In the picturesque Mpumalanga town of Malalane, the 2024 South African Rally-Raid Championship (SARRC) opened with the thrilling Nkomazi 400 event, drawing teams and spectators eager for high-speed action and rally-raid drama.

Among the competitors, TOYOTA GAZOO Racing SA (TGRSA) and Neil Woolridge Motorsport's Ford Rally-Raid Team were prepared to showcase their latest engineering advancements and driving prowess.

The weekend kicked off with a short but fiercely contested 10,8 km qualifying sprint. TGRSA's crews, armed with the newest GR Hilux EVO, showed early promise. However, Giniel de Villiers with new navigator, Elvene Vonk, faced technical difficulties with his GPS and odometer, landing him in 10th place, while teammates Henk Lategan and Brett Cummings secured the second-fastest time.

The newest Toyota GR Hilux EVO in action in the NKOMAZI 400 held in Malelane, Mpumalanga

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For the Ford team, Lance Woolridge and Kenny Gilbert achieved a commendable fifth place in their freshly updated Ford Ranger Ultimate, showing potential against the seasoned Hilux teams.

Race day unfolded with unexpected twists and vibrant competition. Initially slated for 83 km, the race loop was shortened to 50 km by the organizers. Early on, Lategan/Cummings led for Toyota, while Ford’s Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer, after a vigorous push, moved up to fifth place. Unfortunately, the Ford team faced setbacks as Lance’s Ranger suffered a driveshaft failure and a damaged brake line 43 km into Saturday’s stage, forcing emergency repairs and a finish far from the leaders.

The real drama peaked in the final loop. Lategan’s hopes for a victory were dashed barely 500 meters in when a collision with a spectator car forced him to retire. At the same time, Variawa, another TGRSA driver, also exited the race after a brake issue sent him off the course.

De Villiers, despite his initial setbacks, emerged as a savior, towing Variawa back on track and then surging ahead to claim the race lead and ultimately, the victory. His teammate, Guy Botterill, closely followed, securing a one-two finish for Toyota.

The Ford Ranger Ultimate flying through the air in the Nkomazi 400

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Meanwhile, the Ford team grappled with their challenges. Gareth and Boyd, who had been vying for a podium finish, were compelled to retire due to a failed water pump bearing. Their teammates, Lance and Kenny, managed to complete the race, albeit finishing far behind due to the earlier mechanical troubles. Despite the difficulties, both teams showcased resilience and a determination to return stronger in the upcoming races.

By the end of the weekend, Toyota not only celebrated a victorious one-two finish but also clinched the Manufacturer Award, while he NWM Ford team, though not as fortunate in results, remained optimistic about the performance enhancements in their new vehicles and the promise they held for future competitions.

As the dust settled and teams began preparations for the next round in Vryheid, the rally-raid community buzzed with stories of comebacks, mechanical woes, and thrilling drives, setting the stage for a fiercely competitive season ahead.

Colin Windell