After a ding-dong battle with numerous other competitors during the year, Manfred Schröder and Alec Harris only have to complete the event in their Ford Ranger to win the sought-after championship.

The race – which takes place around the Carnival City casino on the East Rand on November 18 and 19 – represents the final round of this year's Absa Off Road Championship. It is being organised by the Koepel Club, and the route is expected to deliver dollops of smooth, fast track as well as some ultra-challenging tough stuff.

Team manager, Neil Woolridge, is extremely optimistic about their chances. “It’s always been a good hunting ground for Ford, so we hope to do well and take home the championship,” he says.

Woolridge says that the Class D team won’t be taking any chances. “I expect that Manfred will look after the vehicle extremely well and make sure that he finishes. To be perfectly honest, I don’t care if Manfred and Alec come last; they must just finish. The championship is vitally important! That’s what we’ve been working towards the whole year,” he notes.

Alas, Woolridge and his long-time co-driver, Kenny Skjoldhammer, will once again be relegated to the sidelines which, for any ardent racing driver, is a prospect akin to root canal treatment. “Yes, it’s going to be tough,” Woolridge concedes wryly. “But it would have been silly to race our new Ranger.”

The Ranger to which he alludes is the brand new, ultra-competitive Super Production Ford Ranger that he’s building. It’s been a long time coming and he says that they were tempted to bring the Ranger to the Ford Carnival City 400. “Being a Ford-sponsored race, it would have been great to debut our new vehicle. And we could have had the Ranger ready but I don’t think it would have been the right thing to do. We would have rushed to the race with an untested vehicle and we may not have had the necessary spares. That’s crazy. It is much better for us to finish the job properly and then campaign an immaculately prepared and tested Ford.”

On a positive note, Woolridge reveals that he has started work on a second Super Production Ford Ranger – dubbed SP2 – for Schröder and Harris. “We’ll both be at the first race of the 2006 season for sure!” he says with confidence.

Meanwhile, Schröder and Harris have a more immediate challenge, in their existing 4.0 V6 Ranger, which has proved its mettle with numerous podium positions throughout the year.

Schröder says he will be taking no chances. “Yes, we have a nine-point lead over Henri Zermatten and Bodo Schwegler, in their Pajero, but this does not mean that our job is done. We still have to finish – and anything can happen on the day. Also, if Henri and Bodo win the class, we must come fifth to win the championship. So we can’t rest on our laurels,” he points out.

He concedes that it’s going to be extremely difficult to take it easy. “Obviously with Ford sponsoring the event, it would be nice to get a class win. We are used to driving flat out all the time and our Ranger is really dialled in – at the last race, we clocked up the fastest time! But we have to look at the big picture. Winning the championship is far more important than another class win. So we are going to have to control ourselves and remind ourselves that we are at the race to win the championship, For sure, it’s going to be the toughest race of the year and it’s going to be extremely difficult to hold back in the fast sections,” Schröder reveals.

When it comes to the route, he says that he is expecting something completely new. “I have heard that the route is 70% new, so we are not sure exactly what to expect. Some of it will be technical and slow - the Suikerbosrand area incorporates some rough and rocky sections and I think they are still part of the route. Then, of course, with the race being in Gauteng, there is always the possibility of some rain the night before, just to make it interesting.”

Having said this, he is confident of leaving the race with the championship under the belt. “Our Ranger has definitely proved itself this year – it’s certainly Built Ford Tough! And our BF Goodrich tyres have been utterly superb. During the entire year, we have only had one puncture and that was because I drove over a spike. Otherwise, the whole season, they have taken what we’ve thrown at them - from sandy, to rocky or muddy terrain. And they haven’t failed us. That's a real testament to their prowess,” Schröder points out.

His co-driver, Alec Harris, concurs with Schröder’s sentiments that a race finish and the championship are the goals. “Our Ford Ranger has been thoroughly inspected after the last event. We paid a huge amount of attention to detail, because that was obviously a long race (it was 1000 km). Despite that long race, and the arduous conditions that it incorporated, there was very little race preparation required on our Ranger; it was already in good condition. However, we have obviously gone through the vehicle carefully and we believe that, despite a season of highly competitive racing, it will get us to the end of the Ford Carnival City 400.”

Harris reckons that they certainly won’t have to worry about punctures. “Our BF Goodrich tyres are incredible. We’ve only had one puncture during the entire season. That’s not bad, hey?!” he asks with a laugh. “As such, we are expecting a good race and no punctures – once again.”

Throughout the event, Harris says that the duo will focus on looking after the vehicle. “Obviously we hope that we can get the best possible result for Ford, but we really want to finish the race and win the championship. I believe that we can do it. Manfred has had a fantastic year and he has driven with his head – he will do the same again at this race,” he believes.

Ultimately, Harris wants to end the season in the pound seats. “We want to finish off the year by making Ford very proud of us and we are really looking forward to the new truck for next year,” he concludes.

Baphumze Rubuluza and Kulile Vakalisa, who campaign a class E Ford Ranger, are also hoping for a smooth run. “We have gone through a process of upgrading and developing the Ranger. We have covered a lot of ground in ensuring that it’s an extremely strong vehicle. And so I am looking forward to the Ford Carnival City 400, because we have the right equipment for the job!” comments Rubuluza.

He says that the team’s main goal at the race is to finish. “Looking at our position, the main priority will be to ensure a finish and then the championship will sort itself out. Obviously, we will go all out and give it our best. Yes, we would like a podium position. However, with it being a Ford event, it is far more important for a Ford to be at the end of the race,” says Rubuluza.

The talented driver reveals that both he and Vakalisa enjoyed the race last year. “The 2004 race was awesome and, if the terrain is similar, we will enjoy it just as much this time around. Last year, in our class, it was a case of one/two for Ford and we would obviously like to do just as well. But, when it comes to race strategy, after each loop we will decide when to attack and when to hold off. Those decisions will be made on the day, based on where we are lying in the race, the terrain and the weather. If there is no possibility of wrecking the vehicle, we will naturally push harder,” he reveals.

And, of course, their vehicle has proved time and time again that it certainly can be pushed hard. “The Ford Ranger has proven to be very strong this year and it never ceases to impress us. It’s a brilliant vehicle, which is tops in the endurance stakes; it’s there in the end and that’s what counts, not who is quickest from marshal point to marshal point. Some people think that the petrol-engined competitors may have the upper hand in our class but they are wrong. Sure, on the fast straights, they are quicker, but our 2.5-litre diesel is especially suited to conditions when a lot of low-down torque is required. Our Ranger is clearly the best vehicle at those times. As such, we are hoping for a lot of tight and twisty stuff at the race. Also, in the sandy and slippery conditions, we will reign supreme,” Rubuluza maintains.

Added to the vehicle, of course, are its BF Goodrich tyres, which will also allow the team to lead the pack. “Our BF Goodrich tyres have instilled in us a great deal of confidence and this is evidenced in our vastly improved times. They are one thing that we don’t ever worry about – we know that they won’t let us down,” he points out.

His co-driver, Kulile Vakalisa, is equally enthusiastic about their set of rubber. “We haven’t had a problem with our BF Goodrich tyres ever since we started using them early this year and we don’t anticipate a problem at the Ford Carnival City 400,” he predicts.

Based on the enjoyment of the race last year, he’s hoping that the race organisers won’t make too many changes to the running of the event. “We loved the prologue last year, which was very exciting. It consisted of a 4km loop which we did three times. It was extremely successful in that it really drew the spectators, so I am sure that it will be repeated this year. It’s lovely to be able to demonstrate the power and dexterity of the Ford to our fans!” enthuses Vakalisa.

While he has the utmost confidence in his tyres, the same can be said of his reliable Ford Ranger. “We don’t foresee any problems at this race; our vehicle can handle pretty much anything that you throw at it. Just like our tyres, the Ranger has not given us any problems whatsoever – the motor is quite superb and it has not failed us even once.”

Vakalisa says that they won’t take unnecessary chances in the quest to get a podium position. “That’s simply not our style. But, we will definitely be trying for a podium position, especially since it’s a Ford-sponsored event. Plus, of course, it’s the last race of the year and we would like to end the season on a high note,” he concludes.