It’s an extreme 4×4 competition that makes the famed Camel Trophy of old look a little bit like a pavement-parking parade. But in the end the event was dominated by 4x4s that started life as Land Rovers. This is… the 2015 Croatia Trophy!
Text: Robb Pritchard
Photographs: Robb Pritchard and Gedmantas Kropis
Drive south through Zagreb until the last village before the Bosnian border and there is a sacred field that dozens of top 4×4 crews make a pilgrimage to at the end of every April.
From the far corners of Europe they come to pitch tents ready for a week long homage in the deep woods to the gods of mud. High priest, officiating over the many muddy sacrifices, is the venerable Igor Bozikovic, now directing a 15-year-old event, and it was all smiles as the 55 teams were lined up in the village centre to show the locals that we are, to outward appearances at least, all normal people.
Israeli flags flutter against the sunset sky, but so too do ones from Russia, as despite the frosty atmosphere the mainstream media tries to create, seven teams made the five-day trek here, to be joined by Maltese, Italian, Bosnian, French, Dutch and British crews, among many others. There were 16 countries in all, making it the most internationally represented event of its kind.
Teams were split into two classes, Adventure for the not so modified cars and Trophy for everything else, and were gathered up five at a time to be thrown into the tight and twisty opening prologue.
Last year two crews entertained the crowd by rolling just a few metres from the start but this time Israel’s Ira Avni and Malta’s Adrian Bezzina turned the tables by blasting around first and third. In 2014 Ira only managed to finish one stage and promised Igor he’d come back to beat him… and so this was one tick in the first of eight boxes.
The abandoned forests along the border with Bosnia aren’t just big and empty. They are full of ravines, rivers, meadows and bogs and even if – unbelievably – it didn’t rain for the whole week, the ground is still saturated with snow melt… and very muddy! But as well as the popular ritual of sending co-drivers to wrap a strap around the altar of the winch point, a massive element of the Croatia Trophy is navigation. With just a roadbook and markers painted on trees to find the way, there is nothing in the Middle East that can prepare you, so it wasn’t a big surprise that the Land Rover with tractor tyres wasn’t the first through. Breaking the winch and having two punctures didn’t help!
Ira 1, Croatian Forest 1
Also starting the hardest way possible was Stefan Malia and Alistair Caruana in their Kamoy buggy. An oil filter housing got ripped off and because it was a specialist part, and also a bank holiday weekend, the only way for them to keep going was for a friend to fly to Italy with it as hand luggage and for them to drive a 1400km round-trip to pick it up. Two maximum times to start with meant that they were a long way from a good result, but they kept on going and the Carl Reuter Trophy for fair play was eventually the just reward.
On paper it looked to be one of the hottest events in years, with four former winners and a winning car all lined up with serious intentions. But the first 50km stage sorted all that out quickly enough. Reigning champion Christian Poprask in his Mitsubishi- powered proto, broke his power take-off (PTO) winch and took maximum penalties. Marc Eyckens also broke a winch and the May Day holiday meant it would be days before a fabricator would open shop, so it was back home early for the Austrian double winner.
Hungary’s Szilard Magyar, in his stunning BMW 3-Series bodied, independent suspension, Mercedes-powered creation, would have been faster if the fan belt hadn’t come off, but incredibly, despite this being the first event for this unique vehicle, it was the only problem he had for the whole week. Watching the BMW grill smash through the low-hanging branches was a fantastic sight… and the dashboard still has the walnut trim!
Being 10th on the leaderboard is nothing to post on Facebook, but it took all of 10km for Team Gigglepin’s Jim Marsden to pass nine other cars and set about picking a way around the slowest Adventure class cars that were sharing the same track.
As Szilard struggled in the woods somewhere off-track, he even had time to pull a grateful Suzuki out of a ditch.
The Croatia Trophy is so hard and technical that it is generally considered that only the best of the best do well here, so winning the opening stage by over an hour let everyone know straight away who they had to beat.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, though. Leaves got into the radiator cowling on Day 2 and overheated the Chevy LS3 V8 so much they had to stop and rely on the water from other competitors to keep going. In a perfect example of just how internationally represented this event is, water bottles were donated from Russian, Hungarian, German and Austrian teams.
One of the most technically advanced extreme 4x4s you will find anywhere is Victor Khoroshavtsev’s TRX6 built by Alexi Golubev from the Russian Off-road Wolves team. Audi-powered, it has self-made suspension and portals made of aluminium and titanium. It even floats! In Golubev’s hands two years ago, it dominated the event but while Victor perhaps doesn’t have the same driving skills he has some pretty competent mechanics. After it spent 10 minutes on its roof after a roll they drove to the campsite, drained the turbo of engine oil and sent him back on his way.
But it was another Russian crew who were in the hunt for the win. Andrei Ponomarev, at his first attempt here, was hampered by a very strange issue – his 300TDi engined, Volvo Laplander axled proto was designed for much tougher conditions. “Here you can drive for some kilometres on normal tracks and then get to some obstacle. In Russia there are no tracks in the stages, just obstacles!”
With Jim struggling with overheating and co-driver Wayne Smith, fresh from Australia, exploring some random off-the-book trails, he decided to attack… but broke a driveshaft.
The stages are plenty hard enough with four fully functioning wheels, so trying to get through with just three is a serious disadvantage and the hour-and-a-half lost put him back in the clutches of Szilard and the friendly Belgian Ruel brothers in their 104’ Land Rover.
Then it was a couple of days of typical Croatia Trophy. Carrying on the unique idea of bringing many different nationalities together, there are Trophy Day where five crews have to work as one to get through different tasks.
There is a brutal night stage, where roof lights cut through the darkness, run through a meadow that instantly turned into a huge bog, and the famous Circuit race. It sounds innocent enough, but it is a real car breaker. Something happens when 10 cars are let off the start line at once, 50m from a small opening! What happens is chaos… and chaos is something that many teams seem to excel at. But after all this, Jim had extended his lead by only 10 minutes. A half an hour lead in the Croatian forests is nothing, and back in the next “real” stage he lost the way for almost an hour.
Fortunately it was a particularly hard stage and many others had their own troubles… so the lead, with two days to go, was up to over two hours.
All done? Not in the Croatia Trophy. At 130km/h, with a main road fast approaching, a stab of the “coward pedal” didn’t slow the car. A brake line had been cut and they didn’t have a pipe flanging tool in the car. Somehow, with just a screwdriver and a hammer, they managed a repair that lasted to the end of the stage! Another lesson – it’s not about getting through the stages without a problem. Doing well is about how you get through fixing all the problems you will inevitably have.
And then, just a 40km “easy” last stage, the finish across a big river. The Ruel brothers were looking at a great third, but blew their engine. Szilard only had 11 minutes to make up for second, so pushed and was duly first home, but Ponomarev was only five minutes further back and had started way down the field.
A quick roll in front of Poprask and four flat tyres as he crossed the line couldn’t stop him from getting a great second. And he has learned a few things to make his car better suited for next year.
As the Euro 4×4 Parts flag was waved, Szilard’s feat of getting to the podium in a brand-new and such a radically engineered car was a much lauded one.
Ira bought his monstrous Land Rover home and finished seven of the eight stages.
And then a beautiful sounding Land Rover came into view. It needed a couple of tugs of the winch to get across the river, but then Jim powered out of the water to take his second win, although there is a slight discrepancy in the final time. It is my understanding that the clock stops when the car and both team members get across the line. The fact that Jim left co-driver Wayne to wade out of the river by himself meant that there should have been at least another minute added. But when you win by nearly three hours, I guess it doesn’t really matter too much!
The Adventure class was once again dominated by Russian Victor Stolyachuk in his Land Rover 90. He took the honours for an unprecedented fourth straight time.
See it here! See it here!
The official DVD will be out in June and it will be an excellent film with 50% of the profits going back to the Croatia Trophy. For further details, contact Robb at [email protected] To find out more about the Croatia Trophy, visit www.croatia-trophy.org.