Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM), with the backing of title sponsor Ford Performance, is set to be a leading contender in the Production Vehicle category of the new-look 2016 Donaldson Cross Country Championship. When the season kicks off at the RFS Endurance race in Vryburg at the beginning of April, NWM will once again be joining the starting line-up in Class T with two Ford Performance Rangers. Team principal Neil Woolridge says: ‘It’s great to have Ford Performance on board as our title sponsor, continuing NWM’s long-standing relationship with Ford.’
The global Ranger cross country vehicle project was developed in collaboration with the Ford Performance division, and the two Class T vehicles are among the 13 current NWM-built Rangers competing around the world in domestic and international events. To date, NWM has built a total of 23 Ford race vehicles since the association began in 2000. For 2016 the mighty NWM Rangers, powered by a Mustang-derived 5.0-litre V8, feature a fresh new look based on the new Ford Ranger that was launched at the end last year.
The most noticeable change is the distinctive front end with its slim headlights and bold trapezoidal grille that gives the racing vehicle an even more aggressive appearance. Beyond the visual appeal, the NWM team has done extensive work to improve airflow and overall aerodynamics. Combined with a raft of upgrades and enhancements, the new Ranger is expected to be a truly formidable contender this year.
The two NWM Ford Performance entries will be competing in the Class T category of the Production Vehicle championship – but there have been numerous changes to this class for 2016. It has been revamped with new regulations that aim to make it both more affordable and more competitive. The main changes include the switch back to solid rear axles instead of fully independent suspension, and the use of standard production 4×4 tyres, instead of specialised racing tyres.
Along with the reworked Class T regulations, this year’s Donaldson Cross Country Championship sees the introduction of a new FIA class to cater for production-based vehicles competing in international races, including the famous Dakar Rally. The intention, according to series organiser SANORA, is also to attract overseas competitors to race in South Africa. Woolridge says: ‘We elected to compete in the new Class T for this year, as it is a lot more affordable than the FIA category, and it promises to be extremely competitive. Our two Rangers have been completely rebuilt to the new Class T specification, and we will be going all out to secure race wins and the class championship.’
Cross country racing stalwart and 2011 cross country champion Chris Visser heads the NWM Ford Performance driver line-up, bringing his wealth of experience to the team. This year he will be partnered by Ward Huxtable, following the retirement of previous co-driver Japie Badenhorst. The second Ranger will be driven by up-and-coming star Gareth Woolridge, along with co-driver Boyd Dreyer.
In only their first season of Production Vehicle racing last year in a NWM Ranger, the young duo caused quite a stir, regularly challenging the top contenders in terms of pace and consistency. Their best results were fourth place on the arduous Desert Race in Botswana as well as at the season-ending Atlas Copco Gold 450 where they ran as high as second overall for much of the race. Lance Woolridge, one of the team’s established drivers, will be sitting out this season, and taking on a new role at Neil Woolridge Motorsport.
He will be sharing team management duties along with father Neil as NWM supports its growing customer base globally. In addition, he will be closely involved in the testing, setup and development of its current and new vehicle projects, and managing race logistics. Woolridge says: ‘Although we are disappointed that Lance won’t be racing locally this year, with the budget only making it possible for us to field two cars in the Class T championship, he will be fulfilling a crucial role within our broader motorsport business. As part of our customer programme, we are also working on Lance potentially competing in one or two handpicked overseas events during 2016, which will enable us to truly showcase the capabilities of our NWM-built Ranger internationally. One of our other exciting new developments is that we rebuilt one of last year’s Rangers to the full FIA specification, and this will be available for customer rentals to compete in the SA championship, which Lance will be managing. It can also be rented, or purchased, for international competition.’
The 2016 Donaldson Cross Country Championship is expected to be one of the most exciting yet, particularly due to the wide range of changes in Class T that will make the racing more cost-effective and competitive. Seven events make up this year’s calendar, comprising one marathon three-day 1 000 km race, two 650 km endurance races, three 450 km sprint events and the addition of a new super sprint one-day race in Gauteng that adds an interesting, high-paced element to the championship. The season kicks off with the RFS Endurance in Vryburg, on 1 and 2 April.