Neil Woolridge Motorsport ends 2023 as South African rally-raid champions, exciting plans for 2024

Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM) has enjoyed its most successful season to date in rally-raid competition, built on the team’s decades of experience in the sport, and the exceptional performance of its latest EcoBoost V6-powered T1+ Ford Ranger.

As consistent front-runners in the South African Rally-Raid Championship (SARRC), NWM powered its way to the overall Production Vehicle and Class FIA T1+ titles this year in the T1+ Ranger, which is designed and built in-house by the NWM team based in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.

The T1+ Ranger also showed its remarkable potential on the international stage during its overseas debut, as part of a collaboration between NWM, Ford Performance and M-Sport to take on the 2024 Dakar Rally. A third-place finish in Rally Morrocco, which forms part of the World Rally-Raid Championship (W2RC), was a fantastic achievement against the world’s best teams.

The V8-powered T1 NWM Ford Ranger once again proved its mettle in Brazil, where it has claimed multiple national and South American titles. Two customer X-Rally Team crews ended the 2023 season as Brazilian T1 and FIA T1 champions, respectively, in the V8 Ranger.

“This has been an amazing year, topped off by Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer winning the South African Rally-Raid Championship with our T1+ Ranger for the NWM Ford Castrol team,” said Neil Woolridge, NWM owner and team principal. “We won three of the local races this year, scored podiums in six of the seven events, and managed two 1-2 finishes at the tough 1 000 km marathon Desert Race in Botswana and at the season finale.”

“To go out and beat Toyota Gazoo Racing, which is the best rally-raid team in the world as the outgoing multiple SARRC champions, the three-time Dakar Rally winners and the two-time W2RC champions, is an amazing achievement,” Neil said. “This is a testament to the quality and performance of our car, the talent of our drivers and co-drivers, and the hard work and dedication of the entire NWM team that we’ve put into this sport over the past 27 years.”

To date, NWM has produced a total of 45 T1 and T1+ Rangers since the tubular chassis vehicles were introduced. The team won on debut in the South African series with the V8-powered T1 Ranger in 2013, and took the SA Class T titles in 2018 and 2019. The team won again first time out with the 3.5-litre EcoBoost V6-powered T1 Ranger in 2021 that initiated the turbo-petrol era, and has now taken the T1+ vehicle to the top of the rally-raid game in 2023. Overall, NWM has produced almost 70 standard production and tubular chassis race vehicles as part of its long and proud legacy in top-flight rally-raid competition.

South African Rally-Raid Championship

The South African championship is widely regarded as one of the most competitive domestic rally-raid series in the world, which is no surprise considering around 60 percent of the cars that compete in the Dakar Rally and W2RC are built in South Africa.

Having focused on continuous improvement and development of the T1+ Ranger since it debuted in 2022, the NWM team, with sponsorship from Ford and Castrol, made 2023 the year that counted. Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer made their intentions clear from the outset, finishing second then third in the opening two rounds of the SARRC.

The team delivered a knockout performance at the Botswana Desert Race in June, delivering a brilliant one-two finish at this tough 1 000 km three-day marathon event. The victory went to Gareth and Boyd, while team-mates Lance Woolridge and new co-driver (and former Dakar Rally finisher on two wheels) Kenny Gilbert brought their T1+ Ranger home in second place.

A podium finish for Gareth and Boyd at round five was followed by victory at the final two races, including another peerless 1-2 finish for the NWM crews at the 2023 season finale. This secured the overall SARRC Production Vehicle and Class FIA T1+ titles for the young duo. It was the first overall championship win for Ford in 17 years, with the last one going to team principal Neil Woolridge and co-driver Kenny Skjoldhammer in 2006, also in a Ford Ranger. After a promising first season together, Lance and Kenny finished fifth in the overall championship.

With their SARRC titles in the bag, Gareth and Boyd were honoured with their Protea Colours, also known as National Colours. This is the highest accolade that can be achieved in local motorsport, and is awarded by the South African Sport Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC).

Lance was also awarded his Protea Colours this year, having finished second overall in the 2021 South African championship, winning back-to-back Class T (solid rear axle T1) titles in 2018 and 2019, and ending second overall at the seven-day Rally dos Sertões in Brazil in 2016. He remains the only South African to have competed in the all-electric Extreme E series, serving as a reserve then full-time driver for Veloce Racing in 2021 and 2022.

Winning in Brazil

The V8-powered NWM T1 Ford Ranger has proven immensely successful all over the world for the past decade. It has secured numerous national wins and championship titles, from South Africa to Poland, Portugal, Australia, Hungary, Spain and Czech Republic, as well as the South American and Central Europe regional championships. NWM also competed at the 2014 Dakar Rally with this car which scored top 10 stage times during this event, and it was campaigned by several privateer teams in subsequent years.

And it continues to excel, with two X-Rally Team customers taking their V8 NWM Rangers to victory in the Brazilian championship in 2023. Gunther Hinkelmann was crowned the T1 FIA champion driving an independent rear suspension Ranger, while Rodrigo Aché took the T1 title with his Ranger equipped with a solid rear axle.

“It’s fantastic to have our V8 T1 Rangers still competing and winning, proving what a competitive, reliable and successful package this has been for us,” Neil said. “Congratulations to the two X-Rally Team customer teams in Brazil on their championship wins, and thank you to the other 10 customers in Brazil who consequently form a 12-strong NWM vehicle representation in the country!”

Building up to Dakar 2024

In 2023, Ford Performance, NWM and M-Sport announced that they would be collaborating on a rally-raid campaign to take on the Dakar Rally in 2024. A series of test and development sessions followed, culminating in two T1+ Rangers competing at the Baja Spain in July, as part of the World Rally-Raid Championship.

Nani Roma, the 2014 Dakar Rally winner, and co-driver Alex Haro finished an impressive sixth overall on the T1+ Ranger’s international debut in extremely hot and dusty conditions. Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer took the second vehicle to an 11th-place finish – a commendable result considering they started 19th, and were going head-to-head with many of the top teams in the world. This was Gareth’s second international race, after he competed in the 2018 Rally dos Sertões, finishing 10th overall and winning his class. Boyd navigated for a privateer entrant in the 2022 edition of the Sertões.

Only one T1+ Ranger was entered for the W2RC Rally Morrocco in October, and Nani and Alex powered their way onto the podium in third place – a brilliant result for this event, which is typically used as a precursor to the longest and toughest event of them all, the legendary Dakar Rally.

“Finishing in the top 10 on any W2RC event is a superb result considering the high level of competition in the series, so to come away with sixth place and a podium on our first two international races with the T1+ Ranger is brilliant,” Neil said. “Gareth and Boyd can be very proud to finish 11th in Spain against the top rally-raid teams in the world, and they were as high as second place on one of the stages until they got caught out in the dust and picked up a puncture.

“These results bode well for the Dakar Rally in January. Having done the Dakar myself in 1998 and 1999, and being there as a team principal in 2014 when we competed with the V8 T1 Ranger, we’re under no illusions that it’s going to be an extremely tough event, but we are looking forward to the challenge and seeing what our T1+ Rangers can do,” Neil said.

Customer teams for NWM T1+ Ranger

NWM currently supports the privateer T1+ Ranger team of Wors Prinsloo and Andre Vermeulen in the South African championship, and the company’s reach is expanding internationally with other customer teams for this exceptional car.

The Spanish Past-Racing team acquired its first T1+ Ranger in November this year, taking delivery at the final round of the SA Rally-Raid Championship, and using this event to give team owner Daniel Alonso and co-driver Alejandro Lopez their first test with the new car. The team previously raced NWM’s V8 T1 Ranger.

Past-Racing has introduced a rental program, which includes the T1+ Ranger, for international rally-raid events in 2024. This encompasses the World Rally-Raid Championship and FIA World Cup for Cross Country Bajas, as well as the Dakar Rally from 2025.

“We are delighted to see growing interest from around the world for our T1+ Ranger, and we are confident that our South African championship success, our solid results internationally leading up to the Dakar Rally, as well as our participation at this crucial event in January, will spur on further demand from around the world,” Neil said.