For all the trophies raised and checkered flags collected in Ford's long and storied motorsports highlight reel, the company has never made a factory-backed effort at the toughest, most grueling off-road race in the world: Dakar.
"There was a Ford South Africa effort in 2014," Mark Rushbrook told me, global director at Ford Performance Motorsports. "But, now we're going there as a factory, with great partners."
It takes a few great partners to win a race like Dakar, plus a lot of know-how and maybe a little luck, too. This year’s Dakar, the 45th running of this iconic event, covered more than 3,000 miles of Saudi Arabian desert. Over the two-week event, entrants were plagued by torrential rains and tire-chewing rocks, plus the usual, spirit-draining challenges that come along with surviving such an ordeal.
Next January, for 2024's running of Dakar, Ford Performance will enter a Ranger Raptor into the T1+ category. This is generally held to be the top class, where legends like Nasser Al-Attiyah and Sebastien Loeb competed for overall victory last year.
To beat them, Ford is going to need some help.
The first major partner is Neil Woolridge Motorsport, or NWM, the South African team that developed the aforementioned 2014 Dakar entry. NWM will handle the design and initial development of the Ranger Raptor, a process that Ford's Rushbrook said has already been going on for "a number of years." The existence of that truck is not a secret, but Ford Performance's direct involvement is a big development.
The other partner will be M-Sport, Malcom Wilson's race shop responsible for Ford's World Rally Championship efforts for more than 25 years now. "M-Sport has been a long-term partner for us. They've got great experience in designing and engineering vehicles... But they also know how to build service and support trucks, and that's what we need to be successful," Rushbrook said.
By the sound of things, NWM will largely handle development of 2024's truck, while M-Sport will tackle the endless logistics required to successfully run and support a team through the ever-shifting desert caravan that is Dakar.
Gallery: Ford Ranger Raptor T1+ Dakar
That 2024 entry, though, will be just a first step, what Rushbrook called "a very measured approach" to Dakar. "Very much a finish and learn effort," he told me. In 2025, things will get more serious. Ford will take what it learns from 2024 and apply it to a second-generation, full-factory T1+ machine. "We will enter that design truck in January of 2025, with the intent of competing for the win," Rushbrook said.
This would follow on the successes of Ford's Bronco, which in various flavors has won major off-road events like King of the Hammers. The Ranger Raptor's trophy cabinet is also swelling, including class wins at the Baja 1000 and, just last week, a class win at Australia's Finke Desert Race.
So why Ranger and not Bronco for Dakar? "As a brand, Bronco is more North American focused for us," Rushbrook said. "Ranger, that is our global truck. That is the most appropriate brand to take there."
As to how much street Ranger there will be in the T1+ Ranger Raptor, the answer is sadly not much. At least, not for 2024's truck. This is a prototype class so, outside of the engine, there's no need for teams to rely on any production hardware.
That engine will be a 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6, similar to what's been found in various Fords over the past few years, up to and including the Le Mans-winning Ford GT. "For our 2025 truck, we're not announcing what that engine is going to be," Rushbrook told me. But, class regs do require an engine sourced from within the brand.
As to who will actually handle the racing, driver and co-driver lineups have not been settled. Two-time Dakar winner Nani Roma was involved in testing an early version of the truck, and at that time M-Sport boss Malcolm Wilson said they had a "big list" of interested parties, including names from WRC. Watch this space.
Photos: Ford Performance