Ford and Toyota win in the Free State

The Harrismith 400, Round 5 of the 2018 South African Cross-Country Series (SACCS), saw Toyotas as the first three cars across the line , but it was Ford that claimed the victory in the hotly contested Class T category.

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Victory in Harrismith went to former champion Chris Visser, with Philip Herselman beside him in the Atlas Copco-supported Toyota Hilux. It was a first overall victory for Visser/Herselman since joining the fray in Class FIA of the SACCS this year, and the burly farmer was ecstatic with his win.
“It has been a long time coming, and we’ve gotten close on a number of occasions,” said Visser from the Designated Service Park (DSP) at the Eeram Farmer’s Complex, to the west of the Freestate town of Harrismith. “But today everything came together. The Hilux ran like clockwork, Philip was an ace on the notes, and I really gelled well with the terrain.”

Visser/Herselman brought their Toyota Hilux home just 01:34 ahead of Toyota Gazoo Racing SA’s Henk Lategan and Barry White, who were fresh from their maiden win at last month’s Atlas Copco 400 in Bronkhorstspruit. The factory crew had won the qualifying race for the Harrismith 400 on the Friday before the main event, but found the going tough during the remainder of the race.

“Opening the route was really difficult, though I think we might have been just a touch too cautious on the opening loop,” said Lategan after finishing the race. “We tried to push a bit harder during the second loop, but Chris drove like a man possessed, and in the end, we just couldn’t catch him.”

Third place, 04:54 behind Lategan/White, came the 4×4 Mega World Toyota Hilux of Jason Venter, with Jaco van Aardt beside him. The pair had last raced at the Toyota Kalahari Botswana 1,000 Desert Race in June, but it was a clear return to form for the former Class T champions.

“It was a good race for us,” said Venter after the event. “We came out here with the sole aim of having some fun, and maybe the relaxed attitude helped us go faster. Whatever the case may be, we had a great race and we’re very pleased to be on the overall podium.”

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Things didn’t go quite as smoothly for Giniel de Villiers and Dennis Murphy, in the factory Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Hilux. Their weekend started with a broken tie rod during the qualifying race, forcing the pair to drop way down the order for the main race.

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With Lategan/White finishing second, and De Villiers/Murphy not scoring points in Harrismith, the Production Championship is wide open. While the official standings won’t be updated until the results from the Harrismith 400 become official, it is likely that only ten points will separate De Villiers, at the top of the Production Category standings, from teammate Lategan in second place.

Class S saw championship hopefuls, Jannie Visser and son Chris, retire near the end of the race, handing the class championship to David Huddy and Gerhardt Schutte (Nissan Navara) in the process. The Vissers were 15 points behind Huddy/Schutte going into the penultimate round, but a DNF means that they are now out of contention, making Huddy and Schutte the new Class S champions.

The Free State proved a happy hunting ground for the Ford Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM) team for the second year in a row as Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer scored their second consecutive Harrismith 400 Class T victory at the weekend.

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Having earned their first career win at this event last year, it was once again a stellar performance from the young pair in the NWM-built and run Ford Ranger, catapulting them from fourth to third place in the South African Cross Country Series (SACCS).

Team-mates and current Class T championship leaders, Lance Woolridge and Ward Huxtable were not quite as fortunate in the second NWM Ford Ranger but still managed a solid fourth place.

With their title rivals, Johan and Werner Horn (Toyota), encountering troubles and only managing sixth, it gives the Ford crew a bit more breathing space with their lead extended from four to nine points – thus setting the scene for yet another thrilling two-horse race for championship glory at the season finale.

Qualifying

With this year’s Harrismith 400 featuring an almost entirely new route, the primary objective for the Ford NWM team was to score maximum points without taking any risks that could sideline them in the fierce battle for the 2018 Class T Production Vehicle title.

As the SACCS Class T leaders, Lance Woolridge and Ward Huxtable were the fastest of the NWM Ford Rangers on Friday’s extremely windy and dusty sprint-style 39km qualifying session. They set the third-fastest time, which gave them an ideal starting position for Saturday’s main race without having to sweep the road – and, crucially, they were two places ahead of the Horn brothers.

Making the most of their local knowledge, Harrismith residents Jacques van Tonder and Sammy Redelinghuys caused a stir by powering their NWM-built privateer Ranger to the fastest qualifying time, 40 seconds ahead of Woolridge/Huxtable and 13 seconds quicker than second-placed Richard Leeke/Danie Stassen (BMW).

Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer were fourth quickest, just 7 sec behind their team-mates, perfectly placed to pounce as the race progressed.

Race

This year’s new Harrismith 400 route featured a challenging mix of fast farm tracks and gravel roads, keeping the crews on their toes throughout the two 177 km loops.

Lance and Ward started off well and were pushing hard, but despite the extremely dry and dusty conditions, they quite unexpectedly found themselves stuck in a mud hole located in a small forest section, just 65 km into the race. Several other crews were nearly caught out by the same hazard, which cost the Ford team around two minutes to extricate themselves – thus undoing their early charge, resulting in them holding station in fourth at the end of loop one.

Gareth and Boyd were setting a blistering pace and fortunately had no major issues on the first loop, other than one of the right front shock absorbers breaking towards the end of the opening stint, which only hampered them on the big bumps. They came into the pits leading Class T by more than two minutes over Leeke/Stassen in second place, and almost three minutes ahead of Van Tonder/Redelinghuys who had dropped back to third.

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With the damaged shock absorber replaced, Gareth and Boyd had a perfect run through the second loop and claimed their second Harrismith 400 win in a row with a total race time of 4 hours 35 min 10 sec – more than 6 minutes ahead of Leeke/Stassen and a further 1 min 21 sec clear of third-placed Van Tonder/Redelinghuys.

As the Ford NWM team’s third win of the 2018 season, the maximum haul of 30 points powered the young duo into third place in the championship, ahead of Gary Bertholdt and Geoff Minnnitt (Toyota) who crossed the line fifth.
For Lance and Ward, their second loop was also a fraught affair. They set blistering times on the first part of the stage and were within 20 seconds of second-placed Leeke/Stassen with 80km to go, only to lose the front brakes on their Ranger. A cautious drive to the finish saw them claim a hard-fought fourth place.

With rivals Johan and Werner Horn also experiencing a difficult weekend and finishing sixth, Lance and Ward are now nine points ahead of the Toyota crew going into the last race, scheduled for 2-3 November in Westonaria, Gauteng.

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Thanks to three Rangers finishing in the top four places, Ford won the coveted Manufacturers Award for the second time this year, to go along with the season-opener in Dullstroom.

The final race of the 2018 SACCS season will take place on 2 and 3 November in Glenharvie, Westonaria, Gauteng. The event was originally planned for Sun City, but had to be relocated due to landowner authorisation not being granted for the race route.

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Author: Colin Windell

Colin Windell is an apprentice retiree, petrolhead, rock music addict, lover of fine food and has been writing about cars for more than 40 years.

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