Punctures have the final say in Class T title
GLENHARVIE — It was a case of so tantalisingly close yet just a stretch too far for Pietermaritzburg’s Neil Woolridge Motorsport Ford Performance, as the team’s Class T title challenge ended today by a losing margin of just 68 seconds after the hardfought season was wrapped up at the Atlas Copco Gold 450 race on Gauteng’s West Rand.
Heading into the final round of the 2016 Donaldson Cross Country Championship, Chris Visser and co-driver Ward Huxtable were tied for the lead of the Class T Production Vehicle category along with Jason Venter and Vince van Alleman (Toyota), resulting in a winner-takes-all showdown.
This was a truly commendable effort considering the team suffered a devastating fire at its Pietermaritzburg workshop in July. Accordingly, the scene was set for a thrilling season finale, and so it proved on an extremely hot and dusty weekend in Gauteng’s gold mining region.
With tyres and punctures having played a significant role in this year’s championship, the team adopted a conservative approach for the 101 km qualifying loop on Friday, but any caution Visser and Huxtable had shown during qualifying was thrown out the window on race day.
Indeed, they were in flying form and set the fastest times through eight of the 10 timing segments, only losing out to Woolridge/Dreyer, who snatched two fastest sectors before picking up their first puncture.
As predicted, the rocky conditions ultimately threw a spanner in the works, with all three top crews suffering punctures on the second loop as the pace heated up to match the searing 34°C ambient temperature.
Sadly, Visser and Huxtable’s single puncture cost them dearly, taking longer than anticipated to fit a spare wheel.
This handed the advantage back to Venter and Van Alleman in the closing stage of the race.
With the championship poised on a knife edge, it was ultimately decided in the Toyota crew’s favour by a desperately narrow winning margin of 68sec over third-placed Visser/Huxtable. This gave the experienced NWM Ford Performance crew a hard-earned second place in the season-long Class T title battle.
Woolridge and Dreyer notched up their second consecutive runner-up finish 47 seconds behind the winners.
This was enough to secure fourth in the championship, despite missing a race when their race car was extensively damaged by the fire.
Team principal Neil Woolridge said of what could only be called a crazy season: “We’ve had a great fight with Jason Venter the whole year, and were leading the championship after the Botswana Desert Race, which was great for the team.
“Unfortunately, the fire was a major setback, and we competed at the Lichtenburg race just a week later with a borrowed and hastily prepared car for Chris. It’s been a battle to claw back points through the remainder of the championship, and it’s a testament to the hard work and dedication of the team that we arrived at the final race of the year tied for the lead.
“I’ve said the whole year that this championship will be decided by punctures, and so it proved on this event. We set out to complete the race without making mistakes, but were clearly too cautious during qualifying.”
Woolridge said the team did really well and the racing Rangers cars have been brilliant with a 100% finishing record this season. “I’m very proud of what we achieved. As a team, we truly appreciate the support and encouragement received from all our sponsors and supporters throughout the year.”
Chris Visser and co-driver Ward Huxtable in action in the Atlas Copco Gold 450.