Robb Pritchard, Offroad correspondent
The rains came last night and this morning weary drivers trudged across the morass of the campsite to bow reverentially in front of the most rare and holy of relics: the score board. For those whose religion is mud it is a daily ritual to see if the Organiser God's have provided an updated list for us muddy muddy mortals.
Yesterday's stage was a brutal one and 20 of the 50 cars still running didn't make it back. 3rd placed Roberto Mazzega was one of those caught out, dropping from a podium place to somewhere near 20th. “We went in the water behind Boros Csaba,” he explained. “But broke the front winch and then the cable. And because we stayed in the deep water for two hours the engine, gearbox and axles got full of water. I have plenty of experience of racing in Croatia, I won the race organised by my friend Gordon Krota, it's just the water I have problems with... But now unfortunately for us the podium is just a memory.”
Russians are used to driving in mud, real mud.
So for the final two stages it's now down to a two-way fight for glory between Hungary's Boros Csaba in his deceptively simple looking Jeep and Russia's Alexey Golubev in his obviously complicated buggy... and last night as the storm raged through the mountains it was the St Petersburg resident who was smiling. “Russians are used to driving in mud, real mud,” one of his friends said. “We drive on bogs where there is no possibility to winch, so for us the ore rain and mud the better!”
Yesterday Csaba took a mere 4 minutes from Golubev so going into today's 75km stage the gap stands at 22 minutes.
But one man who won't be in the Top 100 is last year's winner Jim Marsden. “Yesterday, n 30km we'd passed about 20 cars and the driving was just brilliant and then we came up on an UAZ and he left a space for me to dive into,” Marsden said. “And I was legendary!” As he grappled with the gearbox under the car, co-driver Wayne Smith could hear Marsden explain: “I went in,” Marsden continued, “And Wayne shouted, 'Drive' and I said, 'I am driving,' and that was the gearbox gone. But we're still going as we've got another 2 days to loose!”
Their Gigglepin team mates, Jonathan Hambro and Mark Birch had a rough day in the Adventure class as the bend in the roof bar was testament to. “We winched to a tree … and it fell on us,” Hambro said Hambro and then we got water in the power steering... but despite the pink blancmange bubbling out of the filler pipe she made it back. We came here hoping for a Top 10 finish so to be in with a hope of a podium is pretty cool!”
Thanks to the translation skills of Nico Van Wingen, the Belgian Rhino driver I finally managed to catch up with the first Spanish team to enter the Croatia Trophy. “We were 3rd in class in the Sin Fronteras in Morocco, 12th in the Romanian Transylvania Trophy but this is by far the hardest competition that we've ever done,” Rorerto Garcia Lazo said. “What the car has to endure here is incredible... we rolled it 60 meters from the start of the first stage and the level of other competitors here is incredible, really, the guys here are the best in Europe. Next year we will come back in a Tomcat...” “Yes, but he changes his mind about what car he needs after every race,” his co-driver Jose Antonio Lean laughed.
And so into the stage... I followed the roadbook on foot to an interesting looking boggy river crossing but event leader Boros Csaba caught up with me before I got there. Alexy Golubev should have been 2 minutes behind on the road but he was more than 5, so on the easy track had managed to loose time in just the first couple of kilometres... Not the way to hunt down the 22 he needs for the lead.
The bog was already churned up by the time I got there and crews took the offer of 'Find your own way' that was written in the road book. One by one they came, some, only a couple out of the whole field managed to get up without a winch, Boris Gus of Croatia and Malta's Adrian Bezzina in his Ciapella Buggy the only ones. Jim Marsden started at the back and has enough respect (or perhaps a reputation for vehicular aggression) that a couple of guys let him through and he blasted off up the hill with as much commitment as though he was still gunning for the win...
Last through was Maxim Kirpilev in the tiny Suzuki that was suffering with brake problems, but at this stage in the event last is nothing to be ashamed about at all as almost half the field hasn’t made it this far.
And then we marched off to the finish... where Alexey Golubev was waiting, his stop watch ticking. “Today we just went as absolutely fast as possible all day today,” he said. “I don't even remember where we passed Csaba.” The Croatian Jeep drivers, Gordon Krota and Boris Kus came to shack hands, but when the stop watch got to 23 minutes they left for camp.
When Csaba got back to camp he didn't look a happy man. In the green overalls that he always wears he stood with his hands on his hips shaking his head. “Problem,” he shrugged. Neither Csaba nor any of his crew can speak any English so I tried to get him to point to the winch, engine, suspension or whatever had broken. He led me over to his little Jeep and I thought he was going to show me something in the engine bay but he pointed at the cracked headlight instead. “Big problem,” he sighed.
I'd like to end by saying a big thank you to the boys at the Belgorod Offroad Team who kindly serviced my truck for me yesterday evening...
Note from our on-site reporter on (unofficially): They won't put the results up until tomorrow morning at the earliest as it was a 75km stage today so there will be people in the forest all night... I was at the finish though, so 99% sure that the Russians have the lead...