Robb Pritchard was not only the reporter, he was also a competitor in the Pro-X Trophy event in Russia which allowed him to add a unique 'insiders' point of view along the demanding route.
The painfully beautiful song of a nightingale cuts through the pre-natural light of a northern Russian summer night and I pause from putting stickers on a 4x4 to listen. It's a well battered machine, but it's a serious car with a serious history as it has twice won the Adventure class of the Croatia Trophy and its owner Yuri Selifonov has invited me to drive it in this event, Pro-X Trophy.
This is no weekend club drive...
This is no weekend club drive though, it will be 10 days before I see home again as this is a monster race, a full-on trophy-marathon in the wilds of Russia. If you haven't heard of it yet then you will soon. 3 classes, Proto, Light (which is certainly anything but light) and a new one called 'Smart' focused more on orienteering than just winching... perfect for someone whose other job is an off-road expedition guide. It's not going to be easy though... Nothing in Russia is easy.
I am Welsh, my co-driver Stephen Ross is Scottish, and we’re both long-term ex-pats yet we are proudly announced as Team GB and the local crowd in this tiny town of Bologoe, half way between Moscow and St Petersburg seemed impressed. Stephen, eating his Pringles as we crossed the line was actually quite embarrassed with the attention.
The prologue was a nasty little section over two man-made hills with three gates set at steep angles. Our friend Leonid Nemodny struggled around in his Great Wall and a Land Rover had difficulty with a tight turn up a tough slope... but the course allowed us to be clever. The only rules were that gates have to be done in order and you can't reverse... simple, so I drove through the first 2 gates and then did a big circle around the far side of the hill and got a nice run up the hill. We were 20 seconds faster than the others and 3 faster than the team that followed us... But then we were given a penalty for clipping a gate post even though I had already gone through it once before. To get 10 seconds for doing something they didn't tell me about seemed a little unfair, but the officials were resolute... But at least I got the fastest time!
Stephen is up for the challenge but he's never done anything like this before and so at the start line I went through the roadbook showing him how to read it. Two minutes later and we were off, the small track winding through the close trees and taking us off in random directions just to make it harder for the co-driver. The first real confusion wasn't that far in though when our route took us through the start line of the Light class. We had to nudge the marshalls getting ready to do the countdown on a Suzuki out of the way but smiled when we saw that the others in the Smart class had gone the wrong way.
Our advantage was soon lost though when we misread 80m as 800 and took a bit of a detour the wrong way... and unfortunately there were no extra points for getting a stamp from the Proto route. Stephen wasn't too impressed with having to keep getting out to pose for photos in front of the way points and begged me not to go too fast before he'd done up his harness, but secretly I could see that he was enjoying himself.
But then the accuracy of the roadbook went to pot and in the deep grass of a rough meadow we lost a lot of time looking for a hunting bivouac that was nowhere near where it should have been and then the track turned into a rough and soggy track that was anything but smart, instead it was often what Russians call normal off-road the rest of us would call extreme!
The heavy rain from the night before had turned it into a swamp and so lockers went in and low box was selected! A few hundred metres in we found a land Rover Discovery completely stuck trying to inch forwards using nothing but their mud flaps and a few sticks for traction. I managed to get out of the ruts, inch past and pulled them out and continued ahead with a smile on my face... because If knew I was leading my class in an international 4x4 event!
Back on the big road again and was just constant deep puddles so I splashed around at a fast but safe speed... until it felt like we had a puncture. I looked for somewhere to pull over but before I did there was a horrible grinding noise and the car lurched to the side... a back wheel had fallen off! “How far to walk?” Stephen asked as he lit a cigarette but a quick inspection showed that it was just the bolts that had come loose and sheared off. In fact most of the bolts on the other wheels were also so loose that I could turn them with my fingers... We lost about 20 minutes getting it back on, taking a nut from each of the other wheels but the car still didn't feel right so we crawled the last 15km back to camp and lost another 20 where the roadbook was completely wrong at the end. Stephen was quite upset but it's always a beginner's challenge to learn where the junctions are right and when they need to be 'interpreted'. For his first ever attempt he did himself proud.
Back in camp we found that we'd missed a way point, but so had everyone else, and that one of our competitors who missed the whole difficult section were somehow classed as the winners... but 3rd is not so bad when the whole race could have ended quite nastily.
This morning Stephen was crippled with a bad belly so someone was dragged out of their tent and sat in the passenger seat rubbing the sleep out of his eyes while I translated what the start marshall was saying. Follow the roadbook but at the same time look for numbers on trees and mark them as accurately as possible on a map with penalties for every millimeter wrong. OK... but the map was a terrible print and we couldn't even find where the start was!
“Ten seconds,” shouted the marshall.
“Hi, I am Urvo Mannima,” my new co-driver said offering me his hand in greeting. “I am from Estonia.”
The course was fast and I learned how to deal with the massive turbo lag the G-Wagon has as well as the leery steering. The trick is to start turning and powering out of the turnabout 2 or 3 seconds before you actually get to it, then it slides around nicely. One slight problem was that I had a few shards of aluminium in my fingers from the scored wheel yesterday which made gripping the wheel quite painful.
Unfortunately Urvo struggled with the hand-written notebook with the distances between points that didn't correspond very well with the trip computer and we made quite a few big detours and then couldn't find the 9th marker losing about 10 minutes circling around the rough tracks looking for it. But despite doing about 10km more than anyone else we got 3rd again! Not too bad... or so we thought... When the results were posted we were rewarded with a rather over-generous 7 ½ hours of penalties. We swore at the board and then laughed, but it felt a bit sour that it was the 'game' part of the stage that had cost us so much rather than just the driving. The map did look about as good as one of those souvenir dishcloths you get from the seaside...
Normally I love the sound of heavy rain falling in the forest... but not when I have to be out in it all day. 5 laps of a 600 metre circle on a big sand dune that sticks out of the forest doesn't sound too hard and the others that went before me did fine. I pulled up at the start with a cameraman beside me, my third co-driver in as many days, and set off trying to rub the misted up window so that I could actually see where I was going... but that wasn't the problem. Near the top of a little hill the engine died and wouldn't restart despite a few minutes of furious button pressing. When it finally fired again after a few minutes we coughed along a cylinder or two missing and pulled back into the start. Of course when the others tried it she fired up and ran perfectly but I was already going to be last by a long way so there wasn't really much point in carrying on.
With 10 hours of penalties there was no hope of a result but driving Yuri's G-Class around the forest at full tilt with a co-driver calling out the directions was an amazing experience and so we went out in the driving rain just to have fun. In a few minutes we'd caught up with Leonid who pulled over for us and just down the road were the two Discoveries helping each other out of a ford with a steep bank. About 10 metres to the side was another exit and as the G-Class has front and rear diff locks as standard all I had to do was press the buttons and we waded through... but just before the bank the water suddenly got a lot deeper and the bow wave came in over the top of the door. A snorkel was fitted so it was no big deal... apart from the fact that it was so damn freezing we both cried out in shock!
We got up the bank easily and powered off into the forest trying to wipe the mist off the window... and were looking ahead at a virgin trail. There was no chance of getting a good overall finish but we both knew how cool it would be to have our names on the top of a stage win. The smiles lasted less than a minute though as at quite high speed the engine coughed, carried on a few cylinders and died... With a dead engine the steering was immediately too heavy and I couldn't control it over the bumps... so we veered off into the undergrowth.
Fortunately we slipped between the big trees and the little ones were no match for the big winch bumper on the front. Frantically I pressed the three ignition buttons in the right order but the seconds began to turn into minutes and the others went past without stopping. All hope and enthusiasm drained away... Somewhere far away the love of my life is reading this and I really wanted to do something to show her how cool an off-road trophy event is. But there is nothing at all heroic in sitting with soggy buttocks slapping away mosquitoes in a broken car parked in the bushes... But it does go to show that even in the lightest classes of a Russian off-road competition you still need a good car, co-driver and a lot of luck. Nothing in Russia is ever easy!
But the early exit did give me an opportunity to see the other classes and the unimaginably extreme courses that they had to contend with. At one press point it seemed that whoever made the Proto class route had walked it rather than driven as the only way ahead was for the driver to repeatedly crash into a copse of young trees. When that didn't work they got the winch out and just dragged the car through ploughing them down to continue. Winner of the recent Croatia Trophy Alexey Golubev in his amazing self-made buggy utterly dominated the class... until the very last stage. He had to leave a day early due to business and the penalties dropped him right down the order.
In the 'Light' class, which was actually pretty damn heavy, it was also some quite familiar names for any who have read my articles from off-roading events around the world. After winning the Adventure class in Croatia and then just weeks later taking the TR1 win in the legendary Ladoga Trophy were Victor Stolyarchuk and Alexey Shokin in their trusty Land Rover 90. They were in a fine 2nd place until a disastrous SS3 got them some 22 hours of penalties... leaving the untouchable Alexey Sergee'ev and Alexey Korotaev in their Lukoil sponsored Toyota Land Cruiser to win by a massive 6 hours... adding to their two previous Pro-X and Ladoga wins.
I would like to say a massive thank you to Yuri Selifonov for giving me such a brilliant opportunity to do something that no western European has ever done before; be behind the wheel in the monster that is Pro-X.
1. Sergei Sergee'ev / Sergei Korotaev - Toyota Land Cruiser 22.06.22
2. Alexander Turin / Natalia Turin - Land Rover 90 32.54.39
3. Alexei Slonkin / Pvel Emelin - Toyota Land Cruiser 32.59.10
1. Ilya Savelev / Sergei Serelin - Proto 24.45. 02
2. Vilnis Zeiza / Aigar Zeiza - Proto 28.21. 36
3. Elena Alyamovskaya / Dimity Alyamovskaya - Proto 34.21.23
1. Alexei Malishev / Nikolai Petukov - Land Rover Discovery
2. Mikael Kuzminix / Tatiana Chich - Land Rover Discovery
3. Leonid Nemodny - Great Wall