Strong Debut but Mixed Results for NWM Ford Team at 2024 SARRC Season-Opener

The opening round of the 2024 South African Rally-Raid Championship (SARRC) proved as exciting as it was dramatic, and it was a strong debut for the new Neil Woolridge Motorsport Ford Ranger Ultimate – but one that unfortunately didn’t translate into the expected results for the NWM Ford Rally-Raid Team.

The Nkomazi 400, sponsored by #TeamHilux Rally-Raid, was once again held in the Mpumalanga town of Malalane on 19 and 20 April 2024. This event’s challenging combination of high-speed sections through the sugarcane plantations and tight and technical mountain roads resulted in a high level of attrition, as just 18 of the 30 competitors made it to the finish line.

After a five-month hiatus, the competitors roared back into action for the start of the 2024 season on Friday’s short 10.8km qualifying sprint, which saw Lance Woolridge and Kenny Gilbert (#234) power their way into a comfortable fifth place in their new-look and extensively updated Shell-liveried NWM Ford Ranger. Team-mates and reigning SARRC champions Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer (#200) were seventh quickest, with the top 10 competitors separated by a mere 28 seconds.

The qualifying loop was followed by a planned 83km main race loop, but this was shortened to just 50km. Gareth and Boyd were on a charge and moved up two positions to end the day fifth overall – just 35 seconds behind the race leader, and a mere two seconds ahead of their NWM Ford compatriots.

Saturday’s two 168km loops looked set to deliver scintillating rally-raid action, but just 43km into the morning stage Lance and Kenny were forced to stop after a rear driveshaft broke, which also damaged a brake line. They performed emergency repairs and had to complete the remaining 125km with front-wheel drive only, which eventually cost them around 45 minutes to the leading pack.

Meanwhile, Gareth and Boyd were giving it everything, and despite having to contend with the thick dust of a slower competitor ahead for much of the stage, by the end of the morning loop they had clawed their way into third place, just one second behind Saood Variawa/Francois Cazalet (Toyota Hilux). The fight for the second step of the podium was short-lived, though, as a bearing failed on the engine’s water pump a third of the way through the final loop, and the reigning champions were forced to retire.

Lance and Kenny soldiered through the day’s first stage and made it back to the pits after their troubles, and the NWM technicians immediately set about repairing the second Ford Ranger within the mandatory 30-minute service interval. With the drivetrain restored to full health, the crew was able to attack the remainder of the race with vigour and they had a faultless run to the finish line. Although they set the fifth fastest time in the final loop, there was little more they could do to make up the huge deficit from the day’s opening loop, and they had to settle for 11th in the Ultimate class and 16th overall in the final results.

The NWM-supported privateer team of Wors Prinsloo and Andre Vermeulen were proudly flying the Ford flag, and scored a solid eighth-place finish in the Ultimate class and 11th overall – a commendable result, especially considering almost half the field failed to reach the finish line.

“After all the work we’ve done on the new cars we were really looking forward to the first race of the season, and this is obviously not the result we wanted, but I guess that’s motorsport,” said Neil Woolridge, NWM Ford team principal. “It’s a bit of a mystery as to why the driveshaft broke on Lance’s car and the water pump bearing collapsed on Gareth’s car, but we will analyse what went wrong and will come back stronger for the next race in Vryheid.

“However, we are delighted with the overall performance of the new cars,” Neil said. “Gareth and Boyd looked set for at least a second-place finish, and possibly even better if they hadn’t been held up in the dust. Lance and Kenny pushed hard on the final lap and went well, so we’re confident that aside from these small niggles we’re in good shape for this year.”

Lance said: “It really was a mixed bag for us this weekend. Having had a look at the lap and split times at the end of the race, we definitely had the pace to be fighting for a 1-2 finish, but technically it was a frustrating race. Our final lap was absolutely fantastic, despite a couple of overshoots because we were going so fast, and the tyres were also finished. It was a weekend of ‘what could have been’ unfortunately, but at least for Kenny and I the first round of the championship went better than last year, we’ve got some points and we can build on that for the next race.”

Gareth said: “It was a bitter-sweet first race of the season for us. We had a fairly decent prologue and a good opening loop on Friday. On Saturday’s first loop our washer system didn’t work so I battled to see through all the dirt on the windscreen, and we made quite a few wrong-slots. We were also stuck behind a slower competitor for quite a while in their dust, but despite it being difficult we made up several places and were well positioned for the second lap until the water pump failed. It’s disappointing but it is just the first race, and we’ll be back at it again at round two.”

The next race is the Vryheid 400 in KwaZulu-Natal on 24 and 25 May 2024.