Normally to start an article I usually have to think about a nice introduction, set the scene, come up with a lead-in etc... but this time I don't. Ladoga Trophy. You've either heard about it or you haven't. If you haven't you’re not a true mud-blooded off-roader yet... If you have... well, the legends are all true, the bogs really do swallow cars whole, the mosquitoes do eat you alive and yes, you really do need monstrous vehicles like these to get through the insanely tough stages.
With music, girls, balloons and all the cars parked in the shadow of St Isaac's cathedral the start in the middle of St Petersburg, Russia, is full of fanfare and it should be as this is no normal event that the smiling drivers in their shiny 4x4s are setting off for. 9 days and a mammoth 1200km route around Lake Ladoga awaits and so big is the entry list that an incredible 11 different classes cater for the more than 200 crews, from GPS point hunting Grand Tourism, ATVs, all the way up to the stunning Protos... some of which have chain-driven legs and can actually float...
I am actually quite grateful that the organisers didn't find me a seat in a press car as it meant that I found a lift with the support crew of last year's winner Kari Sihvonen who now sports sponsorship from Battery energy drinks. After a couple hundred km in a convoy of Volvo Laplanders, little white and blue cross flags fluttering in the wind, we got to the first stage. 7km was the length of the first Proto class section and if anyone sniggered at the diminutive size then the smiles were wiped off pretty quickly as it was a 7km long bog! Team mechanic Anti and I trudged in from the finish markers, every few steps sinking up to our knees in the swamp. “Be careful of the shit,” I called back. “Be careful of the bear!” came the nervous reply. “This is fresh, very fresh...” Such are the perils of being a Ladoga reporter...
You certainly couldn't say that it is one of the prettiest cars out there but Roman Briskindov's mid-engine, 4-wheel steering buggy with home-made portal axles was first through the confusion of storm-felled trees, his co-driver stumbling through the same holes that we had, winch rope in hand leading the car like some kind of tamed beast. A half hour later it was the stunning new chain-driven creation of Sergei Khalzev and almost an hour later it was Kari winching through with a couple of TR3 vehicles that share the Proto route... and then silence... 18 cars in the two classes went in... we saw 6 come out...
It was maybe a little ironic but the furthest travelled team actually made it the shortest distance. The Belgian Collective managed to get through all their dramas before the start line only to get 3km before 3 half-shafts snapped, the winch rope broke and the engine refused to start... Getting 'Mouse' back out again turned into a full two-day evacuation project. The Finish crew of Nico Puumalainen didn't even get as far as the Belgians as a hole in a field still in view of the start, smashed the diff casing up into the sump and poured the Toyota's 10-40w lifeblood into the soggy Russian earth...
Back at the finish Kari was looking at the marshal’s time sheet. “I can't believe how fast Briskindov was through the bog,” he exclaimed. “We were winching along and he just drove passed us... sideways!” For years 4-wheel steering has been banned but for 2012 Briskindov was taking full advantage of e new rule. For tight turns and rock-crawling having the rear wheels steering is great for positioning the vehicle, on the soft surfaces of Russian bogs it has another advantage entirely. Normally the front wheels press down through the mossy lattice and the back wheels have to follow in the ruts... but with four steerable wheels you can crab along at an angle and give each separate wheel an unbroken surface to drive on. A very big advantage.
If the 7km opening test wasn't tough enough then the 100km monster that waited teams on the third day would test them to the absolute limit. “It's like a huge off-road event in the middle of a huge off-road event,” Briskindov smiled as the Battery team pulled down camp mid-evening in order to do a night drive to the start. Outside of St Petersburg its absolute wilderness, little wooden houses next to fallow fields the only civilisation. It feels like the end of the world. The mud and bogs are only a part of Ladoga. The full experience of this epic event is found in the expedition length drives the support crew have to do from one camp to the other. We're so far north that is doesn't get completely dark and by the time we pulled up at 4am it was already fully light. At 8am the crews set off into the stage and we loaded up our roadside camp to race to the midway service point as it's not possible for the cars to go the full distance with a single tank of fuel. I walked a few km up the rough forest track and Briskindov came through so fast it was like he was driving a rally-raid car. Kari followed him a few minutes later... and then it was an hour long fight with the ever growing cloud of mosquitoes before any other car came into view. Eventually it was Khalzev in his Toyota powered Proto that I nicknamed the Warthog (for obvious reasons) and then Pekka Pylkko, Kari's team mate, in his huge Volvo Laplander came thundering up to the service truck. Mud was scraped off, fuel poured in, cigarettes lit, cans of Battery drunk and then it was back off in a cloud of dust and we headed off to the finish... well, the finish of the first section at least as the stage was 80km then a road section to the final 20km.
The last few kilometres were the same route for all the classes so a few absolutely shattered guys on broken quad bikes staggered through with the last of their energy as well as a few in Adventure Open (modified vehicles on 35in tyres) all going slow, plastered in mud, squeaking and whining with broken suspension and dying bearings until Pekka came out and then it was a big rush to grab some food and race to the last section. The rough Russian roads had sheared a wheel off the trailer so Pekka blasted off as fast as he could, not wanting to race in the midnight gloom... It was already later than 11 in the evening when he went in and in the near darkness we drove around to the finish and in the back of the 6x6 Volvo we slumped over nodding off into mosquito interrupted fits of sleep. It was 2am when he finally got out, making it an 18 hour long stage... only 200km on unpaved roads to the next campsite and then at 5am, with pale faces and bloodshot eyes we crawled into our tents... finally some sleep! And that was Day 3... only 6 more to go!
“The longest stage I ever did before was 30km,” explained Kari the next morning as Mama Sihvonen handed out some magic bacon and egg sandwiches. “It was very hard for my back as the seat is very hard and my hands on the wheel.” He showed me the blisters on his palms. “And also my feet as I only have thin Neoprene boots and the floor is sharp chequer-plate. 100Km is too long to push so the only thing we did was concentrate on getting through it... and it seems that a lot of people had problems, so that's good for us.”
In the beautiful sun and ice-cold wind the next day was the fabled Beach and Dune races, the only time you can see all the cars together and as no results are posted by the organisers the only way you can catch up with what is going on. The first course slalomed along the beach in and out of the surf and because of the strong wind fairly large waves were waiting to crash into the plastic bumpers of the Discovery and Grand Tourism classes and the ruts worn into the sand made the water deeper and deeper for the following classes. Ladoga is always full of an eclectic variety of vehicles and the new Land Cruisers, Hummer H3, Gaz 69s and ubiquitous Lada Nivas were joined this time by an old Unimog campervan!
TR1, the class for the most standard vehicles was the closest fought with 2-time champion Alexy Sergee'ev ahead for much of the way in his Lukoil sponsored 72 Series Land Cruiser but the fight went right down to the last stage with 3 crews separated by just a few minutes. But almost within sight of the finish something broken on Sergee'ev's Toyota... and just like they did in the Croatia Trophy a few weeks ago Victor Stolyarchuk and Alexey Shokin upped the pace just when he needed to and added a second international trophy win in less than a month!
The Dune Race was also a good opportunity to see just why Briskindov was driving away with the race. Every single other driver stuck religiously to the well-worn ruts around the course but Roman couldn't care less for the tracks of the others and with a car that looked and sounded a bit like a Scandinavian Formula Offroad machine swung out wide to get a much faster entry through the markers. Maybe he'd learnt some good sand driving techniques in Abu Dhabi last year when he drove a G-Force Proto in the rally-raid desert marathon.
With Briskindov in a class of his own Kari was resigned to driving conservatively for 2nd but a few small problems with lockers and the short life-span of the tie-rod ends coupled with the incredible pace of Team Honduras' Khalzev in the closing stages meant that he was relegated to third at the end. “The hour penalty we got for missing a CP didn't help,” he mused. “But I am happy to come away with a podium, not just an empty wallet!”
Khalzev himself didn't start too well but there was a reason for that. “Traditionally we build a new car every year and test it at Ladoga,” he explained. “We wanted to make the car shorter than previous builds but that created a problem with too much load on the front prop-shaft and it kept shearing the bolts to the diff. The Proto route is too hard to do in just 2 wheel drive so we lost a lot of time with that. But once it was fixed and we'd learned how to get the best out of the car we could race properly and we are very happy with 2nd place... and also happy that the Proto routes were so good and hard. Just how we like it!”
This was the 16th running of the Ladoga Trophy and it was my 8th time there so I have seen many winners climb with their muddy boots to the podium but never have I seen such a dominant and totally unchallenged win. Completely untouchable at the front from the very first stage was Briskindov, adding the Proto win to his TR3 victory last year. His car was as tough as a tank, he is a superb driver with success in rally-raids such as the Dakar series Silk Way Rally... oh... and his co-driver built the legendary chain-driven Frogs. The champagne to wash the mud off with was very well deserved.
I would like to say a very heart-felt thank you to the Battery energy drinks team and to Pekka Pylkko's PP Engineering boys for not only driving me around but also adopting me as one of the team. Guys, travelling with you was a special experience. Top class dudes, to a man!
1 Roman Briskindov / Sergei Volkov, Russia
2 Sergey Halzev / Andrew Pazychev, Russia
3 Kari Sihvoneni / Tapio Siitonen, Finland