Ford endured another difficult weekend in the Supercars Championship in Darwin last weekend, but six days earlier and 1500km further south the blue oval celebrated one of its greatest triumphs – and Torquecafe was there to watch it all.
We're talking about the Finke Desert Race, a gruelling round trip that takes competitors on a 452km journey through the unforgiving outback to the tiny town of Finke (aka Aputula), over two days. The road between Alice Springs and Finke is arduous, with sand, dust, rocks and whoops and just making it from one way is a challenge, let alone doing it at racing speeds and then needing to turn around and go back the next day.
Which is why the race is fought out by purpose-built off-road racers – like Trophy Trucks, buggies and Can-Am side-by-sides. But Ford took on the Finke in something very different – a near-showroom specification Ranger Raptor.
This is the same Ranger that Ford sent to the Baja 1000 in Mexico last year, but even though Baja is arguably the toughest off-road race in the world, conquering Finke was never a guarantee. Kelly Racing built this Ranger Raptor desert racer and have given it the safety upgrades required and some extra underbody protection and a new wheel a tyre combination, but aside from that, it's the same as you'll find in the showroom.
Ford brought in American Brad Lovell and his 16-year-old son, Byam, to handle the driving and co-driving duties, as Brad is one of the most experienced off-road racers on the planet and was part of the successful Baja 1000 crew.
That experience paid off, with the Lovells not only making it to Finke and back to Alice Springs safely, but their return run was a new record for a production-class entry. For Brad, despite his experience in America and Mexico, the Finke wasn't what he expected.
“Coming into this, I thought it was a fast rally race with some little whoops,” Lovell said, still covered in dust from his return run.
“Seeing it torn up now, this is like San Felipe, Baja whoops. Great time, a lot of variation there, and at the end, we just started running, and we definitely got on top of some whoops that we have not before in the Ranger Raptor.
“But it took it – super-tough truck – we were charging hard at the end there. Happy to be back here at Finke.”
As for the Ranger Raptor, Lovell was full of praise for the Australian-designed and engineered ute.
“It definitely took everything we dished out for it,” added Lovell.
“The whoops out there are getting huge, so I don't know how many suspension cycles there are per mile, but it's got to be a record, and the Ranger Raptor pushed hard the whole time.”
To get a small taste of what the Lovells experienced, Ford let us explore the outback around Alice Springs while we were waiting for the Finke competitors to return. And it's here, in the remote areas of Australia, that you really get an appreciation for what Ford has built.
The Ranger Raptor is perfectly capable of crawling over rocks, ploughing through soft sand and even cruising down the highway in comfort – which is what several other utes can do with almost equal aplomb. But where the Ranger Raptor separates itself is when you slot it into ‘Baja' mode, select two-wheel drive mode and get a chance to slide and drift your way through the off-road terrain. No other ute (save the more expensive and larger RAM 1500 TRX) can come close to what the Raptor can do at speed in the desert.
It's no wonder the Lovells were able to race back to Alice Springs in record time, the Raptor is designed for high-speed off-road running – it's part of its core DNA.
The real question is what happens next? Ford is committed to competing in the Dakar Rally with a T1+ Class Ranger, while the Baja/Finke vehicle is set for a well-earned retirement. But given the excitement the Ford entry generated at The Finke and the success it demonstrated, there's a possibility that Ford could create some Ranger Raptor desert racers for customers who want to take on off-road competition themselves…