The Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM) Ford Castrol Team scored an emphatic one-two finish in the EcoBoost V6-powered T1+ Ford Rangers at Round 3 of the South African Rally Raid Championship (SARRC), which was held in Jwaneng, Botswana, from 23-25 June 2023.
As the longest and toughest event of the year, the Toyota Gazoo Racing Kalahari Botswana 1000 Desert Race is a three-day marathon event which covers almost 1 000km of racing through semi-arid terrain, characterised by unforgiving thorn bushes and lots of soft sand.
Despite the punishing conditions destroying bodywork on all the competitor cars and pushing the crews to the limit, the pair of NWM Ford Castrol T1+ Rangers ran almost fault-free throughout the weekend. The team wrapped up each of the three days on top of the overall standings to beat arch-rival Toyota – a team that currently holds the SARRC, Dakar Rally and World Rally-Raid Championship (W2RC) titles.
“This was a perfect weekend for us, and what a fantastic way to follow up our recent announcement that we will be going to Dakar Rally in 2024, in partnership with Ford Performance and M-Sport,” said Neil Woolridge, NWM Ford Castrol team principal. “We’re up against the world’s best rally raid team in the toughest conditions we face in our local championship, so dominating all three days and finishing first and second is an amazing result.
“We’ve been pushing extremely hard to develop our car this year, the team has been training hard and we’ve been practising changing key components like the differential which we swapped out on Lance’s car during the 30-minute service on Sunday due to a small oil leak,” Neil says. “Our drivers and navigators didn’t put a foot wrong the whole weekend, and we didn’t even get a single puncture. It’s immensely rewarding to see all of our hard work and long hours paying off with such a great result.”
Lance Woolridge and co-driver Kenny Gilbert (#234) set the wheels in motion for the NWM Ford Castrol squad by topping the timesheets during Friday’s 61km sprint qualifying session, with team-mates Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer (#277) placed fifth. A mere 23 seconds separated the top five competitors.
On Saturday the crews faced two loops of a 220km route east of Jwaneng through narrow, tight and twisty tracks lined by punishing thorn bushes and trees that decimated the bodywork of the vehicles, and had the drivers and co-drivers extremely busy for each stage kilometre. Although the cars looked decidedly worse for wear at the end of the day – which resulted in the team working until the early hours of Sunday morning to repair the damage – the pair of Ford Rangers were mechanically sound and had stamped their authority on the proceedings. Gareth and Boyd worked their way into the overnight lead with a margin of 2 min 54 seconds over Lance and Kenny, who were almost four minutes ahead of Toyota’s Henk Lategan and Brett Cummings.
Two loops of a 214km route west of Jwaneng remained for Sunday’s thrilling action, with more open and faster terrain providing some relief for the competitors, as well as the mechanics. Other than the rear diff replacement due to the minor oil leak on Lance’s car – which was swapped out within the allotted 30-minute service interval – the T1+ Rangers had a hassle-free run to the finish line while many of their rivals faltered with punctures, damage and mechanical issues.
Gareth and Boyd set an astonishing pace and cemented their advantage to claim a confident victory, with their team-mates backing them up and finishing 3 min 42 seconds adrift after more than 11 hours of flat-out racing over the three days.
“We couldn’t have scripted it better,” Gareth said. “A one-two for the team at the Desert Race, which is the toughest event of the year, is really special. It’s indicative of all the work we’ve been doing on the car, and we still have several upgrades that will be coming later in the year that we can look forward to.”
There was delight for Lance and Kenny too, as they celebrated finishing second overall to hand the NWM Ford Castrol Team a dominant one-two result, which also secured the pair’s first podium finish together since joining forces for the 2023 SARRC season. They ended 4 min 37 sec ahead of the third-placed Toyota of Guy Botterill/Simon Vacy-Lyle, and more than 21 minutes ahead of Giniel de Villiers/Dennis Murphy in another Toyota.
“With us winning prologue on Friday, having Gareth and Boyd leading on Saturday, then wrapping it all up with our cars finishing first and second overall is a dream result for the team,” Lance said. “I think the last time a brand other than Toyota won the Desert Race was about seven years ago, so to get a one-two today for Ford is amazing.
“We could never have done it without our fantastic team. They worked until 03:30 this morning to fix all the damage from the route conditions, and were up again at 5am to get the cars ready for the day,” Lance said. “So they are the real heroes this weekend.”
Wors Prinsloo and Andre Vermeulen (#241) in the NWM-supported privateer T1+ Ford Ranger were among the top contenders during Friday’s qualifying loop, finishing an impressive seventh overall, just over a minute off the leading time set by Lance Woolridge and Kenny Gilbert.
Unfortunately, they were hampered by a driveshaft issue both on Saturday and Sunday, but their qualifying pace was certainly noteworthy and outgunned several of the far more seasoned SARRC competitors.
There were two V8-powered NWM Ford Rangers competing in Class T, and both crews made it to the finish line. Hendrik and Heinrich du Plessis (#T16) took the class win and finished this arduous race in a highly commendable 12th place overall, while Bernard and Minette Johnstone (#T22) joined them on the second step of the podium, having crossed the line 25th overall.
2024 Dakar Rally
Ford Performance is set to expand its global motorsports effort by competing in the legendary Dakar Rally, one of the toughest off-road competitions on Earth.
A purpose-built, race-ready Ford Ranger T1+ will compete in the 2024 Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia in the Rally Raid T1+ class. Ford Performance is collaborating in a comprehensive test and development program with M-Sport and Neil Woolridge Motorsport to prepare for what is expected to be an extremely tough challenge come January 2024.
Words and Images: Colin Mileman