Mixed results for Ford Castrol team at Sugarbelt 400
The Ford Castrol Cross Country Team was left ruing what could have been at its home race, the Sugarbelt 400 in Pietermaritzburg this weekend, after a strong qualifying performance came to nought with both FIA-class Ford Rangers sidelined due to a relatively minor technical issue.
The short 51km qualifying for round two of the South African Cross Country Series (SACCS) on Friday 21 May saw Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer (#377) set the second-quickest time in their new EcoBoost-powered NWM Ford Ranger, finishing just 47 seconds off the lead vehicle. They subsequently received a 2-minute penalty for exceeding the 40km/h speed limit in a decontrol section by 6km/h due to a discrepancy between the vehicle’s speed sensor and the series’ RallySafe system. This saw them dropping to fifth in FIA-class and eighth overall.
Team-mates Lance Woolridge and Elvéne Vonk (#334) adopted a relatively cautious approach to the opening stint in the sugarcane fields that characterise this scenic region of the province, and were ultimately classified third in FIA-class and fifth overall once penalties had been handed out to various competitors.
While the expected rainy weather held off, race day on Saturday 22 May dawned cloudy and cold – and soon dealt a cruel blow to Lance and Elvéne on the opening 160km race loop. Just 41km into the stage, the round one winners’ Ranger suddenly suffered a significant power loss, and they were forced to retire.
A similar fate befell Gareth and Boyd’s Ranger on the opening loop, but they were able to soldier on – albeit rapidly dropping down the running order. They made it to the mandatory 30-minute service stop, but the team wasn’t able to rectify the problem, so they persevered and started the second loop. Eventually the team decided to call it quits as they had dropped out of the points, and didn’t want to risk damaging the engine.
The team’s investigations immediately after the race revealed that the air induction pipes leading into the turbochargers had failed due to the immense suction pressure – a relatively minor component fault that unfortunately turned the tables on the team’s dream debut at the season-opener.
“It was not a great weekend for us, especially on our home turf,” NWM team principal Neil Woolridge mused. “However, we can take a lot of positives from this race. All of the engine calibration and suspension upgrades we did leading up to this race worked really well. Gareth proved this during qualifying and Lance was going really well on Saturday morning until he had to stop, so that is really encouraging for us.
“While this event was disappointing, I have to remind myself and the team that this is a completely new car in only its second race,” he said. “We are the first team and manufacturer to have gone the turbo petrol route, so we are learning every time we go testing and racing. The pipe failure was a relatively small issue, and we already know how to fix it, which is important as there’s less than a month to go until the 1 000km Desert Race in June.”
Gareth added: “We had a brilliant qualifying, and were very happy with our pace. The penalty was unfortunate, but several other teams were also facing other penalties. Setting off eighth actually gave us a good starting position so I felt that we were well placed to make up the minute or so we needed on the leaders.
“We went off really well and the car felt strong. Boyd and I quickly fell into a good groove for the first 10km, then there was a hissing noise and suddenly no power. We stopped to check but couldn’t see anything obvious, so we carried on but lost a lot of time. The service stop didn’t resolve the problem, and soon after we went out on the second loop it became clear that it was a futile exercise, so we retired. It was a bitter pill to swallow following our good qualifying pace, and after all the work the team has put into the car, but it’s better that it happened here than at the Desert Race where there’s double points up for grabs.”
Lance was equally disappointed. “It was very frustrating for us from a championship perspective after winning last time. And for the team it was really disappointing with both cars not finishing, however we’ve found the problem already which well help us get the problem resolved for the next race. We took it a bit too easy in qualifying, but I felt really good on the first loop after making some suspension changes on Friday afternoon. Our focus is now on ensuring the cars are ready for the next race in Upington to maximise our points there.”
In the Class T championship, the strong contingent of NWM-supported Ford Ranger privateers had another good weekend. Malcolm and Frans Kock (#T4) scored their second runner-up finish in a row, with Wors Prinsloo and Andre Vermeulen (#T41) joining them on the podium in third. Christo Rose and Arno Olivier (#T58) racked up another finish in their first season with the Ranger V8 by coming home fifth, and the Ford NWM Development Team of Bapi Rubuluza and Fanifani Meyiwa (#T49) ended sixth on their debut in the Ranger V8.
The next race is the Toyota 1000 Desert Race in Upington, from 18 to 20 June 2021.