Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer proved that they are serious contenders for the South African Rally-Raid Championship title this year following an impressive performance at this weekend’s Sugarbelt 400 in Eston, KwaZulu-Natal, which earned them a second consecutive podium.
The Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM) Ford Castrol crew proved their potential, as well as that of the EcoBoost V6-powered T1+ Ranger, on Friday’s 52km qualifying loop by blitzing the short but intense sprint through the sugarcane plantations that define this scenic farming area.
They completed the qualifying sprint in a time of 42 min 49 sec after a faultless run – a substantial 01:13 quicker than second-placed Toyota rivals Giniel de Villiers and Dennis Murphy, and a further two seconds ahead of the second Toyota of Henk Lategan/Brett Cummings.
Their advantage was ultimately cut back to just four seconds after the qualifying sprint was recalculated to end at the 20.29km mark following a fire that blocked the route for several competitors. NWM Ford Castrol team-mates Lance Woolridge and Kenny Gilbert slotted into third place overnight based on the revised times, just seven seconds adrift of De Villiers/Murphy, and a mere one second ahead of Lategan/Cummings.
Saturday saw the exciting battle at the sharp end of the field gain further momentum as Gareth and Boyd completed the opening 162km loop in the lead after a fast and trouble-free run – with a useful margin of 59 seconds to Lategan/Cummings, and 04:43 ahead of De Villiers/Murphy.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go to plan for Lance and Kenny, as a navigation error cost them considerable time and they dropped down the running order.
Punctures afflicted several of the top competitors on the second 162km loop, and this included Gareth and Boyd as they had to replace a tyre with 50km remaining. With less than a minute separating the NWM Ford Ranger pair from the lead at the final split, the thrilling tussle faded as they picked up a problem on the front brakes with just 30km to go.
Having to rely solely on the handbrake to slow the vehicle, Gareth and Boyd fought tenaciously right to the finish, and were rewarded with third place overall. They lost out on second place by just 14 seconds to De Villiers/Murphy after almost 350km of high-paced action, with the win going to Lategan/Cummings. This was the NWM Ford Castrol crew’s second podium on the trot, after securing the runner-up spot at the season-opening race in Malalane.
“It was great to win the qualifying race yesterday, and we started today strong and found a good rhythm on the first loop,” Gareth said. “We were even quicker on loop two and it was going really well until we got the puncture. We then had the brake issue which cost us a lot of time, so finishing third is a good result all considered.
“For our local championship, it’s really exciting that the top teams are very evenly matched. Today was a proper race, especially amongst the three of us up front. We all had a laugh at the end and agreed that it was extremely close, which is nice to see,” Gareth added.
Lance and Kenny’s first loop navigation error was compounded by an issue with the rear differential, which the team elected to replace at the mandatory 30-minute service stop. They incurred a further 15 minutes of lateness making the change, but fortunately had a clear and impressively fast run through the second loop, bringing the NWM Ranger home 12th overall and seventh in T1+.
“It was a tough weekend for us after the navigation mistake this morning, but Kenny and I are learning together which is our goal for this year,” Lance said. “On the second lap we had a perfect run without a single mistake and got into a really nice groove, so Kenny is very quickly getting to grips with the road book and GPS navigation.
“We also stopped to pull out Eben Basson and Leander Pienaar after they overshot a corner, and were happy to return the favour after they helped me at the Parys event last year,” Lance said. “We are looking forward to the Desert Race in Botswana, as that’s the big one and we have a lot of work planned for the cars, but the pace we had this weekend is very exciting for us.”
It was a positive result for NWM team principal, Neil Woolridge. “We’re always working on the car with upgrades and evolutions, and all the effort the team has put into it this year is really showing, as we’ve been very competitive in both of the opening races, which is very encouraging.
“Our joint development project with M-Sport is also bearing fruit, as we learn a lot about the car every time we go testing together,” Neil said. “Last week we completed around 3 500km of testing in Morocco without any issues, proving just how tough and capable our T1+ Ranger is, and it’s fantastic to be taking the fight to our rivals this year.”
The next race is the Toyota 1000 Desert Race in Jwaneng, Botswana, from 23-25 June 2023.
Story and Pictures: Colin Mileman