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Vryheid 400 2024: Promising Pace but Podium Eludes NWM Ford Team at SARRC Vryheid 400

Lance Woolridge and Kenny Gilbert (#234) finished fourth at inaugural Vryheid 400, just 10 seconds off the podium in their NWM Ford Ranger after fighting back from brake issues on Saturday’s opening loop

Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer (#200) led Friday’s qualifying session and looked set for a top result, but they too had brake troubles on Saturday morning and ended seventh in the Ultimate class and eighth overall
NWM-supported privateer team of Wors Prinsloo and Andre Vermeulen (#241) brought their NWM Ford Ranger home 11th in Ultimate class and 14th overall

The inaugural Vryheid 400, Round 2 of the extremely competitive South African Rally-Raid Championship (SARRC) held in the northern KwaZulu-Natal farming town on 24 and 25 May, delivered on its promise of providing a tough but exciting challenge for competitors. However, this new event, which was sponsored by PS Laser Promac, delivered mixed fortunes for the Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM) Rally-Raid Team which looked set for top results, and came tantalisingly close to scoring a podium finish.

The start of the intense two days of racing through the farms, forests and mountains of the Vryheid area started perfectly for the two EcoBoost-powered and Shell-sponsored NWM Ford Rangers. Reigning SARRC champions Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer (#200) made their intentions clear by winning the short 15km qualifying sprint on Friday morning, with team-mates Lance Woolridge and Kenny Gilbert (#234) posting the second-fastest time, a mere 3 seconds adrift.

A 38km race loop followed in the afternoon, with Gareth and Boyd ending the day second overall, just 25 seconds behind the Toyota of Guy Botterrill and Dennis Murphy, while Lance and Kenny were still hot on their heels, securing third place just 14 seconds back. This ensured that the NWM Ford crews didn’t have to open the road for the first of the two 174km race loops on Saturday morning, which gave them the upper hand on this brand-new route.

Gareth and Boyd were on a charge right from the start on Saturday. Within the first 30km the NWM Ford crew had caught right up to the leading Toyota, and they had to contend with the severe hanging dust that was a common theme throughout the race.

They were stuck behind their rivals through the tight and rocky mountain section that followed, but then had to deal with rapidly fading brakes after a calliper bleed nipple came loose and leaked brake fluid. After stopping to bleed the brakes and top up the system they got going again, only to have a brake pipe on a different corner of their car being damaged, resulting in a total loss of brake pressure as they hurtled down a steep hill. They eventually came to a halt in a forest section – fortunately without damaging the car, and then proceeded to replace the pipe and bleed the brake system once again.

Having lost more than 30 minutes to the leaders by this stage, they finished the loop without further incident and returned to the designated service park (DSP) for the mandatory half-hour service stop. The second loop was completed without any issues, and Gareth and Boyd ended the race in a commendable seventh place in the Ultimate (T1+) class, and eighth overall.

Having been forced to retire from the opening round in Malalane, Gareth’s hope of securing a major points haul at this event was dashed, but he was positive about the latest NWM Ranger’s performance, which bodes well for the rest of the season. “The car was fantastic and we were fast throughout the weekend, so it’s disappointing that we had the brake issues. It’s good to get some championship points on the board, and we’ll certainly come back stronger at the next race.”

Lance and Kenny also had a brake issue on the first 174km loop on Saturday, as a brake line connector in the cabin worked its way loose. They had to stop and find the source of the fluid leak, tighten it back up then refill and bleed the entire system. They sacrificed more than 12 minutes during the stop, but then set off with determination to make up lost ground.

By the time they reached the DSP, Lance and Kenny had closed to within 1 min 36 sec of the third-placed Toyota of Giniel de Villiers and Elvéne Vonk. It was a thrilling battle throughout the final 174km loop, and the NWM Ford crew was giving it everything as they closed on their rivals in the hunt for the podium finish. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be, and they missed out by a mere 10 seconds after a spirited drive.

“It was a tough race that started out looking good for us,” Lance said. “The issue with the brake line was very frustrating, but the car performed brilliantly and really suited these conditions. This showed in our qualifying results and our pace in the main race, and at least we scored some valuable championship points.”

Team principal Neil Woolridge said: “This was another of those promising races that looked set to go our way after leading qualifying and having both of our cars in the top three at the end of Friday. Both crews were flying on Saturday but the brake issues eliminated their chances of a potential top-two finish. Other than these minor niggles, though, we can be very happy with the car’s set-up and performance in a tough race with some very challenging conditions.”

The NWM-supported privateer team of Wors Prinsloo and Andre Vermeulen (#241) brought their Ford Ranger home 11th in the Ultimate class and 14th overall, having shown true grit and determination after dealing with a couple of technical issues.

The next race is the three-day 1 000km Toyota Gazoo Racing Marathon Race which will be held in the Waterberg region, near Thabazimbi in the Limpopo Province, from 21 to 23 June 2024.

The NWM Ford Rally-Raid Team is proud to be supported by the following partners: Shell, Ford Credit, Mastercraft, Würth, NTN, Brembo, Veldskoen, Motorcraft, Ironman 4×4, Sapphire, Shatterprufe and Tiger Wheel & Tyre.

Source: NWM Ford Rally-Raid Team

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