Robb Pritchard, Off-Road correspondent
Diehard Brits tackle one of the world's toughest 4x4 events; Russia's massive Pro-X Trophy
Worldwide Trophy events are keen to attract supurlitves to them. I've seen adverts that proclaim the competition to be the biggest, the most extreme, most internationally represented etc, but which one could ever hope to call itself the most perfect? What would it take to warrant such a claim and could an event really live up to such a description? Well, it would have to be long, at least a week to cover as many different off-roading challenges as it is possible to imagine, and be made up of different classes to accommodate many different vehicles. The organisers must have years worth of off-roading experience between them and it would need to be located outside the borders of the EU, somewhere remote where strict environmental sensibilities don't apply. If those were the criteria for off-roading perfection then Russia's Pro-X, back for the second year, would tick all the boxes.
Held in the vast and barely inhabited marshes between St Petersburg and Moscow it is run by Yuri Selifonov, the only man to have twice won another of Europe's Blue Ribband trophy events, the Croatia Trophy. In the sweltering swamp lands, with temperatures in the high 30s C, eight gruelling days awaited the crews. The action included stages of bottemless bogs, huge slopes, chest-high water crossings, a 24 hour long GPS challenge, sand-driving Dakar-style, and a severe night-drive thrown in for good measure. And although it can't quite lay claim to being the most internationally represented event, as at the moment few would choose Pro-X over the Ladoga Trophy, two very hardy 'up for anything' Brits took the daunting challenge and ventured out... Shaun Howell and Richard 'Smudge' Smith of World 4x4 Adventures (who sponsored the event) entered as co-drivers with local teams.
Shaun was supposed to be in a competition prepped Lada Niva in the 'Light' class but the night before the start it dropped a cylinder and driver Stas Horoshaeva was lucky to be able to find someone willing to lend him a spare car, although the totally standard machine was a bit 'lighter' than they were anticipating, with no modifications apart from the front bumper and 16 metres of winch rope compared to the 100 or so metres that their rivals had at their disposal. "So instead of all our hopes of doing well, the first plan was to finish," says Shaun. "But secretly, also not to finish last!"
Another challenge the local teams didn't have to face was the language barrier, as Shaun only speaks a few word of Russian, most of which are related to alcohol, but Stas was full of nothing but praise for his far-travelled winch-bitch. "He has my full respect because it takes a lot to dare to come out to Russia in the first place and then to start straight away in such an extreme competition, so for this he has to be congratulated. The second thing is that because he has come all the way from the UK he obviously wants to do his best... but this car isn't a Trophy vehicle at all, so I like the fact that he never pushes me to get the Niva into something it would be too hard to get out of again."
The prolouge was supposed to be 3 laps of a course that had a little bit of everything in it; rock climbs, a bog, a couple of river crossings and a large sand pit. It was supposed to just sort out the start order for the next day's 'real' stage and the leaders did the three loops in under an hour, but after finishing the first lap in four hours Shaun and Stas were content to take their place near the end of the field. "There's nothing you could ever do in the UK to prepare yourself for this. Not the hardest green-lane or the toughest winch challenge is like even the 'light' class here, never mind what the 'Hard' class must be like!" Shaun said wringing out his mud and sweat stained T-shirt. "With the crazy heat and humidity... 35 degrees in the middle of a massive swamp, it's by far the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. All you can do is concentrate on what is right in front of you and how best to get over, or through, it, one metre at a time... and often not as far as that! But it's fantastic!"
There's nothing you could ever do in the UK to prepare yourself for this.
But what the team lacked in the vehicle's rather lackustre off-roading capabilities the two of them made up with ingenuity... "We turned up to one point to see a commotion in a swamp that was a cross between a bog and a stream that was completely churned up because there were three check-points to get in there. It was just a 4x4 graveyard so there was no way we could get the Niva in... One particuarly hard point to get to was under a bridge, so we decided that we needed to be clever. On top of the bridge there was a way to the edge and once we'd filled the holes in with our spare wheel and jerrycan Stas hung off the front bumper and touched the point with his foot. It was great to hear all the press cheer us for that!"
One of the stages was a circuit race on sand which might not sound all that hard, but considering that the temperature in the shade was 37 degrees and the Trophy cars are not designed to drive at racing speed for prolonged periods of time it turned out to be one of the toughest tests. "I know why they came up with the name 'Dakar' for this stage, there were cars bursting pipes and dying everywhere and actually we thought the same would happen to us, but the little Niva came into it's own and we pottered around the broken Protos and finished all of the 11 laps!"
But some places were just too much for the diminutive Niva. "There was a roadbook stage that the organisers said that we would be OK for us to get through. It was 70km long but we thought that we would try it... but after 6 hours of winching through 2kms of bog we realised that it wasn't really worth it. And we didn't do all the night stage either. We were talking to a big, friendly guy in his masive portal-axled 80 Series Land Cruiser and he described how steep the sides of the gully are... actually they called it a canyon... how you can stand at the bottom and reach out and touch both sides and how you have to winch down and then start winching up the other side before you get all the way down. With just our 16 metres of cable we knew it would be impossible for us, so we ahd to miss it out. We went to have a look as spectators though and it was horrendous. The organsiers had put some flood lights up but not to help the teams, only so the press could take photos of the chaos that was going on. But on the final day we were going quite well... we got through almost everything until we came to a huge double sand climb out of a lake. We really wanted to get up as it was very close to the finish, so we tried for about 3 hours, but the winch cable was just too short. The cars that had gone before us had pulled all the trees down and in the end the Niva ran low on fuel and because it was pulled up at such a steep angle it started cutting out... and then the winch just wasn't strong enough to pull us over the final lip... so we let go... and fell back into the lake with a big splash."
"Another thing I like about Shaun," says Stas, "Is that he never gives up. After 8 hours of driving in one stage we got to a field of tree stumps. I said that we can drive over them and see what happens, but Shaun got out and continued to run ahead. That's the type of commitment a driver needs!" At the end they fullfilled thier objective, the finished, which is more than a lot of others, and they didn't finish last!
At the other end of their class, where many expected them to be, were Alexi Sergee'ev and and his long standing co-driver Alexi Kotorev, adding a second Pro-X victory to the second Ladoga crown they won just a few weeks before. "The compeition is wonderful, really, I like it," the driver Alexi says, but now he faces the problem that he's just got too good. “The problem for me now is the competitors. It's more interesting to drive when you beat a lot of strong people, so maybe I am looking for other interesting places to race."
In the middle class for modified vehicles, aptly named 'Medium', Richard 'Smudge' Smith in the other Team World 4x4 Adventures car took the winch controls in an old UAZ (kind of a Soviet equivelant of a Series 3 Land Rover) but instead of having his name proudly emblazoned on the leaderborad as perhaps he'd been hoping, he earned respect from his team, organisers and competitors alike for another reason. First he earnt the nickname Yak Man, from the Russian word for anchor, as for hours on the prologue he had to drag the heavy ground anchor from front to back in the middle of the bog while his driver shouted, "Richard! Yak!"
"It was a massive learning curve from the very begining," Richard smiles. "In the first few metres of the prologue there was a 4 foot high wall and so I got out ready to lay the track mats down, but Vitaly just shouted for me to move out the way and just drove straight at it. I jumped out of the way and when I opened my eyes again there was the UAZ on top!"
But then all hopes of a good result went up in steam when the head gasket blew after the second stage leading to a 50 hour long overhaul and rebuild with just a 2 hour nap in the middle. The organisers looked on in awe and the local Russian 4x4 press joked that he now knows as much about the insides of an UAZ engine as the designer did.
They didn't have as hard a time as Igor Izotov though. A big man in his tiny Suzuki, he was going fine until water mixed with petrol in the fuel tank. They overcame the problem by rigging up a jerry can on the roof to feed the engine, but boucing along and winching at steep angles they didn't notice it was leaking... until it exploded. Both were taken to hospital and treated for burns, but this is Russia and Pro-X where men are men and Suzuki drivers are heroes and they duly took the start of the next stage!
The top class, 'Hard', was the domain of the mighty Protos. "Sometimes they flew past us and they were awesome to see," Richad explained. "Some looked more like full-scale toys than real trucks, but when you are struggling to get a standard car to move another metre or so you really get a good idea of what Protos are capable of when they just drive right passed you and disappear up a hill that you couldn't even walk up. The Estonian Jeep sank twice, but they had 2.5 meter high breathers and changed the oil every day... in fact they brought almost as much oil as the did beer!"
'Hard' class victory went to Elena Alyamovskaya and her co-driving husband Dimitry in their portalled Daihatsu Rocky... "Although it was not like any Rocky you've ever seen before!" Shaun comments. "Of course being in the lighter class we never got to see what unbeleivable stuff they had to tackle out in the forests and swamps... and even if someone offered me the opportunity I don't think I would be ready for it."
The awards cermony finished off the event with the champayne spraying over faces that had just seen a razor for the first time in a week and in conclusion Shaun said, "Russia is an absolutely amazing country! There's no way I could have imagined how friendly and hospitable the Russian are. Everyone looked after us from the moment we arrived and for days now they've been trying to persuade us to come back next year."
"We don't need much persuading!" Smudge added. "I'll be back here in a heart-beat!"
The organisers are well aware of what a world class event they have as well as the expense and logistic issues teams have getting thier vehicles to, and into Russia... which is why they are actively promoting what Shaun and Richard did; to go out and join a local team. "The experience is a full one but at a tiny fraction of what it would cost to come with your own vehicle," Says Alexi Menshinin. "There's no set fee or anything, just whatever you and your driver think is a fair deal."
"It was just the most amazing experience from the very first moment to the last," Shaun saud with a big smile. "You get past the language barrier in about 20 minutes and not only to you get to compete in an event that you'll remember and be proud of forever but even more importantly, you'll make friends for life!"
Anyone interested in following in Team World 4x4 Adventures soggy footsteps can contact the Foreign Participants Liason Officer, at firstname.lastname@example.org