The sun shone kindly on Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM) Ford Performance this weekend at the Sun City 450, with the team enjoying a clean sweep of the top Class T podium places.
Chris Visser and Ward Huxtable scored their second win of the season in the V8-powered Ford Ranger, while team-mates Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer completed an impressive one-two for the team, and earned their third podium finish for the year.
Heading into the penultimate race of the 2016 Donaldson Cross Country Championship, Visser and Huxtable were placed second in the standings. Thus the typically challenging Sun City route would play a crucial role in deciding this year’s championship.
As a result of a two-year long drought in the Pilanesberg area, exceptionally dry, dusty and hot conditions faced the teams as they set out for qualifying on Friday. Fortunately, the 127km prologue was completed without a single puncture for either of the Ford crews, which was a great relief after the tyre-decimating previous race in Malalane.
Visser and Huxtable set the bar for the Class T competitors, completing the lap in the fastest time of 1 hour 34 min 41 sec. Woolridge and Dreyer were second quickest, 1 min 39 sec adrift.
Notably, championship rivals Jason Venter and Vince van Alleman (Toyota Hilux) picked up three punctures, ending sixth fastest and more than 11 min behind the leading NWM Ford.
With two 152km loops lined up for the day, Visser and Huxtable adopted a fairly cautious pace for the first stint and were going well until they suffered a puncture on the far northern section of the route. In the process of replacing the wheel the car’s jack failed, and they were stranded until their team-mates arrived and handed over their unit. This cost the leading Ford pair around 8 min in the process, and threatened to derail their challenge.
Woolridge and Dreyer were handed the lead, but then they too picked up a puncture, and continued on the flat rear tyre for approximately 10km until they were forced to stop. Luckily Visser/Huxtable were just 1min behind and returned their jack before heading past, but the young crew lost around 5 min.
Other than cosmetic damage to the bodywork of the Rangers due to the dense thorn bush encountered on the northernmost section of the route, along with a smashed windscreen on the Visser/Huxtable Ranger courtesy of a tree, the mandatory 20min service was completed without drama.
With the need to make up lost time, Visser and Huxtable threw caution to the wind on the second lap, which they completed almost 12 min quicker than the first run. They were the only Class T crew to drop below 1hr 50min the whole day, with an astonishing time of 1hr 47min 48sec.
Ultimately, this blistering time paid off and powered the experienced pair back into the lead, with a winning overall margin of 7 min. With title rivals Venter/van Alleman eventually finishing eighth, the two crews are tied on 146 points – thus setting the scene for a spectacular showdown at the season-ending Atlas Copco Gold 450 in Gauteng at the end of October.
For Woolridge and Dreyer, their pace and tenacity was rewarded with second place in Class T, enabling the NWM Ford Performance team to lock out the top two positions. Completing the podium were Johan van Staden and Mike Lawrenson (Nissan Navara).
Neil Woolridge (Team Principal):
“Other than the punctures on the first loop and the time lost with the failed jack on Chris’ car that gave us a bit of a scare, it was a faultless weekend. The guys drove well and both cars performed perfectly. Finally luck seems to have been on our side for a change.
“This means we’re right in it for the championship, and it’s going down to the wire at the final race.
“The team has worked really hard over the past couple months, and all credit goes to them for this win after the low of the fire at our workshop, finding and preparing a car for Chris, completely rebuilding Gareth’s car almost from scratch, and the high of our NWM-built Rangers finishing first and second in Brazil. It’s been a crazy period, but it’s fantastic to still be fighting for the championship.”
Chris Visser (T8):
“We had a great race. I really enjoyed the route, although it was quite rocky in places, and obviously the issue with the jack added some extra pressure. I was trying to take it easy on the first loop, but then went much quicker on the second loop, which felt much better.
“It’s great to finish with a win and our championship back on track. Let’s hope we continue this way at the final race of the season.”
Gareth Woolridge (T7):
“It was difficult to find a decent rhythm during qualifying, and the navigation was a real challenge. But things went a lot better today as the route opened up. It’s a pity about the puncture and the time we lost on the first loop.
“We got another puncture on the second loop, and landed up behind one of the special vehicles. Despite being much faster than them, we couldn’t get past, even when we closed right up and used the RallySafe system’s Pass Request. We spent about 70km behind them, but we’re happy with second place and another podium finish.”
The next race is the Atlas Copco Gold 450 in Gauteng on 28 and 29 October 2016.