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Nothing dull about Dullstroom in a Ford Raptor for Rally-Raid’s opening round

Published Mar 29, 2022

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Dullstroom - It’s not every day that regular people get a chance to drive one of the loops before the opening round of the 2022 South African Rally-Raid Championship (SARRC).

Which is what we were fortunate enough to do in Ford Ranger Raptors ahead of the Mpumalanga 400 in Dullstroom. The Raptor is the SARRC’s official route reconnaissance vehicle, which means it’s at the forefront of going into the almost unknown and then planning and executing every race of the season.

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None of the races are easy and the terrain includes everything that makes the series so tough. Competitors can expect anything from sand, rocks, hills, descents, mud, slippery grass and everything in between, so pretty much Ranger Raptor territory.

We were there to watch the Neil Woolridge Ford Castrol team EcoBoost-powered Ford Rangers in their first competitive outing in the new Class FIA T1+ category. These are the racing cars that you see competing in the Dakar, the same ones that saw the Toyota Gazoo Racing Hiluxes do so well in Saudi Arabia.

The new regulations introduced this year for the FIA World Rally-Raid Championship allow the vehicles to be up to 300mm wider than last year’s T1 Ranger and have up to 350mm specially designed long-travel suspension fitted with 37-inch BF Goodrich tyres.

Powering the T1+ Ranger is Ford’s V6 twin turbo 3.5-litre EcoBoost engine that’s basically a rocket propelling a roll cage covered with fibreglass.

We had left the Silverton plant where the Ford Raptors, Rangers and Everests are built, in a convoy of Raptors holding thumbs that the team would emulate last year’s season opener and cross the line in first place.

Much has been said and written about the Raptor’s ability both on tar and offroad but the weekend again highlighted what an exceptionally capable vehicle it is.

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Currently powered by Ford’s 2.0-litre twin turbo diesel engine with 157kW and 500Nm, coupled to a 10-speed automatic transmission, seeing a line of Raptors on the highway is an impressive sight.

Obviously much of the weekend’s discussion centred around the new Ranger Raptor that will have a 3.0-litre twin turbo EcoBoost V6 petrol plant under the bonnet producing 292kW and 583Nm with every 4x4 trick in the book including a front locker..

We can’t wait!

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So it was that we followed Evan Hutchison, who is the series’ route director and multiple cross country champion, around part of the race course.

Even in a Raptor the tight and twisty course is as bumpy and difficult as you can imagine. What it did though was give you an insight into how it must feel being strapped in a race car belting over the hills at anything between 80-120km/h.

We were trundling along much slower and it wasn’t particularly comfortable, so much respect to the drivers and especially the navigators who have to read and make sense of the race notes while being shaken about like a bouncing ball.

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Friday morning’s 20km qualifying sprint saw Gareth Woolridge and co-driver Boyd Dreyer emerge as the quickest of the Fords in fourth place while team-mates Lance Woolridge and Elvéne Vonk ended fifth, just three seconds adrift.

With only 36 seconds separating the top five including defending champion Henk Lategan and Brett Cummings in the Toyota Hilux and Giniel de Villiers and Dennis Murphy in another Hilux it was going to be tight through the 85km of dusty roads in the forests.

When Lance and Vonk crossed the line they were in third place 01:38 behind Lategan and Cummings and 38 seconds behind De Villiers and Murphy.

Gareth and Dreyer were not so lucky, they hit a rock after a jump that destroyed the right front wheel and after a spare was fitted crossed the line in 10th position overall and fifth in Class FIA T1+.

Then the heavens opened and it didn’t stop till sunrise. Day two would be a challenge for sure.

Following the route in the Raptors was not so much a challenge but more a whole lot of fun as we drove through water and thick mud covering the cars in a decent layer of dirt, just the way a Raptor should look after having spent the best part of three days off the black stuff.

With two 90km loops and a 50km liaison Lance and Vonk pushed hard and by the third split of the opening lap, led the race by 01:15 over De Villiers and Murphy.

As Murphy would have it though they slid into a tree with the left rear wheel that damaged the chassis, so despite being competitive with not much testing into the run up to the event their race was run.

“It was a disappointing end to the race for us, but it was exciting and promising, leading the race coming into the halfway point. This gives me a lot of confidence in our new Ranger,” Lance said. “Overall I’m pretty happy with our performance this weekend. We have a very competitive package to fight for the championship.”

Meanwhile Gareth and Dreyer were pushing hard for a podium place and after the mandatory service stop were going hard for second place when an electrical gremlin meant they had to hold back but fortunately for them there were crews dropping out ahead of them which allowed the Ranger to take third place.

“I am happy with third place, considering our incident yesterday and the intermittent throttle that we had at the end of the race,” Gareth said. “We’ve had a busy build-up to this event and only finished my car last week, so we’ve done very little testing and the team has been working exceptionally hard to get us here.

“Based on our times over the race weekend I’m very happy with our new T1+ Ranger. We still need to do more testing and refine the set-up, but I’m excited about the potential that we’ve shown at this race.”

Team principal Neil Woolridge echoed the sentiment. “It wasn’t the perfect weekend for us, but we need to look at the positives. Lance and Elvéne went very well yesterday and had a decent lead today. I was quite surprised how quickly they caught the Toyotas of Henk and Giniel, and it’s a pity that they went off in the slippery conditions. But it’s fantastic to show that we are competitive against our opposition who have had the benefit of a lot more mileage and development time with their car.”

It may not have been the result they were hoping for but that’s racing and at least we got to have heaps of fun in the Raptor.

IOL Motoring

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