Tough luck for Ford at Sugarbelt 400 despite tremendous effort to succeed
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KWA-ZULU NATAL - What do you do when you win the first race of the South African Cross Country Series after a few years sabbatical as a works team? You follow the team to the Sugarbelt 400 in KwaZulu Natal with a handful of Ford Raptors to lend your support. But because it’s a Raptor, there needs to be an alternative route that involves as little of the national road as possible and some gravel thrown in for good measure.
Which is what we did with five of Ford’s unique offroad vehicles to see how Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer and Lance Woolridge and Elvéne Vonk in their FIA-Class Ford Rangers would follow up their previous success. Ford’s NWM Development Team of Bapi Rubuluza and Fanifani Meyiwa in their Ranger V8 were also making their debut in the series.
We turned off the N3 as soon as possible and headed towards De Beer’s pass between Ladysmith and Harrismith along dirt roads and past vast tracts of farmland with maize, cattle and sheep.
Driving an alternative route affords you the opportunity to see so much more of our country and also supports small roadside and town business owners whose survival depends on tourists especially with the havoc that Covid has inflicted. Besides, their coffee, food and milkshakes are substantially more tasty than the franchise kind you get at large highway filling stations.
It also gives you a better perspective on the size of South Africa with views that stretch forever with koppies and mountains and guest houses tucked away around every corner.
Unfortunately there’s also the overpowering urge to shout from the hilltops at local municipalities to stop pocketing the money and spend it where it’s supposed to be to improve residents’ lives and repair and maintain resources. That’s a central theme that runs across all roads away from the large cities and until there’s a paradigm shift in attitudes is unlikely to change any time soon.
These were my thoughts while ensconced by the comfortable cockpit and seats of the Raptor while the 2.0-litre twin turbo engine seamlessly shifted between cogs in the 10-speed automatic gearbox.
It also again showed why the Raptor is undoubtedly at the top of the pile, for me at least, when it comes to double cabs and especially gravel road prowess.
The Fox suspension and 35-inch tyres gobble every road imperfection up and through one town where the main road has totally disintegrated, we idled behind cars as they swerved to try and avoid dongas while we casually carried on unencumbered.
Road manners are top notch as well with its wide stance and again, that suspension and tyre combination allowing you to drive bends faster than many SUVs or sedans would be comfortable doing.
Once we got to the race the following day we sped from viewing point to viewing point as fast as the dirt road conditions allowed and my passenger who hadn’t been in a Raptor before, was in rapture (gedit?) as we drifted around bends and bounced over hobbles and through dongas. A bit like the magnificent sounding vehicles on the circuit except of course much slower.
Unfortunately for us the Ford FIA-Class Rangers didn’t have as much success or fun as we had after a promising start in the prologue on day one. Both Rangers powered by Ford’s 3.5-Litre EcoBoost turbocharged V6 engine suffered engine trouble and had to withdraw during the main race on day two.
A simple thing like air induction pipes failure due to enormous suction pressure was enough to call it a day. But that’s motorsport and it’s an easy fix for the next event, the 1000 Desert Race in Upington from 18-20 June.
In the Class T championship, the NWM-supported Ford Ranger privateers had another good weekend though. Malcolm and Frans Kock scored their second runner-up finish in a row, with Wors Prinsloo and Andre Vermeulen joining them on the podium in third. Christo Rose and Arno Olivier 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 ended sixth on their debut in the Ranger V8.
If you, like most people, enjoy a road trip, check out Google Maps and plot an alternative route and you’ll be richly rewarded. It helps if you’re in a Raptor but don’t let that stop you from taking the road less travelled.