It’s safe to say that you need a large helping of self-confidence to participate in a 4×4 competition. You must have confidence, not only in yourself and your co-pilot, but also that your vehicle will perform well in front of the organisers, marshals and spectators.
But while a bit of confidence is essential, over-confidence can bring you a world of pain. The problems come when your confidence exceeds your ability. That’s when you end up going home, chastened but wiser. It happened to us when we entered the first qualifying round of the Bridgestone 4×4 Club Challenge earlier this year. It was hosted at the Leeuwenkloof 4×4 centre near Harties, which is a facility we know well.
Unfortunately, we were not going to drive on the familiar course, but on a new one designed by the legendary Sakkie Coetzee.Still, we weren’t too concerned. We only had to be in the top 65 after four qualifying rounds to make it to the “eliminator rounds,” and how hard could that be? We do this sort of thing for a living, after all.
When our entry was confirmed, we booked ourselves a Ford Ranger 3,2-litre turbodiesel with an automatic gearbox in Odyssey specification. We chose it because we knew it was very capable and just as comfortable. We wanted to dominate the tough and technical obstacles, but we also wanted to wait our turn in a leather-wrapped and air-conditioned interior.
But it didn’t go well. In fact, we had our rear ends shown to us, to put it lightly.
We started at obstacle six, chose a line through the seemingly tough-but-not-impossible rocky section and proceeded to get stuck almost immediately. We were so badly stuck that we had to be moved a metre to the right by 20 burly men. And since we live in an era when a camera is always on hand, our failure was documented by at least three bystanders.
We wish we could say it went better after that, but we ended the day with just 165 out of a possible 900 points. (You start with 100 points at the beginning of every obstacle, but then you lose points every time you make a mistake.)
A decent man owns up to his mistakes, so we are willing to admit that we took the wrong car and went into this contest with the wrong attitude. We quickly learned that we not only had to adapt our driving style but our entire attitude to 4×4 driving in general. The Bridgestone Club Challenge pushes you hard – mentally and physically.
Instead of giving up, we decided to enter another qualifying round later in the year, and that’s how we arrived at Leeuwenkloof on 30 May in a modified Jeep Wrangler. In our minds, it was the perfect blend of what we needed to complete the difficult obstacles. It was a petrol-driven short-wheelbase model with a freeflow exhaust, adjustable Tough Dog suspension, differential locks front and rear and 150 000km on the clock. It had also won this very competition before, so no pressure then…
With the driver briefing done, we set off for the first obstacle. A media team from another 4×4 publication joined us in a stock-standard Suzuki Jimny, which is a firm favourite among competitors in this prestigious event, and for good reason.
Completing any obstacle is hard enough, but the Bridgestone Club Challenge makes it even harder by placing poles with golf balls on them in the obstacle, forcing you to take a certain line. Knock one of the balls off the pole and the judges subtract marks. You also lose points for stopping, reversing, spinning and not wearing a safety belt.
In a Wrangler, or any other proper off-roader for that matter, you constantly have to keep those poles in mind. If you stray off the line just a little bit, you will lose 25 points for knocking that ball off its pedestal.
In a Jimny, the poles are an afterthought.
Suzuki’s little tyke is comically small compared to the other cars, but it is a very sharp thorn in the side of competing drivers who have paid twice or three times as much for their 4x4s.
We were interested to see how well the Jimny would fare against our modified Jeep. It would also provide us with an opportunity to see a standard Jimny in action at this event, which is a fairly rare sight, given that most Jimnys that compete have one or two aftermarket differential locks fitted. At least this Jimny had an automatic gearbox.
After obstacle one and two, we were in the lead, but only slightly. It was, however, disheartening to complete an obstacle with a spotter outside, only to stand there and watch the Jimny power its way through the poles with room to spare.
Luckily, we were on our way to the infamous obstacle three. It had become infamous after a Mahindra Thar rolled down it during the first qualifying round, so we were properly intimidated by this steep 150m rocky climb up the side of a koppie.
With every possible button pressed, we lined-up the Jeep and proceeded up the hill. It struggled for grip here and there, but we made it to the top with only one 25-point golf ball related penalty to our names. At the top the marshals cheered us on, saying it was an impressive performance. Beat that, Jimny!
The marshals were kind enough to let us watch our rivals’ assault on the hill. We estimated that they would get maybe halfway up before the lack of a rear diff would slow them down, but when the Jimny came powering through the tight right-hander at the bottom, we knew we were about to witness something spectacular. That little Jimny bounced its way to the top without setting a foot wrong. We should have been upset as the 100 points earned by the Jimny left us trailing again, but it was such an awesome display that we didn’t even mind. Besides, we had been told that some obstacles had been set up with the Jimnys in mind, so we still had time to make up the difference.
Two obstacles and a quick lunch later, we were back at the doorstep of our old nemesis, obstacle six. We inspected it again, but couldn’t find the right approach. Luckily the Jeep was a better fit than the Ranger, but we still had only 10 points left when we drove through the exit gate. The Jimny had numerous options as far as the approach line was concerned, and they duly scored another 100 points.
Soon enough we arrived at the notorious number eight. It’s a short but steep climb up a very loose embankment. You start down below and score marks for how high you can go. As soon as you start spinning, the marsha blows the whistle, announcing that your turn is over. We reached the first gate before the whistle blew, which gained us 25 points.
The Jimny lined up aggressively and we could sense that the driver had his left foot firmly planted on the brake while his right foot kept the engine at around 3000rpm. It was a good strategy, but the Jimny hardly moved 20cm before it bogged down. We wanted to laugh, but considering its performance earlier in the day, that wouldn’t have been right.
The last few obstacles were easily dealt with by both vehicles, which resulted in us finishing earlier than anticipated. With more than four hours to kill, we made our way back to obstacle three as spectators. On our way we noticed oil stains on obstacle six. At least we hadn’t been its only victims.
At number three, the mental challenge drivers face in the Bridgestone Adventure was most apparent. We saw a few guys taking a heavy dive, while others gave a master class in driving technique.
The Jimny and its driver had done an amazing job, but one competitor in an old Gelandewagen made it look no more difficult than driving into his garage at home. He just idled up the obstacle.
It also became clear that the driver is definitely the weak part in the man-and-machine And machine combination. Every single car competing that day was up to the task, and more often than not it was the driver that let the car down.
We watched a Mahindra Bolero stall halfway up, after which it completed obstacle three in a storm of flying rocks and dust. A Land Rover Defender followed immediately afterwards, but after three attempts it had to be recovered. Under normal circumstances you wouldn’t mention the names of those two vehicles in the same breath, but on that day, in those conditions, the Mahindra was better.
That leads us neatly to the most importantlesson we learned from this experience. You arrive there on the morning of the competition and inspect the other vehicles, thinking that they are your rivals, but you soon realise that you are driving against yourself.
The Bridgestone Adventure forces you to drive in a responsible yet technically advanced manner, which teaches you to be a better off-roader. Whichever way you look at it, you go home a winner, even if you come dead last.
This is the kind of event you can participate in until you eventually reach the top. We
failed the first time, but more than doubled our score the second time round. In fact, we finished in a highly respectable 15th place. Next year, we’re aiming for the top ten! – Gerhard Horn