Monday, March 4, 2024

INTERVIEW: Joao Ferreira “really, really looking forward” to new life at Can-Am

After racing Yamahas in the T3 category, João Ferreira has joined South Racing Can-Am for the 2024 World Rally-Raid Championship, with his first start coming at the 2023 season-ending Rallye du Maroc followed by the premier Dakar Rally. On Thursday, he sat down with The Checkered Flag to discuss his new home and blueprint for the future.

From T3 to T4

Piloting a Yamaha YXZ1000R Turbo Prototype for X-raid Team, Ferreira was sixth in the W2RC’s T3 standings when the opportunity arose to drive a Can-Am Maverick XRS Turbo RR for South Racing in T4.

“After the 2023 season, we had to start thinking in the next season in 2024 and in the next Dakar. We were looking for all the options that we have in the market and South Racing was one of them,” he explained. “Together with my co-driver, with our sponsors, we finally made a good deal. We changed from the T3 category to the T4. I’m really, really looking forward to it because Can-Am and South Racing have been dominating the side-by-side class in the last couple of years.”

The move came amid a hectic month for Ferreira. Weeks after finishing eighth in T3 (fifth among points-eligible drivers) at the W2RC’s Desafío Ruta 40 in early September with a stage victory, he won the overall for the FIA European Cup for Cross-Country Bajas‘ Baja TT Sharish Gin in a Mini John Cooper Works Rally Plus. Ferreira signed with South days later before returning to the Mini for the Baja do Oeste of the Portuguese Cross-Country Championship, where he was forced to retire with a gearbox problem. Once that wrapped up, he will close out the W2RC season in the T4 at the Rallye du Maroc.

“It’s been a very, very busy month for us, but it’s part of the job,” Ferreira commented. “We enjoyed a lot. Last week we won with the T1 car, with the Mini, and this weekend we really hope we can win again. The competition is very tough. The race is super narrow, it’s super twisty, it’s a very good race for the Can-Am, for the T3 and the T4. They are always super fast, always Can-Ams in the top five, top three, and in this race they will be our main competition against the T1s. The race will finish on Sunday and on Tuesday I will fly to Morocco to start the tests and to prepare for the final round of the World Championship.”

From the outside, going from T3 to T4 might raise eyebrows. Although both are side-by-side vehicle classes, T3 is a faster category for purpose-built race cars whereas T4 features production-type machinery. As such, a natural career progression would bring drivers from T4 up to T3 as is the case with Rokas Baciuška, who won back-to-back T4 championships, and Dakar T4 winner Eryk Goczał.

However, it is hard to describe Ferreira’s own career as orthodox. He began cross-country rallying in 2019 in the T2 class for production cars before bouncing up to the top-flight T1, which he currently races in Bajas with his Mini. From there, he entered the W2RC in T3 as it is more affordable and easier to learn how to race in deserts in such compared to the forests of Europe.

“I understand there’s not very common for drivers to jump places from the T1 to the T3, now T4. It looks like we are doing the opposite of what should be,” Ferreira noted. “When we started in cross-country and in off-road, we started just racing Portugal with a T2 car; it’s basically a stock car with some customisation, but the base, it’s a stock car. We did two years with that car and we were growing, growing, growing. In 2022, we bought a Mini and we raced with support from ARC Sport, a Portuguese team, and of course X-raid, we were Portuguese champions and the European champions.

“In 2023, we converted our T1 car to the T1+. It’s a wider car with bigger wheel travel; the wheels are much bigger. This opportunity, in parallel to the T1 competition, we were doing the World Championship of Cross-Country with Yamaha. We started in Dakar, it was my first Dakar ever, and we did Abu Dhabi, Mexico, Argentina. It came down to the decision what to do in 2024 and we thought South Racing made a good offer for us to race the T4. We have to change a little bit of the mindset because it’s almost like we’re racing in the T2 category of this. The car is much more from the stock Can-Am, but even being a stock car in the Dakar they finished I think P4 overall in the Dakar.

“For sure it’s a stock car, but also for sure it’s a super nice car to drive and fast and reliable and that’s the most important part. Being fast is just not enough. It has to be a reliable car, it would be a good thing.”

Perhaps making his switch all the more unusual beyond T4 cars naturally being inferior to T3, Ferreira acknowledged that T3 has grown more competitive in recent years and has seen the tightest battles among every W2RC category. Entering Morocco, the top three in the T3 standings are separated by just nine points.

Still, as one of the younger drivers in the championship at just twenty-four years of age, he feels that joining a top-flight organisation and vehicle even in a lower class will give him time to develop his skills.

“I can understand why all the drivers do that because it’s a slower category,” he began. “There’s the top speed, it’s less than the T3 and after they jump to the T1. Some drivers for example like Chaleco (Lopéz) is driving in the T3 class for I don’t know how many years and he is being consistent, consistent, consistent and a very, very good driver. The Cars category at this moment is the biggest class in Dakar. For example, the T3 every year are growing and getting better and getting closer to the cars.

“Maybe in the near future, we will have a Can-Am or other side-by-side winning the races in the World Championship, but I think it’s just a matter of time to happen. The regulations don’t allow us to be super fast to not beat the manufacturers like Audi, Toyota, and Mini. Basically, that’s the life of driving coming from T4, T3, and T1, and we are now jumping a little bit. I think it’s a step down, let’s say like that, but I think it’s very important to me when I’m still young. I’m 24, so I’m not in a hurry to try to win today. We are learning and learning. Try to win in T4 next year, try to win in the T3, and we’ll see what the future expects.”

Baciuška, a fellow South Racing Can-Am driver at ally Red Bull Can-Am Factory Racing, was on-site in Portugal to help Ferreira get used to the Maverick. After finishing runner-up at Dakar to Goczał, Baciuška dominated T4 by winning the next two rounds to the point where he had already clinched the championship before the penultimate race in Argentina, allowing him to sit it out without hurting his standing. Since Ferreira does not “have much experience with T4,” he considered himself “lucky” to have Baciuška’s tutelage.

“I also tried to learn and always ask a lot of things, how you can be fast and save the car at the same time,” he stated. “You have to be more careful with the car because it has much more stock parts than the T3, but after that, South Racing made an incredible T4. Very strong, very reliable. For sure, we will have a lot of fun with the car and we hope to win Dakar and W2RC.

“I’m lucky that I spent the last days with Rokas. He’s a very nice guy, super, super fast as everybody knows. That’s why he’s the world champion. He will now race in the T3 category in Morocco and for sure he will be a threat for the other drivers. I also have good support from South Racing and one of the guys who tests a lot of the cars from there, he’s Portuguese, so in the last weeks we’ve been talking a lot. Even when I did my day within a T4 he was there and I was always asking him how I can improve, why the car does this, why the car does that, and he always helps me a lot. Very, very nice guys, both of them.”

While competing in T4 means he would have experience in each of the main W2RC categories, he quickly ruled out driving a truck in T5 to complete the FIA class quinfecta. He remarked with a laugh, “I don’t have that ambition but should be fun at least for just one race. But no, my main focus is the cars and the side-by-side.”

Credit: Pedro Batalha

Onwards to 2024

Ferreira will make his Can-Am début at next week’s Rallye du Maroc as one of nineteen T4 entries, four of whom are W2RC-classified. Eduard Pons, who won the most T4 stages at the DR 40, and Sara Price, who spoke with TCF in April after winning the Sonora Rally’s National UTV class to qualify for Dakar, are also South Racing drivers entered.

South and Can-Am have dominated international SSV racing in both T3 and T4, winning every round in the latter in 2022. Goczał began 2023 by winning at Dakar in his family-owned Maverick before Baciuška swept the next two rounds at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge and Sonora Rally. Gustavo Gallego, a non-W2RC driver, topped the T4 overall at the DR 40 with South. In August, South even scored their first win in the United States with T3 driver Seth Quintero at the Vegas to Reno.

Amidst the team’s successes, Ferreira will certainly be facing high expectations but certainly knows what he is getting himself into.

“The team has a lot of pressure, it’s like that, but you have to show the car is reliable and fast,” he said. “I have the idea that, ‘Okay, we are fast.’ We showed in the past with the Yamaha and even with the Mini, we showed we are fast. Luckily for me, I have a very good co-driver; Filipe Palmeiro is a very good, experienced co-driver. In 2024, he will do his nineteenth Dakar. We have all the conditions: good car, good team, good sponsors and support, and good co-driver to do an awesome Dakar.

“But Dakar, you can take 10,000 kilometres to be in first place and in one centimetre you can lose Dakar, so you have to be very careful, very focused all the time. I can say the team for sure has a little bit of pressure, me as well, but I will try to do my best job and at the finish line, let’s see where we can finish.”

For Morocco, he intends to give it all he has from the start: “Every driver, when he puts on the helmet, he wants to win and do his best and not be reaching the point of saying, ‘No, I just want to have fun.’ We want to have fun, get used to the car. It’s the first preparation for Dakar which is our main goal. We’ll give our best to learn together with the team, the car everyday, me and Filipe. I really hope in the final stage we can win Morocco.”

Besides the W2RC, he will return to the Mini to compete in the Portuguese Championship. He has also not ruled out select starts in the FIA World and European Cups for Cross-Country Bajas; he won the latter in 2022.

His 2024 will begin on 5 January at the Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia. While the race has been in the country since 2020, sixty percent of the 2024 route has not been used in previous editions.

One of the more notable introductions is the 48-hour Chrono Stage, which replaces the Empty Quarter Marathon where X-raid Yamahas swept the Stage #11 T3 podium with Ferreira in second. Competitors have forty-eight hours to complete a 600-kilometre leg running through the Rub’ al Khali desert without assistance from their teams, and they are required to stop at one of seven rest camps at 4 PM on the first day before resuming the next morning.

Ferreira called the Chrono Stage “very nice” and feels “there will be a lot of team strategy” as racers plan their approach. Although support from crews is banned, marathon rules permit competitors to help each other.

“It will be super fun because you have a 48-hour stage, 600K or something like that, I’m not sure. You have to adjust your pace, you have to adjust,” explained Ferreira. “You have to save the car, the tyres, everything. You have to manage everything perfectly. I think it will be maybe a game-changing Dakar and it’s nice to see competition. Dakar, the biggest competition, the toughest race of off-road, and they are always improving and improving, try to be different. I think it will be very, very interesting.”

At his maiden Dakar Rally in January, he proved his mettle by winning Stage #8 and recorded a pair of stage podiums. While his overall finish was set back by repairs that prevented him from racing later stages, the pace he showed for a newcomer in a crowded class was still more than impressive and encouraged him to fully commit to the W2RC.

“Everyone says, even my co-driver said, the most difficult Dakar is the second one,” said Ferreira. “In the first one, you have the mindset of, ‘Okay, it’s just to finish,’ and everything—most of the parts, not always—goes perfect. On the second one, you saw that the first one was okay and you can push and you are already dominating the Dakar, so you have to be super careful. I was talking with the most experienced drivers, they always tell me that.

“Winning in my first Dakar, winning two stages for the World Championship in the T3 category, it was one of the most competitive categories; I think it was the most, if we see how many drivers won stages, I think T3 was the most competitive. It’s a good impression to see, ‘Okay, we are fast,’ but like I said, Dakar is not just being fast. For Austin Jones and Chaleco Lopéz, they are the guys of that. They are never super, super fast, but they are always there. They are very consistent, very smooth with the car, they save the car and that’s why they won already, I don’t know how many times the Dakar.”

After Dakar, the W2RC heads to the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge in late February; he finished tenth in T3 at the 2023 edition. In April, the Sonora Rally has been replaced by the new BP Ultimate Rally-Raid Transibérico that runs through Spain and Ferreira’s home country of Portugal. He was more than receptive to the addition, describing it as “super nice” and hoping “a lot of Portuguese drivers will race there.

“The race, from what I heard, it’s going be a lot of sand, not like Dakar of course, but sandy tracks. It will be super fun, super fast as well and will be a pleasure to see all the World Championship drivers in our own country and in Spain. I think the drivers will enjoy the race.”

The Desafío Ruta 40 takes place in June followed by the Rallye du Maroc in October. Ferreira hopes his maiden campaign with South bears plenty of fruit.

“To join the Can-Am family is like an honour,” he concluded. “They have been incredibly fast across the last years and when they are the leaders, they still improve with the new car and they always improve to try to get better and better. A big thank you to all of my sponsors that allow me to do this amazing calendar next year.”

Interview audio on YouTube