Croatia Trophy 2011: The View From The Inside
A man walks alone through the darkness, every step an unseen struggle over the slippery ground until he drops to his knees at the foot of a tree. He can just about make out the marks on it that tell him others have been here before and have performed the same ritual. In his hands he holds a hook and the rope it's attached to runs back down the hill behind him, but his gloves are coated in mud and he's started to lose some feeling in his fingers. He fumbles, wishing that the scene was bathed in light, but it can't be; the alternator is damaged and they have to save what's left of the battery for this last task. They are almost there. With the last of his energy he fastens it and calls, “In!” with a weak voice. Welcome to the Croatia Trophy... and it's only Day 2!
The Croatia Trophy is a 8 day hardcore thrash.
Looking at the leaderboard pinned up in the canteen tent every evening it seems that most of the alphabet is represented in the nationalities taking part: A, AUS, B, BiH, D, F, H, HR, I, LV, M, NL, POL, RUS, SLO, UK, to be exact. A few in the camp would probably have liked to have added CYM to the list and the red dragon flag of Wales fluttered proudly over Steve Gittins and Mark 'Pikey' Morgan's Land Rover. If there was ever to be a European Off-Road Trophy Championship then this is the entry list the organisers would be dreaming of. And such a wide mix created an atmosphere unique to the Croatia Trophy, most teams selflessly swapping parts, beer and jokes and only the odd few not giving an inch... especially out on the tracks. But it isn't just variety this event is famous for, there was also some serious world-class pedigree here too, Simon Buck of Devon 4x4, a former winner of the Malaysian Rainforest Challenge, Gigglepin's Jim Marsden and 2 time Ladoga Trophy winner Edvins Vansovic. Even though it was a 5 day drive to get here two Russian teams made the trans-European trek, Michail Klyuyko in his stunning independent portal-axle Mitsubishi Evo 2 powered buggy and last year's Adventure class winner, Yuri Selifonov, organiser of perhaps the world's most perfect 4x4 event, Russia's Pro-X Trophy. Making it one of the most internationally represented off-road events in the world, a couple of teams even made the journey from Malta.
FIA sanctioned events like rallying and rally-raid are pretty special events. When money is no object and teams have dozens of full-time mechanics all dedicated to developing the performance of the car far beyond what the manufacturer ever conceived for its road-going version, attract audiences of tens, even hundreds of millions. But an off-road trophy, where a small team adapts something so far from standard that it often becomes unrecognisable from the base model and becomes able to compete in places where no vehicle was ever designed to go... For me, that is even more special and the Croatia trophy is without doubt one of the world's best events, easily comparable with the RFC and Ladoga. I have been to all of them and all are amazing in their own right, but in Malaysia you'll grow to hate the oppressive humidity after a few days and the 10 days of dampness and clouds of mosquitoes of northern Russia will make you miserable, but the countryside of rural Croatia is stunningly beautiful. Forests of beech and oak, radiant with spring greenness speckle light through onto the golden carpet of old leaves. At the most picturesque and technical spots, glades sprinkled with buttercups, bubbling brooks and rivers meandering around semi-fallow fields’ journalists and photographers gather, jostling for position. Those with large professional cameras stamp authority on those who think it is OK to stand in the middle of the action with nothing but a camera phone... until the leader comes blasting by on an unexpected line scattering everyone in all directions like a flock of frightened birds.
The whole region of south eastern Croatia was largely abandoned in the vicious war that raged in these hills some 15 years ago and it seems that the forest goes on forever... which makes the uninhabited landscape perfect for the seemingly sadistic organisers to create 8 days’ worth of road books full of the most heart-stopping treacherous side-slopes, huge drops and claggy bogs... stages that are mostly between 30 and 40km long... one was even 75km! I don't say 'best in the world' lightly.
There were almost 70 vehicles entered and some were truly awe-inspiring beasts, unleashing their massive V8s in the forests, alternately burbling and roaring off the trees, Jeep based monsters from the German Team Extrem and a Polish 4l BMW powered Proto, but there was only one machine that had people muttering with a mix of awe and fear (depending on whether you were a spectator or a competitor) and that was Peter Whitman's 5.9l V8 buggy which stood well over 2 meters tall on 44inch Boggers at the ends of 4-wheel-steer portal axles... I didn't manage to get any good photos of him as my first reaction for when he put his foot down and started slithering closer, kicking up more and more mud ,was not to crouch down snapping away, but to dive for safety with the rest of the crowd! His event was hampered from the outset though as one of the rear steering rams snapped off when one of the back wheels wanted to stop and hug a tree. He made it through the stage with constant running repairs, but came to a rather ignominious end with gearbox failure on the 'Circuit Race', the easiest track of the whole event.
But actually none of the Protos featured as contenders. The German team lost two vehicles from the reckoning on the first stage and Gigglepin's Jim Marsden explained why he thought that was. “If you look back to see what cars have won this event in the past you'll see that it isn't Protos, and that is because the Croatia Trophy is a 8 day hardcore thrash, and for that you need thoroughly tried and tested components that firstly, will last the distance, and second will be easy to repair, as super modifications generally need super repairs.” His Land Rover Defender did look like it should have been in a lesser class than the vehicles around it, but he took an early lead... although he lost time on the very next stage with a broken fuel line that leaked the contents of their fuel tank along the course until it got so low that the engine started cutting out going up and down hills. “We had to winch a bit more than usual,” co-driver Wayne Smith smiled. “We clamped the line shut with a pair of molegrips and made it back with the needle on the wrong side of red!” Jim added. “It was very close!”
There were some top-class machines parked up in the camp each evening but also some decidedly unique ones, none more so that the friendly Kamoy Engineering Team who had brought a real jigsaw of a vehicle. The front part of the chassis is an Indian Maruti Suzuki, the engine and gearbox come from a 70 series Land Cruiser with a double low box for the rock crawling they do in Malta. The axles are from a Hi-Lux, held with Land Rover radius arms and a watt's linkage rather than a panhard rod and slowed by Ford Fiesta brake callipers. Oh, and a radiator from a Ford Transit van. “This event is good because we get to compete against the people we've only read about in magazines before,” said Alistair Caruana with a smile. The event wasn't easy though. The open wheel configuration, perfect for rock-crawling, popular in Malta, means that it is easy to get the wheels hooked around trees. “We bent the axle to have to cut the casing and weld it back straight. We also lost the breaks so had to slow down using trees to stop us!” added driver Kevin Mallia. “14th is OK for the first time here, but if we win the next event in Malta we'll win the national championship!”
Often victory is not down to the size of the tyres, or how powerful the winch and engine are, sometimes it is won by the simplest of things. A complicated tulip in the roadbook had one track missing from a confluence of about 5 separate turnings over a few metres. Just about everyone went down the wrong track but there was one guy who spotted the mistake straight away and made his driver back up to test another way... and a couple of hundred meters later the book matched what they were looking at in the forest again, the result being that after just 10km the Team Gigglepin pairing of Jim Marsden and Wayne Smith were some 40 minutes ahead of the next vehicle. There were no smiles in the camp later that evening though, just pensive frowns and bodies twisted into contorted positions with ratchet spanners in hand trying to fix a gearbox problem... their new-found lead hanging in the balance. A few tents away former leader Belgian Axel Burmann was in a similar dark mood. He was less than impressed that a perceived mistake by the organisers had cost him a chance at victory and stormed off to confront them. Ultimately though, it wouldn't have mattered anyway. One the penultimate stage a hard landing after a large jump broke the engine mounts and all the water and steering pipes were ripped off. “But anyway, this year Jim is a better driver and has a better car...” he mused. “But we will come back with something new and faster for next year,” he said confidently.
My co-driver is short, fat and lazy. He's perfect!
In the second class, named 'Adventure', Russia's Yuri Selifonov won convincingly for the second year in a row, the only man in Croatia Trophy history to defend his title. He started off slowly and was in a distant third, two and a half hours behind the leader after just two stages. “Average speed, not top speed is the secret,” he said and jabbed the leaderboard with a chubby finger where on Stage 5, the longest and hardest of the event, he had a time of just under 7 hours. His nearest competitor had just less than 12. “And a fit young co-driver who runs about in the forest all the time is a bad one. The best is a lazy guy who doesn't want to get out and winch, so helps you drive around looking for the best route.” He pointed at Dima who was standing next to us clutching the two trophies and who doesn't speak a word of English. “My co-driver is short, fat and lazy. He's perfect!” Yuri laughed. Dima smiled and nodded in unknowing agreement.
Of course the leaders had their vehicles photographed the most, but those with the biggest cheer in the forest, at least at the checkpoints they made it to, where David De Raedt and his girlfriend Sofie Van Gerwen in what must be one of the most unlikely, yet strangely beautiful trophy trucks there is... a Unimog chassis and axles from 1957 with a hand-made stainless steel body... It was also their first proper off-roading event... The first stage was a bit of a disappointment when the Polish team decided to try and race up the bank to try and get past and fell against the roof, bursting the overflow tank. “They said they would come and help fix it,” David said with a smile, “but they didn't.” And it didn't get any easier, yet his smile never faded and to the loudest cheers of the week they were duly awarded the Spirit of the Event award... although only Sofie took it as David was still with the car... stuck in the woods.
The last few meters of the final stage were just a kilometre or so from the campsite and almost everyone gathered on the banks to see the last of the action. Simon Buck powered up the bank to jubilant shouts from the UK contingent as, his learning curve now levelled out, the two last days were really good, allowing him to climb from 7th which is a pretty respectable place for the first attempt... to an amazing 3rd. But to demonstrate just how tough this event is, in the final 50 meters of the whole competition, Edvins Vansovics and Gunta Krumina, in their Jeep bodied 70 Series Land Criuser, inched down the steep bank into the river, but the back wheels bounced up and instead of powering down they braked and the car flipped over to land flat on the roof in the river. The marshals were running down the bank, hi-vis vests flapping out behind them before the splash had settled and it was good that they did. “Ah, we only did it for the press so that everyone would remember us,” Gunta smiled afterwards, but strapped upside down in their seats with their heads under water, it could have been very serious.
Watching them from the other side, standing in among the onlookers were Jim and Wayne as they weren't driving any more, their race having already ended... about 20 minutes before... when they crossed the line to take a very well deserved victory.
So after 8 days which apart from the hundreds of kilometres of near impossible inclines, ditches, creeks, gullies, tree-lined slopes and bogs, also included a team-event, a hard night stage and a kind of free-for-all Comp-Safari, so that every single element of driver, co-driver and vehicle was tested to the limit... and sometimes far beyond. Against such high-class competition and such a severe course the winners of the Croatia Trophy can really consider themselves among the very best in the world. And to add to his 1st place trophy Jim Marsden was also fittingly handed the award for Exceptional Driving. With a winning time of over 21 incredibly intense hours behind the wheel he was over 4 hours ahead of the 2nd placed Jeep of Belgian Hendrik De Nijs and his brother Andries.
So, in the early hours of the morning, to the sounds of unrestrained laughter from those still celebrating and a hand still aching from all the goodbye handshakes, I turned my back on the remnants of the huge fire and walked away. Without the night reverberating with the buzz of generators or the screech of angle grinders I looked up to the clear stars, listening to the songs of nightingales with just one thought in my mind; that I will definitely be here next year. Anyone interested in off-roading at its world class best should be!