The Ford Castrol Cross Country Team’s challenge for the 2021 South African Cross Country Series title received a significant boost as Lance Woolridge and Elvéne Vonk (334) took a hard-fought victory at the second race of the 4×4 Mega World 400, held at NAMPO Park near Bothaville in the Free State, at the weekend.
The busy cross country weekend featured back-to-back races over the two days, covering approximately 370 km each – and it was in the Saturday event where Woolridge and Vonk secured their second win of the season in the new EcoBoost V6-powered Ford Ranger, designed and built by Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM).
The pair were on track to finish second overall in Friday’s race around the Free State farmlands, despite gusting winds, dramatic thunderstorms and heavy downpours playing havoc with the conditions.
Unfortunately, they were caught out by a tricky mine dump section on the second of the two loops, beaching the car and losing over six minutes in the process. They had to settle for a disappointing sixth place, but team-mates Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer (377) kept the Ford flag flying high, finishing on the podium in a well-deserved third place overall.
The scene was set for a thrilling, completely new race on Saturday, with dry and hot conditions replacing the miserable weather from the day before. The short 15 km sprint qualifying session placed Gareth and Boyd second, just three seconds ahead of Lance and Elvéne – and the top three covered by a mere nine seconds.
Gareth and Boyd soon picked up a cooling fan issue on their vehicle and were slowed as the engine power was reduced, resulting in Lance and Elvéne completing the first loop in second place, with their team-mates dropping to fifth on the timing sheets.
A last-minute decision to replace a driveshaft due to a damaged CV boot on Lance’s car during the 30-minute service break was completed in record time, and the two Ford Castrol NWM cars headed out together for the second loop very close together, although Lance was ahead on cumulative times. They matched each other’s pace throughout the second loop and trading fastest times with the other front-runners, but they switched positions to give Lance and Elvéne the best possible chance at taking the win – and it paid off as they claimed the top step of the FIA-class and overall Production Vehicle podium, beating the Toyotas of Chris Visser/Albertus Venter and Henk Lategan/Brett Cummings.
“It was a fantastic day for us today,” Woolridge said. “I woke up this morning feeling very positive after the disappointment of Friday’s result, and the moment we got out onto the route I really enjoyed it. The car was faultless and never missed a beat. Scoring maximum points this weekend was essential for us to keep our championship hopes alive, so we’re appreciative of Gareth and Boyd letting us past, as that made the difference between winning or losing today.”
After their first-lap cooling system troubles were sorted during the service stop, Gareth and Boyd produced a tenacious drive and made up considerable time on their rivals to cross the finish line fourth overall – a solid result to complement their podium in the first race.
“We had a very good qualifying on Saturday morning and were well placed in second just six seconds off Henk, but the cooling fan problem occurred just 20 km into the first loop, and we battled through to the service stop with the car almost in limp mode, so we lost about a minute and a half,” Gareth said. “We pushed very hard on the second lap to claw back time, and moved back up to fourth. It is disappointing missing out on the podium as we had hoped to do better, but third and fourth places for the weekend aren’t too bad, and hopefully we’ll improve at the next race.”
The Neil Woolridge Motorsport-supported Ford Ranger privateers proved the class of the field in Class T, giving the team a clean sweep of podiums in both of the 4×4 Mega World 400 races this weekend.
Championship leaders Malcolm and Frans Kock (T4) looked set to further consolidate their points advantage during Friday’s race in the blustery and unexpectedly wet conditions, but a broken suspension lower control arm just 5 km from the end of the race put a devastating halt to their charge. Wors Prinsloo and Andre Vermeulen (T41) took the win, ahead of Bernard Johnstone/Jan Harm Hugo (T22) and Christo Rose/Arno Olivier (T58). This success handed NWM the event’s Team Award.
The Ford NWM Development Team had a good outing too, as Bapi Rubuluza and Fanifani Meyiwa (T49) brought their Ford Ranger V8 home in fifth place.
Saturday’s race saw fortunes reversed for the recent Class T winners, as Malcolm and Frans Kock proved unassailable and claimed the victory, while Prinsloo/Vermeulen encountered gearbox trouble that saw them retire on the second loop.
In turn, Rubuluza and Meyiwa produced a confident drive to earn their first Class T podium in second place, with Rose/Olivier rounding out the top three once again – handing NWM another Team Award trophy.
“A podium on our third race finish is really great for Fanifani and I,” an elated Rubuluza said. “We’re still learning the ropes and getting used to the car and working with each other. Friday’s race was very difficult, especially in the wet conditions, but going into today’s race we set out to give it our best and we worked on a different strategy. It was a good race, and although the dust was challenging at times, we focused on getting to the finish and not risking anything.”
NWM team principal Neil Woolridge was very satisfied with results from the action-packed 4×4 Mega World 400 race weekend: “It has been a hectic weekend having two full races in two days, but I’m very happy that we got the win and third place overall, plus first, second and third in Class T in both races and the Team Awards.
“Gareth had a great run on Friday and finished third, while Lance was unlucky getting beached on the sand. Today the situation was reversed, as Lance had a great run and pushed very hard without any problems. He kept the Toyotas honest the entire day and taking the win is a fantastic result for him and the team,” Neil said.
“Gareth was unlucky with the fan not working properly and the temperatures ran a bit high on the first loop. On the second lap, he was fighting back hard, but unfortunately I had to ask him to play the team game as we had a chance of winning, and eventually it all worked out perfectly with Lance taking the victory. To come away with the win is very special, as our opposition is really strong, and they aren’t the world cross country champions for nothing. So to beat them twice in four events is a fantastic result.”
The next race is the Vryburg 400, round 6 of the SA Cross Country Series, which takes place on 29 and 30 October 2021.