It’s the longest, toughest event of the year – and it’s one the Ford Castrol Cross Country Team relishes, especially as this will be the first opportunity to prove the capability of the all-new FIA-class Ford Ranger, designed and manufactured by Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM), on a marathon event that covers a punishing route of almost 1 000km over three days.
The annual Desert Race represents the pinnacle of the South African Cross Country Series (SACCS) calendar, with competitors challenging for a lucrative haul of points up for grabs during this unique event in the battle for championship glory. Due to the prevailing COVID-19 restrictions on cross-border travel, the traditional staging of this event in Botswana has been ruled out, so the 2021 Toyota Gazoo Racing SA 1000 Desert Race will be based in Upington, in the Northern Cape, from 18 to 20 June this year – but it will be no less demanding on the vehicles, drivers, navigators and support crews.
“The Desert Race is a crucial event in the championship, as the race format covers three days and nearly 1 000km of competitive action,” says Neil Woolridge, team principal of NWM. “Unlike previous years where there were two separate races over the weekend, this is one long marathon event covering the full race distance, so reliability and consistency will be key to ensure that we have a shot at victory, and are able to challenge for this year’s title.
“It will be our first chance to prove the capabilities of our newly developed FIA-class 3.5-litre twin-turbo V6 EcoBoost-powered Ford Ranger on a longer marathon event. We’ve done a lot of development work on the vehicles over the past couple of months, and have sorted out the induction pipe issue that resulted in both cars retiring from the Sugarbelt 400 in May,” Neil says.
“We designed our new Ranger to compete at the highest level on long-distance cross-country races around the world, including the most extreme and revered of them all – the Dakar Rally. So, this year’s Desert Race is the ideal platform to showcase the capabilities of our latest-generation Ford Ranger in some of the harshest and most unforgiving conditions we will face all year.”
The Ford Castrol NWM team has certainly proven its pedigree at this event, with Lance Woolridge and then co-driver Ward Huxtable powering their V8-powered Ford Ranger to the Class T victory in both heats of the 2019 event and, remarkably, the overall win in the second heat against the faster, higher-specification FIA-class competitors. This helped set the duo up to secure their second consecutive Class T championship title.
After last year’s event was cancelled due to COVID-19, Lance Woolridge and co-driver Elvéne Vonk (334) are determined to taste glory once again at the 2021 Desert Race. They claimed an exceptional debut victory for the all-new FIA-class Ranger at the season-opening Mpumalanga 400 in March, and are currently second in the FIA-class championship.
“Retiring from the Sugarbelt 400 was a huge disappointment for us, but I’m confident that we can make up for it at the Desert Race once again,” Lance says. “The competition is intense in the FIA-class, and we are going to have to be on the pace from the moment we set off on Friday’s qualifying session. Based on all the development work we’ve done on the Ranger, I’m really looking forward to seeing what it is capable of in the challenging desert terrain.”
Team-mates Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer (377) also performed extremely well at the 2019 Desert Race, finishing second in Class T in both races, and runners-up in the overall results for the Sunday race. They were third overall at the Mpumalanga 400, and are intent on making up for their misfortune at the Sugarbelt 400. Gareth and Boyd are currently placed sixth in the drivers and navigators standings respectively, just 12 points adrift of Lance and Elvéne, and equal on 28 points with three other teams.
“Our pace at the Sugarbelt was really good as we were second-fastest in qualifying, and we were well placed to compete for the win,” Gareth says. “The retirement was unfortunate, but we identified and resolved the pipe issue quickly, and we won’t be holding anything back when the racing commences on Friday.”
NWM-supported Ford Ranger V8 entries make up the bulk of the Class T entries and are currently placed second to fifth in the championship after consistent finishes in the opening two rounds of the series.
Malcolm and Frans Kock (T4) are currently the highest-placed NWM Ford Ranger entry in second place in Class T, ahead of Wors Prinsloo/Andre Vermeulen (T41), Christo Rose/Arno Olivier (T58), and Bernard Johnstone (T22).
The Ford NWM Development Team of Bapi Rubuluza and Fanifani Meyiwa (T49) will have their second outing in the NWM Ford Ranger V8 after a solid finish at the Sugarbelt 400 – their first event together, and a commendable debut in Class T.
The 2021 Desert Race will be based in Upington, with the race headquarters and designated service park (DSP) located at the Upington Expo Showgrounds.
The Pirelli Qualifying Race kicks off on Friday 18 June at 12:00, comprising a 130km loop north of Upington, which includes a highly anticipated ‘mini dunes’ section, according to the race organisers. The Friday results will determine the starting order for Saturday’s first 200km race loop that sets off at 08:00. A mandatory 30-minute service stop is followed by a repeat of the same loop, with the combined Friday and Saturday results determining the starting order for the final day.
Sunday’s action commences at 08:00, and the crews will complete another two loops of 200km each, which includes a 70km mini dune section at the start of the loop, followed by a riverbed section and rocky terrain that will test the teams and vehicles to their limits as they wrap up an arduous 930km of fast-paced adrenaline-fuelled racing.
As per the current COVID-19 regulations, the Desert Race remains closed to spectators. However, fans can follow all the action and track the position of the crews using the RallySafe app which can be downloaded free of charge for iOS and Android devices. Also, be sure to follow the Ford Performance SA social media channels, listed below, for regular race updates.