Team Ford Racing is preparing for its assault on the 2014 Dakar Rally in South America with an intensive nine-day test session in the remote desert wilderness near Walvis Bay in Namibia.
The full-scale test encompassed a complete shake-down and set-up of the mighty Dakar-specification 5,0-litre V8 Ford Ranger, and featured almost the entire local and international Ford Racing crew including team management, drivers and navigators, race engineers and mechanics.
‘This is the first time the Dakar Rally Ranger has really been tested,’ says Neil Woolridge, team manager.
‘We did a short two-day test in Pietermartizburg straight after the launch of the Dakar campaign in July, but this is our first opportunity to evaluate all aspects of the vehicle and focus on the race set-up.’
The test was conducted approximately 30 km from Walvis Bay and was based at the Lauberville Camp, a concession area run by West Coast 4×4.
‘We chose this area near Walvis Bay as it has a bit everything and replicates a lot of the conditions we will encounter on the Dakar,’ Woolridge explains. ‘There’s a huge dry river bed with soft sand and lots of undulations that really gives the suspension a good workout. The area is also famous for its dune driving, plus there are vast open rocky plains that allowed us to test the high-speed performance of the Ranger.’
Argentinian lead driver Lucio Alvarez, who has completed three Dakars with two top 10 finishes, agreed that the area is ideal for the Ranger’s first full test. ‘The location was very good for training and testing because you have all the different types of terrain experienced on Dakar.
‘It matches a lot of the Dakar stages we’ve done through Argentina, Peru and Chile over the past three years, which makes it the perfect place to test the vehicle in the right conditions,’ he says.
An exhaustive schedule was put together for the Namibia test, according to Wooldridge, with one of the main priorities being to set up the suspension and dampers on the Team Ford Racing Ranger.
‘We gave BOS, our suspension partners in France, all the dimensions of the vehicle, the weights, wheel travel and specifications and they built the dampers and tested them on a suspension dyno according to those requirements,’ Woolridge explains.
‘However, the final set-up had to be done on the car and we had two of their technicians with us during the Namibia test to upgrade the dampers to the latest specification and fine-tune the settings.’
The second main objective was to run the 5,0-litre V8 engine used in the Ranger with a 36 mm restrictor and Avgas as used on Dakar. The South African-spec Ranger, as campaigned in the local Cross Country Championship, uses a 35 mm restrictor and normal unleaded fuel.
‘We also set out to do as much mileage on this brand new car as possible,’ Woolridge says. ‘Although it’s similar to the SA-spec Ranger, the FIA-specification for the Dakar allows us to use a totally different independent rear suspension compared to the live rear axle used in local racing.’
Further changes include high-performance Brembo six-piston brake callipers and pistons compared to production-based versions on the local version, and the engine is moved 100 mm back. The vehicle also boasts a massive 500-litre fuel tank for the long stages versus a 200-litre tank that’s required for the SA championship, which poses a unique set of challenges in terms of weight distribution and suspension configuration.
As the lead duo for the Ford Racing Dakar campaign, Alvarez and navigator Ronnie Graue believe the Ranger, which is built in Pietermaritzburg by Neil Woolridge Motorsport, is an impressive package.
‘It’s early days but the Ranger is very good,’ Alvarez says. ‘The design and chassis are excellent and we simply need to fine-tune some aspects of the vehicle, including finding the perfect set-up for the suspension and optimising the engine and gear ratios. But overall the Ranger is great to drive.’
Although the 2014 Dakar Rally will be the first for Chris Visser and co-driver Japie Badenhorst, they are front-running competitors in the South African Cross Country Championship, and have been part of the winning formula that has seen the new Ranger take victory on its debut in March, followed up by podium finishes in every race since.
Visser was equally impressed with the performance of the Dakar-specification Ranger in the arid Walvis Bay test area. ‘This was the first time we drove this Ranger and it is superb. The independent suspension gives it a much softer ride than our SA-spec vehicle, which makes it very comfortable.
‘It is really good in the dunes and once the suspension, engine mapping and gear ratios are all sorted we will have a really competitive vehicle,’ Visser says. ‘The Ford Racing Ranger has performed extremely well so far, and this is exactly the right environment to test in, as it has a bit of everything and is very close to what we will encounter on the Dakar.
‘It’s also important for Japie and I to get as much time as possible in the dunes, as it’s not something we’re used to. The navigation and GPS systems are very different to what we use in the local championship, so we have a bit of work to do on those fronts but Lucio and Ronnie have been very helpful and supportive and we have no doubt that we’ll be competitive on the Dakar Rally.’