It was a weekend of firsts for Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM) when its new Ford Ranger, the first vehicle to compete in South Africa under the FIA’s new turbo-charged petrol regulations for international cross country racing, and one of the first in the world, blitzed through to win overall in the Mpumalanga 400 in Dullstroom – the opening salvo of the South African Cross Country series.
The Ranger, is powered by Ford’s 3,5-litre twin-turbo V6 EcoBoost engine and, despite this being the first competitive outing for the Ford Castrol Cross Country Team, it conquered extremely challenging conditions over a rough, rocky and rain-soaked 450 km route along with a formidable line-up of pedigreed rivals.
Lance Woolridge and co-driver Elvéne Vonk (#334) powered their way to the fastest time on Friday’s opening qualifying sprint, and maintained this impressive form to secure the overall win on Saturday afternoon.
“What a fantastic result for the team to reward all their hard work designing, building and testing the new Ranger, and it’s great to once again be on the top step of the SACCS podium,” says Lance Woolridge. “It was a really tough event, but the car handled everything we threw at it, and I’ve been very impressed with how it performed.”
The 2021 Mpumalanga 400 trophy sets another historic milestone for 29-year-old Woolridge, as he scored a remarkable victory for the previous-generation V8-powered NWM Ford Ranger at its first race in March 2013 – thus making it a double-header of debut wins in the premier class of the SACCS, eight years apart.
Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer (#377) were equally enthralled by the pace of the new EcoBoost-powered Ford Castrol NWM Ranger, and joined their team-mates on the FIA podium in third place.
“Having both Rangers on the podium at the first race is amazing for a brand new vehicle that is a completely new design,” Gareth says. “The entire team put in a monumental effort, working late nights and weekends to get the cars ready in time, and to back this up with first and third is a great accomplishment for everyone.
“We weren’t quite on the pace on Friday, but managed to go quicker on Saturday and felt really good in the car. We hit a tree on the first loop on Saturday morning and were worried that it would end our race, but the Ranger is tough and only picked up some minor bodywork damage, so we were pleased to finish third.”
For NWM team principal Neil Woolridge, achieving first and third place in the premier FIA-class with the all-new Ranger is nothing short of a dream result, having started designing the new vehicle in 2019. “It has been a long road, but this makes it all worth it,” Neil says. “Winning first time out with our Ranger V8 in 2013 and now with our new Ranger is a very special achievement.
“We were the first team internationally to design and develop a new car based on the FIA’s new turbo petrol regulations, and although COVID-19 delayed our launch by about nine months, we have been working exceptionally hard behind the scenes to produce a package that is capable of winning,” Neil adds. “What’s really exciting for me is that there is still a lot more to come, and this has set the groundwork for our next development steps with this car.”
Neil Woolridge Motorsport and Ford had further reason to celebrate, as all four NWM-supported privateer Class T Rangers that entered the Mpumalanga 400 completed the arduous event. Malcolm and Frans Kock (#T04) finished second, ahead of Christo Rose and Arno Olivier (#T58) in third – a commendable performance considering it was the latter crew’s first outing in the Production Vehicle category after moving up from the side-by-side class for this season.
Wors Prinsloo and Andre Vermeulen (#T41) brought their NWM Ford Ranger V8 home in fourth place, followed by Bernard and Minette Johnstone (#T22) in their first race in the Ranger.
The recently launched Ford NWM Development Team of Wiseman Gumede and Fanifani Meyiwa used the Mpumalanga 400 as an opportunity to learn the ins and outs of cross country racing, under the guidance of team mentor Ward Huxtable, in preparation for their upcoming first race.
The next race is the Sugarbelt 400 in Eston, KwaZulu-Natal, on 21-22 May 2021.