Robb Pritchard, Off-road correspondent
The combination of politics and the weather are enough to spoil anyone's day. The Hungarian Baja is renowned for it's stunning scenery and hilly tracks that give the stages a 3D effect but the organizers have been fighting a running battle with the local Green Party who vehemently oppose the use of the countryside for any vehicle sports.
The only option apart from cancellation was to move the location of the event to somewhere less environmentally sensitive and so crews were presented with a hastily reccied route around farmland in the plains south of Gyor, some 140km north of Budapest. On the map it looked like a rather uninspiring mass of straights and 90 degree corners but on the ground it was a route through beautiful countryside following the edges of fields, along the tops of dykes and through patches of thick forest. It wasn't the favorite track of any of the drivers, but it was certainly the best of a bad situation.
But there was another issue the crews had to contend with... It might have been perfect weather for picnics but the totally still air after a week of constant sun meant that straight away Leonid Novitsky was handed a massive advantage as he had a clear run through the prologue while everyone else behind had to crawl through the thick cloud of dust. Fellow Russian Boris Gadasin following two minutes behind probably drives faster to the shops but in places he couldn't see further than a few meters in front.
Friday's prologue, a little strangely, took place before the ceremonial start, but when darkness fell the floodlights came out and against the backdrop of the baroque façade of Gyor's town hall the cars were flagged off - through a column of huge flame throwers. Magic! Saturday's leg was made up of 4 special stages totaling 209 competitive kilometers with two more on Sunday with a combined length of 96km, making a full route of 305km.
Everyone outside the X-Raid camp prayed for wind, or at least rain for the second day but to the chagrin of many drivers Saturday dawned bright and still. Yet, despite having clean air in front, Novitsky was first to run on the slippery grassy sections and immediately dropped down to 3rd behind Zapletel and Gadasin. But then the pendulum of luck swung back his way as once the whole field had passed once over the route and the second time the drivers headed through they encountered clouds of dust again, letting Novitsky away with a big advantage.
In the afternoon though, just to prove that God listens to G-Force's prayers, the wind came for the second loop of stages. It started as a strong breeze but soon whipped up into a full scale storm with gusts hard enough to snap branches off trees. Unfortunately though, Gadasin couldn't take advantage of this providence as while the Lord Almighty was dealing with all the obscuring motes of dust the devil (obviously in cahoots with the X-Raid team) stole in and messed up Gadasin's suspension settings.
"We made the anti-roll bars stiffer to make the car more responsive but unfortunately this made me loose all the feeling in the handling," Gadasin shrugged. It dropped him down to 3rd behind the flying Zapletal, and a minute and a half off the lead. "All we can do is attack," he said to reporters as the cars were being wheeled off to Parc Ferme for the night and on the first stage of the final day that's exactly what he did, taking 21 seconds back from the leader, although he wasn't too impressed. "I am sure that Novistsky was driving conservatively so the time looked faster than it was. But now we have one stage left and we'll do the same again."
Nowhere near the fight for the lead but popular among the partisan crowd was local driver Balázs Szalay in his hulking Opel Antara, another car running with the amazing sounding 7-litre V8. His race came to a rather premature end on the final morning when he cut a corner a little too much and caught a tree with the front wheel. It was quite a heavy impact (I know because it happened right in front of me) which broke something in the front axle. He ground to a halt not much further away.
The same tree had also caught out up and coming driver Vladimir Vasilev in his G-Force Proto the day before. He might not be the easiest guy in the service park to interview, but then he has no need to pander to sponsor's request or to woo journalists. He has enough in the bank to pay his own way and has got to the enviable point in life where he can live his dream. He was taught how to drive on the limit by his team leader Boris Gadasin but unlike others who are happy enough just to be behind the wheel he actually managed to win a stage of the Silk Way rally on only his third ever Rally Raid... and that is something very special, especially considering that drivers of the caliber of Stephane Peterhansel and Krzysztof Hołowczyc were in the list of those he beat. He brought the same raw skill and determination to the Hungarian Baja although his 2nd and 6th place stage times were negated by the accident with the tree.
And so the scene was set for the final stage. Novitsky had a lead of just over a minute over Zapletal but a resurgent Gadasin was on a mission. But again it was fate that intervened and set the result. Zapletal went flat out to protect his 2nd place but then a problem with a propshaft crippled his BMW and put pay to his runner-up position. And ironically, that which assured Gadasin of second place also cost him any chance of the win as the time spent in Zapletal's dust trail allowed Novitsky to seal the win.
In the end it was a very measured and mature drive by the reigning Cross-country champion. The X-Raid team leader's specialty is the desert marathons and so he can take great pride in beating last year's winner Gadasin. Was it a lucky win? Because of the dust that everyone else had to drive through, yes. Was it deserved? Because of the way he controlled the whole event without putting a wheel wrong, also yes. And with another huge desert event, the Pharaohs Rally in the shifting sands of Egypt coming in a month's time, few now would bet against this driver coming into his prime for retaining the title.
1. Leonid Novitsky (Rus) / Andreas Schulz (Ger) BMW X3CC 3' 53.04
2. Boris Gadasin (Rus) / Dan Schmiel (Rus) G-Force Proto + 3" 11
3. Miroslav Zapletal (Cz) / Thomas Ourednicek (Cz) BMW X3CC +3" 54