The Neil Woolridge Motorsport Ford Performance team of Chris Visser and Ward Huxtable gave their Class T championship title aspirations a significant boost this weekend by claiming second place in the Toyota Botswana 1000 Desert Race - round three of the Donaldson Cross Country Championship.
Acknowledged as one of the toughest and roughest Desert Races in recent memory, the punishing 979km marathon route was spread over three action-packed days of racing and certainly took its toll on the competitors and vehicles alike, with only 15 of the original 42 starters crossing the finishing line.
Heading into this year's event, based in the diamond mining town of Jwaneng around 180km from Gaborone, Visser and co-driver Huxtable had the benefit of leading the Class T championship following their victory last time out at the Vredefort Super Sprint, along with the third-placed finish at the Vryburg season-opener.
However, as the longest event on the calendar, the 1 000km Desert Race is renowned as an extreme test of endurance and survival - but offers the prospective of a lucrative double points haul for the Saturday and Sunday races.
Friday's 121km qualifying session went without incident for the experienced Visser and Huxtable, and they secured the second-fastest time in Class T behind the Toyota Hilux of Johan and Werner Horn.
For team-mates Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer in the second NWM Ford Performance Ranger it was a less auspicious start. The young crew had once again showed impressive pace, but were caught out when the left front wheel dug into the sand in a tight corner and tipped the Ranger onto its side - losing around 30 min as the recovered the vehicle and dropping them to 10th place.
With perfect weather conditions and an enthusiastic crowd signalling the start of the main race on Saturday, Visser and Huxtable set off with determination to catch the Horn brothers. Unfortunately, the extremely rough terrain saw them snap the right front driveshaft 25km from the end of the first 233km loop.
The vehicle was repaired during the 20 min service, and they charged off again for the second loop, but suffered another driveshaft failure 90km from the end. The brake line was severed at the same time, resulting in them not only having to complete the day's racing in two wheel-drive, but without front brakes as well.
Commendably, they were able to maintain second position, ending just over 4 minutes behind overnight Class T leaders.
The Ranger was repaired overnight and the gearbox changed as a precaution, with the service crew working tirelessly until well after midnight.
Meanwhile, Woolridge and Dreyer recovered brilliantly from their qualifying tumble to enjoy a storming, largely incident-free drive and charged all the way up to fourth place at the end of day one behind Jason Venter and Vince van Alleman (Toyota Hilux) - despite being driven into by one of the Special Vehicle competitors which damaged the rear bodywork of the Ranger.
With nearly 400km of racing still to go on Sunday, the Desert Race always has a twist, and so it turned out as the running order at the sharp end of the field changed repeatedly - with a large number of competitors dropping out during the day with mechanical woes.
Visser and Huxtable had their fair share of drama, picking up a puncture 65km into the first 196km loop, with the soft sand making the wheel-changing exercise a fraught and lengthy affair that cost them around 9 minutes. Unfortunately, they picked up another puncture towards the end of the stint after trying to pass a slower competitor, once again losing precious time.
Following the service they had a perfect run for the second loop, and maintained a safe pace through to the end to secure a hard-earned second position behind eventual Class T winners Venter/Van Alleman. Although disappointed by losing out on the win, they team was happy with the valuable points that strengthens its lead in the Class T championship.
Woolridge and Dreyer were going well in the first loop until they also broke a driveshaft, leaving them with rear wheel-drive for half the lap. The Ranger was repaired during the pit stop and they completed the remaining loop without any problems to earn a solid fourth place behind Luke Botha and Andre Vermeulen (Nissan Navara).
The next race is the Winterton 450 sprint race in KwaZulu-Natal, on 29 and 30 July.