Roma and Woolridge lead M-Sport's Rally Raid debut

M-Sport and Neil Woolridge Motorsport, in partnership with Ford Performance will contest the 2023 Baja Spain Aragon between July 21 and 22, with Nani Roma and Gareth Woolridge beside their respective navigators Alex Haro and Boyd Dreyer.

The team will be making the international competitive debut of the M-Sport NWM Ford Ranger T1+ as everyone’s sights are set on preparing for the 2024 Dakar Rally. Baja Spain Aragon represents the first opportunity to demonstrate the newly updated Ford Ranger T1+’s capabilities and help in benchmarking performance and determining development direction. 

Dakar Rally veteran Nani Roma has been a key member of M-Sport and NWM’s development programme. Roma’s Dakar Rally experience is invaluable, having competed 25 Dakar Rallies and one of a select few who has won the rally on both two and four wheels. 

His Dakar Rally record speaks for itself, with five top-three finishes including two victories with multiple manufacturers. It is Roma’s experience that has helped to lead the direction of the Ranger T1+’s development from NWM’s impressive baseline towards a competitive Dakar Rally T1+ vehicle. 

Roma’s experience in vehicle development is being put to use twice over with M-Sport. He is also simultaneously providing feedback and input for Ford’s upcoming Ranger Raptor T1+ vehicle, which is set to compete for top honours on the 2025 Dakar Rally. 

Fresh from victory on the 1,000km Kalahari-Botswana Desert Race, Gareth Woolridge is the youngest of the Woolridge dynasty and has been enjoying a stellar season. He currently leads the 2023 South African Rally-Raid Championship (SARRC).

Woolridge is the lead technician for new vehicle assembly at NWM and one of the team’s two drivers competing in the South African series. He has played a central role in the design, manufacturing, testing and development of the EcoBoost V6-powered T1 Ranger since the project began in 2019, followed up by the T1+ Ranger project in 2021. This makes him the perfect candidate for M-Sport and NWM’s quest to develop the Ford Ranger T1+ into a vehicle capable of competing at the front of the Dakar Rally. 

Woolridge grew up around off-road racing, thanks to his father’s own Dakar Rally exploits. Gareth’s own career began at the age of just 16 and his talent was clear to see. He made top-spec rally-raid debut with the Neil Woolridge Motorsport outfit in 2015 and was elevated to factory status just a year later joining the official NWM Ford team in 2016, going on to achieve third in the South African Class T championship in 2017 and 2018, and third overall in 2022 driving the NWM T1+ Ranger. Gareth also competed in the seven-day 3,600km Rally dos Sertões in Brazil, finishing 10th overall and winning his class.

Nani Roma said: “This has been a really nice process developing the Ranger T1+, the car has changed a lot since first time I tested it compared to the last test we recently completed in Morocco. All the mechanics and engineers have done a super job in stabilising the car while improving reliability and increasing its performance capability. We have been working together in a good direction, the Ranger is a strong car, we still have some points to work on but it’s in a great position right now.

“I know M-Sport from years ago in the days of Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae when I was riding bikes, I was also following rallying. M-Sport has always been a high-level team in the World Rally Championship fighting for wins and championships and they are a group of ultra-professional people who are very good to work with. The team is really organised and even though they are in a different environment that they are not used they have been quick to understand what is needed to take on this challenge.

“I always work to win in all the races I have entered in the 30 years I have been racing. I have won Baja Spain nine times, four on bikes and five in cars so it would be very special to win a tenth with Ford for this new project. Winning is always my goal and especially as it is my home race but this time it’s a little different. I haven’t competed for one and a half years, and I have very new surroundings. We don’t currently know exactly where we are compared to the other teams, the next Baja Spain has all of the factory players there which means it is the perfect opportunity to see where we are with our car. We are really excited about this project with Ford, I would like to say a special thank you to Matt Wilson and Malcolm Wilson as well as Ford for having this confidence in me. Now it’s time to continue pushing hard and start fighting.”

Gareth Woolridge said: “The partnership between NWM and M-Sport is really great, and I think it will yield strong results for both parties. M-Sport has brought a lot of experience to the table which has helped significantly already, especially with the fine tuning and getting the last bits out of the car. I think NWM has helped and will continue to help, to educate and teach more about the rally-raid ethos as M-Sport comes from a predominantly rally background. It’s important to understand some of the potential shortcomings and differences between the two disciplines which is where NWM has helped most. The professionalism of M-Sport is great and it’s great to work with the entire team.”

“We have completed a series of extensive test sessions with M-Sport and NWM in South Africa, Dubai and Morocco, and with the upgrades we have added, largely with cooling and dampers, it has made a huge difference in the performance of the car. For Spain, it's a very new event for Boyd and I. The format is a bit different which we will need to get used to, but the terrain will be similar to some places we have raced at before and we are hoping to just go and learn with the team. It’s our first competitive outing together with M-Sport so the aim is to go there, learn, work, and build our strength together as a team to deliver a good strong result. The most important goal for us is getting to the end in a good strong position.”

Neil Woolridge, NWM Founder, said: “We are really looking forward to competing in Baja Spain, which has been on our radar for quite some time. The accelerated testing and development programme we have completed with M-Sport since last year has bolstered our competitiveness, and we have now seen the results with our 1-2 finish at the tough Botswana Desert Race in June where we beat  the current SARRC, Dakar Rally and World Rally-Raid Champions, Toyota.”

“We are delighted to have a driver of the calibre and experience of Nani Roma confirmed for the team, as he brings a wealth of Dakar Rally knowledge and expertise to our campaign. And I’m delighted for Gareth and Boyd that they will be taking on the challenge of Baja Spain, using their intimate knowledge of the T1+ Ranger while gaining more international experience.”

Matthew Wilson, M-Sport Director, said: “We have been working very hard collaboratively with NWM for just over a year now and we’re finally seeing the elements fall into place for our rally raid team. We are ready to start competing with our comprehensively updated Ford Ranger T1+ and a pair of very accomplished rally raid drivers in Nani and Gareth. M-Sport and NWM have now laid down what appears to be a solid technical foundation with the support and input of Nani and Gareth. The next step is for us to start competing and developing ourselves as a team which starts with Baja Spain.”