The Press Point for today's 51km stage was a long way down a rough track and as my car is a bit big and a bit too expensive to scratch (next week I'll take it to London to drive Sasha Baron Cohen to the premier of his new film. I don't want to think what The Dictator would do to me if his Kombat was covered in Croatia thorn marks on the red carpet). So I decided to have an easy day and catch up on a few stories.
Yesterday's big news was the DNF of Jim Marsden. I saw that he was having trouble at the first winching point as co-driver Wayne Smith ran from tree to tree with the winch cable and that was because there was a problem with the power steering. “We changed it the day before yesterday but knew that there was an issue with the spare and so started the race with no power steering, but that wasn't all. A stick or something took out the airline to the back locker and then the free spool packed up on the front winch... and then, either because we were in such mud or something there was no reverse gear. We still weren't giving up though but then in the boggy section the steering box just decided it had had enough and I was just left sitting there spinning the steering wheel around uselessly.”
We're about three hours back now but we're not giving up.
“I wanted to carry on!” Smith called out from inside the tent. “But Jim just gave up!”
“The only good thing is that the Circuit Race is probably the best stage to take a DNF, although I am going to find Guus Albregts later and give him a good kicking for going around so slowly!” Marsden joked. “We're about three hours back now but we're not giving up. It's flat out all the way from here!”
One of the most popular characters in the camp is a Belgian guy by the name of Nico Van Wingen who drives the Turbo Lawnmower, otherwise known as a Yamaha Rhino. “We're doing fine,” he growled. “I lost my voice because the Bluetooth headsets failed and the exhaust is going wap, wap, wap by my head... but my co-driver needs constant shouting at! Most of the little problems we have come from the fact that this is the Rhino's 4th Croatia Trophy, so for my jubilee event next year I'll be upgrading to Can-am Commander. Jim Marsden is going to make me a small Gigglepin for it.”
Around the corner I found the afore mentioned Guus Albregts who was quite unsympathetic to Marsden's plight. “We had an overheating problem that we stopped and fixed,” he said pointing to his Land Rover Defender. “And then we just kept going around and around. There was no one else left in the forest, it was completely dark but the marshals were still all smiling and waving, so we just kept going.”
Now in the Top 10 is Christian Poprask from Austria in a Mitsubishi Evo IV powered vehicle that resembles a G-Wagon but is actually all scratch built. “This is more of a test than a race for us as we only just finished building it. Today we're having a bit of trouble with the fuel. Either its poor quality or we got something in the tank but it doesn't want to start this morning...”
The friendly Belgorod Off-Road team was firing up the diminutive Suzuki for today's test. Strangely their T5 service barge is about 100 times their value of their little Samurai. “It's a 1.3 liter so while everyone else can just but their foot down and power into everything we have to always be careful, “ explained Vadim Shmaylov. “In Russia there is a saying, 'If you have power you don't need intelligence' so we need to be clever'.”
At 60 years old Holland's Kees Peeters thinks he is the oldest driver in the Trophy and his co-driver Erwin Van Bussel was full of praise for the event. “And 4x4 fan has to do this race,” he said. “There's every kind of terrain in the forests, lots of mud, bogs, hills that you have to climb up, rivers to cross. But actually we are quite glad to be 17th. The top guys are a bit crazy, almost I can say suicidal, so we are happy to take it more easy.”
Recently Alexi Ivanov was part of G-Force, one of Russia's biggest off-road teams, where he had the inordinate privilege of racing a T4 truck in the Egyptian Pharaohs Rally. Now though he has come down to soggy earth to be half of the smallest team here with Maltese driver Karl Buttigieg. One Land Rover, no mechanics, no tools and just a bare handful of spare... “In the first kilometre of the first stage we broke the winch rope. I asked what Karl had done with it as it was already dirty and he said Croatia Trophy 2010. I suggested that using a rope which had been left covered in mud in a garage for 2 years might not be the best idea. He agreed and went to find another one... He did, but swapped a winch motor for it. Now our spares are a clutch and a steering box...”
Despite being such a tiny team they were in 35th yesterday which out of 55 still running is certainly not too bad at all.
I also caught up with Philon Parpottas parked up next to Big Pete and asked if he had a couple of minutes for a bit of a story. “He was born in 1941...” shouted Pete. “And had a hard time in the orphanage,” someone else added.
“We won the Prologue with the same time as the Austrian Jeep,” Parpottas said, “but then had a disaster on the first stage when an oil pipe came off the back of the alternator. The warning light didn't work so we lost every drop of oil,” he shrugged. “That destroyed the turbo and it took six hours in the stage to fix which kind of sealed out fate for the rest of the competition really. Then yesterday a stick came in the front and took out a winch solenoid which burnt the motor so we couldn't winch out, but as always this event has been very enjoyable. The driving is just brilliant and of course we're still trying to make up as many places as possible. We still have our eyes on the Top 10!”
Next to the catering tent are the friendly Israelis with their pretty standard looking G-Wagon. I thought that it should be in the Adventure class but they are ploughing on through the much harder Trophy class. “Some months ago we came to Croatia, pulled it out of a field and have rebuilt it in our friend's workshop. Ely came to work, one week here and the next back in Israel making the rollcage, winches bodywork etc. but we are having some problems with the clutch. We just broke the second one yesterday.”
Jim Marsden's new friend, Boris Kus, who enjoyed racing together yesterday had a big smile on his face. “We broke the diff after 3km on the first stage so got the maximum time plus 2 hours penalty which was 12 hours in today so the rest of the race is just fin for us,” Kus said. “And racing so close to Jim was just brilliant. He is a very, very good driver and it was good to be at the front with him. Also, it's very cool to be a Croatian in the Croatia Trophy racing with all the best drivers from all over Europe!”
Last word goes to the event organiser Igor Bozikovic. "Today is 51km of swamps, creek crossings that need winching up and tomorrow is the big one, 75km long."
I asked him what he likes seeing in the event he has pretty much single handedly created. "I like looking at the different drivers," he said. "How guys like Boros Csaba, Jim Marsden and Alexey Golubev drive, it's actually quite beautiful to watch, how they treat their engines and equipment with respect finding the perfect balance between car and terrain... if they don't need to put their foot down they won't. Then there are the others, in German it translates as something like 'Foot down brotherhood' those who just go full power with their foot flat down. It's not really off-roading."
Everybody in the camp has stories to tell, but perhaps one of the most interesting is from the catering guy. "No one knows his real name," Igor said. "We call him Old Rascal. He started his cooking career on Tito's luxury yacht and then he was cooking for a film and Steven Spielberg came in and said, “Who made this great food!” and then ate every day at Old Rascal's place!”
Right now there is more muddy madness taking place in the forests just south of the village of Topusko. Jim Marsden will have the bit between his teeth and the fact that he started near the back will only make his attempted come back harder.