- Two NWM Ford Rangers will power the race-winning Woolridge brothers in highly-competitive Class T championship
- Brazilian crew of Marcos Baumgart and Kleber Cincea enters the fray in NWM-built and run X Rally Team Ford Ranger
- Six-round championship starts off at Mpumalanga 400 in Dullstroom on 16 and 17 March
As one of the leading contenders in the South African Cross Country Series (SACCS), the Ford Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM) team is champing at the bit to get the dust flying for the 2018 season.
Having come desperately close to winning the Class T titles over the past two years - and finishing runner-up in both instances by the closest of margins - the Pietermaritzburg-based crew is more determined than ever to claim the top step of the podium once the six-round 2018 championship draws to a close in November.
"The South African Cross Country Series is renowned as one of the most competitive cross country championships in the world, with South African drivers and locally-built and developed vehicles featuring regularly on the international stage on events like the Dakar Rally," says Neale Hill, Director of Marketing, Sales and Service at Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa (FMCSA).
"Neil Woolridge and his team have done the Ford brand proud since our association began in 2000, and we have no doubt that the crew will once again be one of the top challengers for glory throughout the season. Ford, its dealers and legion of fans will be cheering the team along every step of the way, and we wish Neil Woolridge Motorsport a great season ahead," Hill added.
The Ford NWM squad's first opportunity to stamp their authority on the series will be at the Mpumalanga 400 on 16 and 17 March, which is based in the fly-fishing hamlet and popular tourist destination of Dullstroom - which also happens to be the highest town in South Africa at an altitude of 2 077m.
Fans will once again witness the two young but already highly experienced and very fast Woolridge brothers flying the Ford flag in the thunderous 5.0-litre V8-powered Rangers when the flag drops for the first short qualifying sprint of the season on Friday 16 March.
"The Class T championship is extremely competitive and, with only six rounds making up the season, we have to score maximum points at every race," says team principal Neil Woolridge. "Last year we won three of the six races and scored podium finishes at every round, but it just wasn't enough. This year we will once again be giving it everything, with the need to match speed with consistency. There simply isn't room for a poor result or non-finish."
There are two new events on the cards this year, starting off with the Mpumalanga 400 in Dullstroom this month, and the Bronkhorstspruit race in Gauteng at the beginning of August. Four existing events remain in place, comprising the Battlefields 400 in Dundee in May, followed by the double-header on the 1 000km Botswana Desert Race in June. The Harrismith 400 takes place in the middle of September, with the championship wrapping up at the Sun City 400 in November.
"It is great to be heading back to Mpumalanga for this year's season-opener," Woolridge states. "The spectators in this region love cross country racing and it always makes for a great event. We haven't competed in the Dullstroom area for many years, but we know that the terrain provides a wide variety of surfaces, from fast gravel roads to extremely rocky sections.
"We completely rebuilt the cars during the off-season and have introduced the latest round of changes and upgrades, which should make our Ford Rangers even faster. It's going to be an exciting year, and we can't wait to get started," Woolridge says.
Dynamic driver line-up
Lance Woolridge and Ward Huxtable will be leading the Ford NWM charge after finishing second in the 2017 SACCS. An overall championship title still eludes the older of the Woolridge brothers after he started racing in 2010 - and this may well be the 26-year-old's year to take the silverware.
He started out in the Class E championship and finished second in his debut season. Lance also has the credit of giving the current-generation 5.0-litre V8-powered Ford Ranger its dream debut in 2013, winning its first race and remaining one of the front-running competitors ever since. Lance has proven himself internationally, too, claiming an impressive second overall and picking up a stage win on the seven-day Rally dos Sertões cross country race in Brazil in 2016.
His co-driver remains Ward Huxtable, who will be competing in his 12th full season in cross country racing this year. Ward won the Class E co-drivers titles in 2006 and 2010, and finished second overall in Class T in 2016 and 2017.
Among Lance's fiercest rivals is none other than his 23-year-old brother, Gareth Woolridge, who will be competing in his fourth season in SA's top-flight Production Vehicle category. Assisted by co-driver Boyd Dreyer, the young duo has consistently been amongst the top contenders.
Last year Gareth and Boyd scored their first Class T victory at the Harrismith 400 and wrapped up the season third overall. They will undoubtedly be one of the top teams to watch this year.
Along with the two official Ford NWM entries, the Class T line-up will also feature the Brazilian X Rally Team of Marcos Baumgart and Kleber Cincea who are set to compete in all six races that make up the 2018 SACCS championship in their NWM-built and prepared Ford Ranger.
Baumgart and Cincea are among the top competitors in the Brazilian cross country championship, and fortunately have some local experience too, having contested the Vryburg round and the Botswana Desert Race in 2016.
According to the SACCS organisers, the Mpumalanga 400 will be the biggest sporting event in Dullstroom's history. The race starts and finishes at the Village Green Cricket Oval, which also serves as the designated service park (DSP).
A 45km qualifying race to determine starting positions commences at 14:00 on Friday, 16 March, with dry and dusty conditions expected for the weekend. The cars set off at 08:30 on Saturday, and complete two loops of a 170km race route that heads towards Belfast along the R540 via Swartkoppies, Lakenvlei and Vlakplaats.
All competitors have a compulsory 20 minute service break and regroup after the first loop, with the second stint starting at 12:00.
Fans can follow the action at the event, or remotely, via the RallySafe app that provides live timing, along with detailed maps and results. The app can be downloaded free of charge from the relevant app stores for iOS and Android devices.
2018 CHAMPIONSHIP DATES
|1||16-17 March||Mpumalanga 400||Dullstroom, Mpumalanga|
|2||4-5 May||Battlefields 400||Dundee, KwaZulu-Natal|
|3||22-24 June||Toyota 1000 Desert Race||Jwaneng, Botswana|
|5||14-15 September||Harrismith 400||Free State|
|6||2-3 November||Sun City 400||North West|