King of Portugal: Ultra4 comes to Europe!

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In Vimioso, Portugal, the off-road drivers put on an amazing show as they challenged for positions

If you’re into off-roading then you’ve heard of the King of the Hammers. If you haven’t, like it says on the video trailer, you’ve been living under a rock. It’s a world famous event… and now it’s gone global. USA, Wales and now the remote, arid farmlands of northern Portugal welcomes Ultra4; all hail the King of Portugal.

Levi Shirley's co-driver Terry L Madden looking for a way ahead
Levi Shirley's co-driver Terry L Madden looking for a way ahead

Photo by: Robb Pritchard

November 2012. On a couch in the SEMA show of Las Vegas two guys who’d never met had an informal chat about where to race and now there’s 30 of Europe’s (and the world’s) best off-roaders kicking up rooster trails of dust through the Portuguese landscape. At the pre-event briefing KoH boss Dave Cole explained how amazed he was that this race went from an idea to reality in such a short space of time. He was also rather taken aback by the hospitality of the locals. “I’ve been doing this for seven years and never had such a welcome. We’ve raced on public land before but here we’re in people’s fields and even their back yards! I only have respect for that!” And on the site of the prologue he looked around and announced that this was the best pre-race course he’d ever seen.

A basalt quarry was the perfect venue for the first battle to arrange the starting order for tomorrow’s main race. Deep ditches, sheer rock faces, water crossings and lots and lots of dust! As always, such a short and seemingly innocuous course had its heroes and victims…

Yesterday I was chatting to Team Gigglepin’s Mark Birch. “It’s an interesting mix of teams. We’re used to doing long courses that take hours to do but we have no idea what’s out there. The locals are used to the terrain but only on short courses… so basically it’s going to be mental!” And he was right…

Early on it was the UK’s Chris Abel with the time to beat with 3.43, although he wasn’t too happy with his run. “I took the wrong line into the first ditch and had to back up and was a little cautious through the water so I lost about 15 seconds. The key is to be fast but not too fast.” …which is what US racer Levi Shirley found out quite quickly. His 700bhp Ultra4 car shipped over from America especially for King of the Valleys in Wales and the King of Portugal hit a ditch hard enough for the watching crowd to gasp out. The steering arm was snapped and he crawled off to the side…

Queue the surprise… Emanual Costa in his Chevy badged buggy just came and blitzed the course. He was visibly faster than anyone else and was the only driver to be applauded as he slewed through the finish arch in a thick plumb of dust nearly 40 seconds faster than Abel. Back at the HQ, a nice strip of tarmac around a football pitch on the outskirts of town, his car was parked up but no one was around (in stark contrast to Shirley’s team next door). Someone commented that they were already in the bar!

Offroad action
Offroad action

Photo by: Robb Pritchard

Happy to be in 4th is Axel Burmann. “The prologue was great but the key for the race will be dust! There’s not too many places to overtake so the ones who did well today will do well tomorrow.”

Someone who didn’t do well today was one of the event’s favourites, Jim Marsden. Cutting a bit of marker tape was rewarded with a 10 minute penalty meaning that he’ll be starting 26th out of 32 runners… although he is currently appealing the decision.

Tomorrow is the big one. Five laps around a brutal 22km course full of tight twisty tracks and massive rock crawling and winching sections. In the words of Mark Birch. “It’s going to be mental!”

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About this article
Series OFFROAD
Article type Leg reports
Tags abel, birch, burmann, cole, costa, koh, marsden, off-road, portugal, pritchard, vimioso