By Robb Pritchard, Off-Road correspondent
4th – 12th June, 2011 - St Petersburg, Russia
It’s in the eyes… that’s how you can tell who has done the Ladoga Trophy before and who is a swamp virgin. Wondering around the start line in the shadow of the magnificent St Isaac’s cathedral in the center of St Petersburg those looking at all the cars with wide-eyed innocence are obviously first-timers… and others with a calm yet slightly haunted look, know exactly what is about to come, what it will take to get their vehicles through the 1200km of bogs, rivers, rocks and forest that lie ahead over the next 9 days. This massive event in northern Russia has an undoubted right to adjectives such as biggest, longest, hardest etc, and in my own slightly haunted eyes, I would subjectively add the word ultimate. If there is only one off-road competition you’ll ever do in your life, this is the one it should be! Why? Because it is almost perfect in the way that it caters for almost everything anyone could want in a hard off-roading competition, It’s so much bigger than almost anything else and combines elements of a winch challenge, GOS hunt, rock crawling, rally-raid and expedition… often altogether on a single stage. This is why it has become legendary.
Extreme off-roading machines develop into the beasts they are on the principles of Darwinism; they are perfectly adapted to their environments and Sergey Khalzev’s amazing monster was a perfect example of this. I pushed through the gathered crowd to look at the rear engined, carbon-fibre bodied machine with chain driven rear wheels and a thin cab where the co-driver sits behind the driver, fighter-jet style. It looked like the product of an unholy union between a specialized farm vehicle and something from Terminator 3. “It’s brand new, so this is only a test-drive,” Sergey said before inviting me to his home town of Lipetsk, some 500km south of Moscow to do a full tech-report… (coming soon!!)
Civilization in all its glory and guises stretches all across Europe… but ends rather abruptly the other side of the St Petersburg ring road. Russia is a country so vast and wild that only our foraging ancestors could fully appreciate the true scale of the remoteness of the endless forests… and this is the territory that the Ladoga Trophy heads straight into.
The cotton flowers gently bob in the early summer breeze, but they aren’t the only delicate things in the bog today, as the driving style of the Proto crews are equally soft and gentle. It’s one thing trying not to get stuck in the forest, but out on the soggy surface of the bog where there are no trees to winch to you have to be really careful where you drive. But this is not a speed event, it is one of endurance and so going slow and carefully is the best plan and with their 40 inch tyres almost fully deflated they inch across the surface like little ships on a pea-green sea, co-drivers hanging out of the windows pointing vaguely to the distant horizon. It’s a picture-perfect scene of Ladoga, one that captures the true spirit of the event… and it is just 200 meters from the start of the first stage… and also just a few hundred meters from the start I find another very common scene… a broken car with the crew sat despondently next to the pile of pieces they failed to fix scattered over the pine needles… and it’s Khalzev’s monster that lies stricken, wedged between two trees, it’s front wheels pointing in opposite directions. “My mistake,” Sergei shrugs with his Hollywood smile, “I’ll never use any Russian metal in my projects again!”
179 vehicles took the start, separated into 11 classes depending on the level of vehicle modifications and whether drivers want to compete in a timed ‘sports’ class or a slightly more sedate, yet no less hard, ‘Adventure’ class. TR1, for pretty much standard vehicles, ended up being a fantastically close fight between two 70 series Land Cruisers of last year’s winner Alexi Sergeev and Alexander Shapotchkin. At a distance Sergeev’s car looks immaculate, but when you look closer you can see that every single body panel is rippled with hammered out dents, evidence of the severely hard life this Cruiser has had… By the fifth stage they had a lead of nearly a couple of hours… but that quickly turned into a 25 minute deficit when the winch broke and they only had 2 full stages left to make it back up, so even the couple of minutes they made up on the dune and beach races were valuable. The two crews started the final stage just 3 minutes apart, but each day’s running order is decided at random and Shapotchkin drew the short straw, starting last meant that the route was pretty well chewed up by all the vehicles that had gone through in front, a real disadvantage when every second counts. “We tried everything, we drove as best as we could,” he said, hardly able to stand as he was so tired, “but we were 15 minutes slower…”
It takes a whole combination of factors; a good, strong car, mechanics who know what to do, a good co-driver and an experienced driver.
TR2 is for vehicles with suspension lifts, 35 inch tyres and some body modifications. “Land Rovers are perfect for TR2,” Kirill Derpazinski smiled, still dripping from blasting through the surf of Lake Ladoga in the Beach Race. “You have to keep the original transmission casings… but the good thing is that you can fill them with super-strong after-market components like Ashcroft in the UK, so with half-shafts, hubs, transfer case and diffs I have a really strong car.” At one point he had a 2 and a half hour lead but then his GPS unit failed. “With no navigation it was impossible and so we missed 3 way points, which equals 3 hours of penalties.” That left him 26 minutes behind Andrei Ponomarev in his 70 series Land Cruiser… although he almost threw everything away at the famous ‘Rock’. If anyone has trawled through Youtube looking at Ladoga videos then the green Suzuki rolling down the hill into the lake will be familiar. Balanced on just one wheel over the drop the co-driver had to earn his worth by winching them back up and inch at a time. “The secret of winning Ladoga is not about one single thing,” Andrei explained at the end. “It takes a whole combination of factors; a good, strong car, mechanics who know what to do, a good co-driver and an experienced driver… and then as Ladoga is so long, 9 very hard days, with so many different obstacles, all the rivers, stones and bogs that you also need some luck!”
For the foreigners, those crazy souls who make the journey from the four corners of Europe, the Bulgarian team, led by the permanently relaxed Bojan Ivanov made their third annual pilgrimage to destroy their Suzuki in the Russian forests. The first year his engine got hydraulic-ed in the first stage, then the winches were mangled and this year he managed to outdo himself by breaking a Ford F150 gearbox on the very first test. “Oh well,” he shrugged with a resigned smile. “That’s Ladoga… see you next year!”
The Belgian Collective came with a nice assortment of Land Rover products, a Discovery 1, a P38 and a stunning G4 D3 and adopted the UK team of the brothers Mike and Dave Tyler in their very straight Classic Range Rover. The Belgians, still with vivid memories of spending the first 2 days of 2009 extricating themselves from a bog, were in the Grand Tourism class, which is much more like what Brits would call ‘green-laning’. “It’s all of the Ladoga experience with none of the trouble,” Filipe Van Vracem explained. “Chasing GPS points looking for numbers hidden in old factories and abandoned churches at any speed you like is a great way to be part of Ladoga, discovering secret parts of Russia and knowing that you’ll be able to drive your car back afterwards is perfect for serious but not extreme off-roaders.”
Ken Harding had the honour of being the first ever American to take part but his diminutive little Suzuki hard a hard time coping with the hard terrain. “We tried to prepare as best we could, but didn't realize how tough the challenges would be, plus we were also a bit hamstrung by the fact that our car is not easy to get parts for… as well as us not being exactly the world’s best off-roaders, and like our team mate Heiner says, ‘It's a pity when people let the cars down’. The challenge of Ladoga is about preparation, full commitment and the ability to adapt to the terrain and to problems. We did great at that until our toolbox was empty… but the poor little Suzuki just didn’t stand up to the punishment we put it through… The leaf springs broke, half a dozen other things were on their way, but then a bearing on the axle gave up and being 600km from the nearest Suzuki shop meant that we just couldn’t get the parts and fix it in time… But damn… Ladoga is addictive though… I already have a feeling that I’ll be back next year…”
The prize for the furthest traveled team didn’t go to the Brits, or to Ken seeing as he is an ex-pat living in St Petersburg, but such is the scale of this vast country, to a group of Russians who’d driven 11,000km all the way from Vladivostok. “It took 16 days to get here and we haven’t slept at all because every night we need to fix the car,” said the best English speaker in the group. “Everyone knows that Lada Nivas are shitty cars, even those who drive them and we’ve fixed the gearbox five times, the half-shafts, CVs, injectors…” With an eager grin one of the guys proudly showed me the Niva’s engine bay and what I saw there probably explained all the transmission problems they’d had… where the spare wheel normally sits was a large intercooler and the pipes led around to a large turbo. It still looked to be a ‘work-in-progress’ project though as the bonnet had to be strapped down with a plastic beer bottle acting as a bump stop to prevent the bonnet squashing the turbo… Displaying the effects of long-term sleep deprivation mixed with excessive alcohol consumption they wanted me to help kidnap the pretty girl from the neighboring ATV team so they could have a photo of her by their Niva. The ATV team weren’t too impressed though and I made a hasty exit before things got too ugly…
And then there were the big boys… the purpose-built monsters where portal axles and massive Bogger tyres are standard kit. The TR3 class is home to the Russian Trophy vehicles, 37 inch tyres being the domestic size limit, while Proto class uses 40 inches, the European standard. Both classes follow the same route. Roman Briskindov, who recently made a name for himself in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge holding 4th place in his first ever rally-raid, had to find a last minute back up car when his new Proto developed an oil leak. His Toyota Hi-Lux based machine was relatively unsophisticated compared to the Frogs that inhabit this class with their independent suspension portal axles or chain driven legs, so it was perhaps a surprise that against such competition he won convincingly, even with a maximum score when he drowned the ECU… which was mounted at head height, almost 2 meters off the ground… “Ladoga is a very varied event so the car has to be capable on absolutely every kind of terrain,” Roman said. “And a good driver has to be careful with his equipment because the competition is just so long!” Such was his performance that if TR3 and Proto were scored together he would have been 2nd overall.
The Proto class, the absolute Holy Grail of all off-roading competitions was not just won, but utterly dominated, by one of the nicest guys in the whole of the event, Finland’s Kari Sihvonen in his Land Rover based monster. After the short first stage he was over an hour ahead of his nearest rival, compatriot Pekka Pylkko in his tough but over-weight Volvo 303 and despite punctures and penalties for missed checkpoints, he was never headed. One of the most remarkable things about the seemingly easy victory was that the vehicle was only completely finished in the car park of the scruitineering center the day before the event. “Next year I will have windows on the doors and a heater as it will be nice to be warm while I watch my co-driver swim across the rivers,” Kari smiled. “And maybe next year I will finish it earlier so I can get a bit of sleep before the event… or maybe I will retire now so that nobody can beat me here!” Second place went to Khalzev, who would have been in serious contention for the win if it hadn’t been for the first stage maximum time.
I give the last words not to a winner, but to a Ladoga legend. His name is Turbo Grandad, he’s 75 years old and his words sum up what event director Yuri Ovchinikov has always said about this event. “Offroad is not a competition, it’s an experience. We all look for challenges in life and for us here experiencing hardness and extreme situations in a machine you made with your own hands is the ultimate. I don’t care about stage times because there should be no competition between friends.”
Special thanks to Michael Lastochkin of Polni Privod magazine for driving me around the lake, Kiril and Oleg for letting me use the plug sockets in the timing tent when the press tent was full of girl’s mobiles, to my friend Sarah Sukerman for modelling with the G4 D3 and to Ovchinikov for conceiving, developing and running what is one of the most amazing off-road events in the world. Like it says on the promotional material, Ladoga Trophy-Raid, the world’s biggest 4x4 adventure.