2020 SA Cross Country Series wrapped up: Here's everything you need to know

By Staff Reporter Time of article published Oct 26, 2020

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FREE STATE - Due to Covid-19's impact on the world of motorsport, the final two rounds of the 2020 South African Cross-Country Series (SACCS) took place in Parys on 23 and 24 October and saw Toyota Gazoo Racing SA’s Henk Lategan and navigator Brett Cummings win a second consecutive championship. The pair recorded a second-place finish in the Ford Parys 400, which was held on Friday and a win in the Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Vaal 400, which took place on Saturday.

“We had some bad luck during Friday’s race, and even though we pushed as hard as we could, two punctures put paid to our chances,” said Lategan after completing the double-header in the Free State. “Even so, second place was enough to secure the title, with one round to go.”

The win on Friday went to Chris Visser and Danie Stassen, in the Total Excillium-sponsored Class FIA Toyota Hilux. The burly farmer and businessman made the most of Lategan’s misfortune, to take his first win of the year, breaking Lategan’s five-race winning streak in the process. But Lategan was determined to fight back on the next round. That round followed the next day, and the newly crowned champions didn’t put a foot wrong in their quest for victory. It turned out to be an uneventful race, as the Toyota Hilux never missed a beat, and the pair romped to victory over teammates Giniel de Villiers and Alex Haro, in an identical car.

The weekend brought mixed results for Lategan’s two teammates, Giniel de Villiers and Shameer Variawa. The Dakar legend De Villiers, who reunited with Spanish navigator Alex Haro for the final race weekend of the season, finished 4th on Friday but improved to 2nd on Saturday. Multiple punctures proved his undoing, but a win in the qualifying race for Saturday’s event saw the man from Stellenbosch lead the way initially. More punctures allowed Lategan/Cummings through, relegating De Villiers/Haro to 2nd, handing Toyota Gazoo Racing SA a one-two finish in the final race of the year. Variawa and navigator Dennis Murphy also suffered multiple punctures on the opening race and ended up in 7th place as a result. More punctures slowed them during Saturday’s race, but they moved up one spot, finishing as the 6th-fastest crew on the day.

“We are extremely pleased to have won a second successive championship with Henk and Brett,” said Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Team Principal, Glyn Hall, after the dust had settled over Parys. “They proved again just how tough and reliable our Class FIA Toyota Hilux is, over any type of terrain.”

The team has traditionally used the SACCS as a base for the development and testing of its Hilux, and 2020 was no exception. Numerous gains were made in the performance of the car and its suspension over the course of the year, in preparation for January’s Dakar Rally. Details of the event are yet to be shared by the organisers, but the team is moving its focus to prepare for the race nonetheless, with an eye on taking on the world’s toughest automotive race again, early in the new year.

Disappointment for Ford Team

The two days of racing was held in extremely hot, dry and dusty conditions that pushed the driver and co-driver pairings, the support crews and the cars to their limits.

A short 14km sprint was held for qualifying to determine the starting positions. However, with such a short distance for the prologue, the times were bound to be exceptionally close – and that’s exactly how it played out, with the top five competitors separated by a mere 14 seconds, and the two Ford Castrol entries posting identical times of 9 min 28 sec.

Due to their higher seeding coming into the event, Lance Woolridge and Elvéne Vonk (#334) were classified fourth, with team-mates Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer fifth in their Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM) V8-powered Ford Ranger.

The first 164km loop saw Gareth and Boyd trade places with Lance and Elvéne by the time they reached the scheduled 30-minute service stop at the Parys Airfield, with tricky navigation, soaring temperatures and high speeds in excess of 180km/h being defining characteristics of the race.

Having had to deal with a faulty GPS map on the first loop, there were no such issues on the second 164km stint for Gareth and Boyd, allowing them to push hard – and they were rewarded with a superb third place overall and their first podium of the year.

“I wanted to push on this event for a good result, but we got lost about four times on the first lap due to our GPS not showing the route,” Gareth explains. “On the second lap the GPS had plotted the route so we could go a lot faster, and we had a perfect run with the Ranger performing faultlessly. Third place overall is like a win for us, as we’re still running what is basically a Class T car against our full FIA competitors, so I’m really happy.”

Unfortunately, Lance and Elvéne saw their fortunes head in the opposite direction. “We had a clean run through the first loop, and on the second lap, we pushed really hard to make up some time. I took a bit of risk through a rocky section and picked up a puncture on the right rear. We replaced the wheel and then turned onto a fast district road. Just 5km later we had a flat tyre again on the same wheel. After fitting our last spare wheel we had to be a bit more careful for the remainder of the race, but we were matching Gareth’s split times.”

That was until they struck a bird with the grille of the Ranger, which resulted in the air-con compressor being damaged. With the ambient temperatures peaking at almost 40 degrees Celsius outside the vehicle, the cabin was at least 15 deg C hotter. This caused havoc with the car’s electronics, as the power distribution module (PDM) mounted on the transmission tunnel topped out at a staggering 130 deg C, which caused it to switch off repeatedly as a self-protection measure, cutting the engine in the process. The exhausted crew managed to nurse the vehicle across the finish line, ending 11th overall and eighth in the FIA class.

A better Race 2

The same race format followed on day two with the Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Vaal 400 – including the 14km qualifying sprint. Lance and Elvéne were fifth fastest, having gone 45 sec quicker than Friday’s run. Still, without air-conditioning and facing the prospect of even higher daytime temperatures, the team had improvised by directing a cooling pipe onto the PDM to prevent the overheating issue.

But for Gareth and Boyd, it was a frustrating start to the race. For approximately half of the qualifying lap, they were stuck in the thick dust of a Class T competitor with a puncture, who was continuing on the flat tyre and eventually driving on the rim and refused to move over to let the vehicles behind pass. Although they only lost about 30 seconds as a result, the short distance and extremely close times saw the #377 Ranger drop to 15th overall – with a lot of ground to make up during the main race.

As the leading Ford Ranger crew, Lance and Elvéne enjoyed a superb run through the initial, slightly longer 168km loop for Saturday’s race, and entered the service park in a solid fifth place overall. Behind them, Gareth and Boyd were charging through the field and had made the most of the two-minute dust gaps to claw their way back into contention in sixth place – and the running order for the two Ford Castrol NWM entries looked set to remain that way for the remainder of the punishing race.

However, it was sadly not to be, as Lance and Elvéne saw their solid performance come to a screeching halt approximately 3km from the end of the race. A bolt holding the left front hub onto the lower control arm snapped off, and they were stranded on the side of the track. With emergency repairs carried out by the NWM service crew, they were able to limp across the finish line and incurred a five-hour penalty for receiving outside assistance. Nevertheless, the crew’s determination, tenacity and never-say-die attitude saw them classified last and having finished every race this year.

Gareth and Boyd ultimately crossed the line fifth overall to round out an encouraging weekend of racing. In Class T, privateers Malcolm and Frans Kock concluded their weekend with their second consecutive runner-up trophy.

“It’s been a very difficult year for everyone due to the impact of Covid-19, but if I look at what we’ve achieved with our team and our current car, which is not up to the latest specification of our competitors, it has been a brilliant year,” says NWM team principal, Neil Woolridge.

“Both of our crews drove exceptionally well this weekend, and it was fantastic for Gareth and Boyd to get a podium on Friday,” Neil adds. “Lance and Elvéne were also on fire until they picked up the punctures, and then had to contend with the high temperatures and the car cutting out as a result.

“On Saturday, the roles were reversed, with Gareth and Boyd held up during qualifying then fighting their way back to a superb fifth place. Lance and Elvéne were pushing really hard and didn’t put a foot wrong, so it was a bit disappointing that they had trouble right at the end. However, the entire team can be exceptionally proud of our performance and results from this year,” he proudly says.

It’s the end of the era for the current NWM Ford Ranger V8 in the premier class of the SACCS. “It’s a bitter-sweet moment for us, as the Ranger V8 has been a fantastic vehicle, having won two South African Class T championships and proved itself throughout the world,” Neil explains.

The Ranger V8 will continue to be raced by Class T for privateers next year, but the team’s focus is now on the highly anticipated launch of the all-new FIA Ranger, powered by Ford’s mighty twin-turbo 3.5 EcoBoost V6 engine for the 2021 SACCS championship. “We can’t wait to race the new FIA Ranger, and we are continuing our testing and development programme next week as we build up to coming out with all guns blazing to fight for race wins and the championship title next year.”

Good weekend for Red-Lined Racing

Red-Lined lived up to its adventurous intentions as all three of its teams were made to overcome adversity to deliver yet another 100% finishing record at the weekend’s doubleheader.

FIA Class Dragon Energy VK56 duo Ernest Roberts and Henry Kohne were slowed by a drivetrain issue on Friday but had a good run Saturday. Rookie crew Philip Botha and Roelof Janse van Vuren's national debut proved a baptism of fire aboard their new Penta backed FIA Class Red-Lined VK50. But the biggest adventure belonged to the Class T title-chasing Terence Marsh and Letshego Zulu and their Red-Lined VK50.

Marsh and Zulu arrived in Parys trailing the T Class title leaders by just two points. The plan was to avoid mistakes and punctures and not to get out of that VK50 through the two days. “Day 1 started fine,” Terence Marsh explained. “We qualified well to start in a comfortable position around fifteenth on the road and managed our pace to end up fourth in class on Friday.

“So we woke up on Saturday knowing that we were in a close three-way fight for the Class T title on the day’s final championship round. It did not start well! We managed to pick up a puncture just two kilometres in and that dropped us to the back, so we started the main race 35th and last. Our backs were against the wall, so we just went for it and charged from the back.

“We had a good first lap — it was dusty and tough but we were up to fifteenth by mid-distance. We continued to charge as best we could and ended up coming from 35th to twelfth overall and third in class! That saw us to a close second in the Class T championship with a 100% finishing record and a great season under the belt. The car was great and Letshego was brilliant on the notes all year. We are happy with that!”

Roberts and Kohne enjoyed a productive weekend in the Dragon Energy VK56. “We qualified well and had a good start on Friday and we were running top-five pace as expected,” Ernest explained. “Unfortunately we broke a left rear side shaft and were limited to front-wheel drive to get it home. But we finished, so that was quite an adventure.

“Saturday went better — we did best we could in that dusty short qualifying and started the main race twelfth. Our good run continued and we were up to sixth but lost a little time with a puncture to wind up seventh for the day. That's a good result — it was a fast race, our pace was good and that was a great end to the season. Thanks to the Red-Lined team for a great season, after all."

It was a big weekend for Botha and Janse van Vuren on their national championship Cross Country debut aboard their new Penta Red Lined VK50. “We had a good qualifying, but our debut race was a bit of a baptism of fire,” Philip Botha reported. “We rolled the Penta VK50 on the first lap, but the Red-Lined guys did a brilliant job to right the ship at the mid-race stop and we managed to finish the race.

“The guys then did another great job to fix the car overnight and we were on the start line ready to race again sparrows Saturday. We had a good run in the final round and brought it home. Roelof and I are super proud to finish two national rounds in a row on our debut. We could never have done it alone, especially after that first-day adventure. Thanks so much to the entire Red-Lined team for all the effort!"

"Our Red Lined cars started 18 races this year and we finished seventeen of those," team principal Terence Marsh wrapped it up. "Our team completed 9680 kilometres of 9800 km of racing this Covid year. That's what it's all about!" Red-Lined Racing now takes a well-earned break before preparing for a fresh assault on the 2021 South African Cross Country championship.

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