto the first 159km route as the second car on the road, behind only the Dakar Rally-specification Toyota of Giniel de Villiers and Dennis Murphy, was anything but a blessing.
Although the Pilanesberg region is currently extremely dry and dusty, decent rain fall over the past few months led to the vegetation – mainly comprising thorn trees and grass veld – having grown significantly along the route.
Accordingly, this made finding the track a treacherous affair for the front-runners, who were effectively opening the path for the competitors behind them. Not surprisingly, their early advantage was soon wiped out, with Lance and Ward ending the first loop only sixth fastest.
It didn’t start out any better for Henk and Barry, who picked up a puncture on the opening lap and lost a couple of places as a result.
But the biggest blow was to Gareth and Boyd who were pushing hard to make up time, only to experience an extremely rare gearbox failure halfway through the first loop. This left them stranded and out of the race – and with their title hopes sadly evaporating under the scorching sun.
Following the mandatory 20-minute service and the regroup at the Sun City resort, the second loop started just after mid-day in 34-degree heat. With the aim of claiming maximum points, Lance and Ward pushed hard over the ensuing 159km and completed the lap without incident, and nearly 10 minutes faster than the first time round.
But with the rest of the field also pushing hard, clawing their way back into the lead proved a stretch too far, and Ford’s winners of round two in Dundee had to settle for third in Class T — their fourth podium in a row – behind the Horn brothers and second-placed Jason Venter and Vince van Alleman (Toyota).
This leaves Lance and Ward as the only remaining challengers against Johan and Werner Horn for this year’s Class T title, which will be played out at the season-finale in Westonaria, Gauteng at the end of October.
Henk and Barry ultimately wrapped up a frustrating race weekend sixth in Class T after suffering a third puncture on the final section, but they continue to gain valuable cross country experience after making the transition from rallying at the beginning of this year.
Neil Woolridge (Team Principal), said: “After a great result in Harrismith we were really looking for a win, but you can’t win them all and today was a perfect example of how unpredictable motorsport can be. We had a good pace during qualifying, and although Gareth lost a bit of time yesterday he was making up ground today with the track being opened ahead of him.
“It’s really disappointing for Gareth, and what happened with the gearbox and why it broke is a complete mystery at this stage, as we’re very conservative and careful with everything we do knowing that there’s championship at stake, but that’s racing for you.
“Lance had a tough day blazing the trail on the first lap, and the heat and the terrain didn’t make it easy for anyone, but third place is a decent result and keeps us in contention for the championship.
“We’ll see what happens at the next race, as there were times during my racing career when a non-finish in the final event lands up deciding the championship so you never know until the final flag drops. And we’ll certainly be giving it everything.
“Other than the punctures, Henk had a good race and was quick out there today.”
Lance Woolridge (T34), said he was a bit disappointed. “I wanted to win here and go into the last race with a bit more to fight with for the championship. Anything can still happen but it’s going to be an uphill battle.
“We had a clean race without any problems with the car or punctures, but on the first lap we lost more than four minutes to our rivals as we had to open the route along with Giniel and really found it difficult in places to find the track.
“On lap two we got caught in Giniel’s dust for most of the second half after he had a puncture, and had to back off a bit. We pushed hard this whole weekend and had a great start in qualifying, but unfortunately it just wasn’t enough for this race.”
Henk Lategan (T17), added: “It was another eventful race for us. We said at the beginning of this season it’s a learning year, and we are certainly doing just that. I’m really starting to get comfortable with the car, but the tyres are proving a real issue for me.
“We did well in qualifying, although we finished on a flat tyre. At the start of today’s first loop we managed to pass Evan Hutchinson in the lead special vehicle and were setting fast times but had a puncture – even though I don’t think we hit anything. It took us a while to change the tyre as the ground was very sandy and soft, and we lost a lot of time there.
“When we got going we were in the dust of two competitors ahead of us and got lost due to the poor visibility, which allowed the Horn brothers to get past us and we completed the remaining 80km of loop one in dust.
“Our pace was great on the second loop until we had another flat tyre, which allowed Jason Venter passed. But he then put his car on its side and we got ahead, and we had a good rhythm through to the finish.”
Gareth Woolridge (T77), said: “It was a very difficult weekend for us.
Yesterday we were off the pace for some reason, but today I felt ready to attack and I wanted to win. We were actually well placed running further down the field with the road being cleared by the leading cars.
“So we pushed hard from the start and our times were really good, but then something let go in the gearbox halfway into loop one and that was the end of our race.
“It’s disappointing that we’re out of the championship race now, especially as my goal was to try and win the last two races of the season and I felt we had the pace after winning in Harrismith. But we’ll try end the season on a high next time out.”
The season-ending Gold 400 takes place in Westonaria, Gauteng, on 27 and 28 October.