DRIVING IN THE GUMBALL 3000... IN THE DIKTATOR'S KOMBAT T98!
f you love cars then you’ve surely heard of the legendary Gumball 3000. Maybe you’ve seen some Youtube videos of supercars inching through throngs of people or if you were lucky enough to live near the route maybe you stood on a bridge taking photos on your phone… But while most people would count themselves fortunate to be within a few metres of the amazing cars, what would it be like to actually be in the race? And not just in a run-of-the-mill Porsche, Lamborghini or Ferrari either, but a 5000kg rocket-proof SUV which was used in the film The Diktator?
With all the places I get to go and people I meet in the noble cause of 4x4 freelancing I have to admit that I lead a rather charmed life. A few years ago I found a stunning looking SUV parked up in a Russian forest and with notebook in hand got chatting to the owner of the Kombat company. To cut a long story short, now I work for them… and for PR I managed to get two of the heavyweights on the Gumball. The gold one has an interior of ostrich and crocodile leather and a big throne in the back emblazoned with the insignia of the Republic of Wadiya. This is the one you see the Diktator getting out of at the start of the film. The big one, GoldZilla, complete with 6cm thick glass is the one I drove around Europe last year to Diktator film premiers. In a new black and grey livery for a Russian post-apocalypse film, this time she was the transport car for the Battery Energy Drinks team, the official event sponsors. The Gumball is all about the weird and wonderful. And the lavish. Some pretty normal Porsches, Corvettes and BMWs were lined up at the start in sunny Copenhagen mixed with a GT-spec Camaro, a lovely 80s Countach, a couple of nice Bentleys, up to a Rebellion Le Mans look-alike, a Rally Fighter, Land Rovers, a VW Beetle and even an Escalade covered in a fluffy blue elephant… Then there were the truly insane things, like the Stirling Moss SLR Mercedes and the Galag’s crowd stopping Batmobile replica…
The same is also true for the people; royalty, MTV, Gumball stalwart Hasslehoff, rapper Eve (who in a rather bizarre moment needed my help putting her shoes on) the Finnish equivalent of Jackass in the aforementioned elephantine Escalade, Dirty Sanches, skateboarding legend Tony Hawks in a Land Rover and the effervescent stand-up comedian Dex Carrington. Men in bondage costumers pretending to have sex with a Saudi prince’s Bentley with David Hasslehoff (of Knight Rider and Baywatch fame if he needs an introduction) laughing… where else in the world would you see that!? And to start my experience off the right way, as I sat waiting in the Kombat The Hoff himself came up to me with wide eyes and said, “Wow. Nice car, man!” For the flagging off the heavens opened but the torrential rain did nothing to deter the legions of fans. Supercars are a little more nimble than massive Kombats and once Archerio from The Cuban Brothers had got safely out of our way with the flag I almost had to do a 3-point turn between the barriers. The rain wasn’t so good for the big Saudi Galag team though. Their incredible 4 ½ million dollar Batman replica Tumbler leaked so much that the electrics shorted out. I guess there isn’t so much rain to worry about in Gotham city… or the Saudi desert. And then we were off! Or almost off… the Gumball is so popular that once we were out of the fenced off area there was a solid wall of people in front of us. “Which way?” I asked a policeman. “Through there,” he replied pointing directly at the crowd. As the policeman advised, I drove straight at them and like you’re supposed to do when a Kombat is moving towards you, they got out of the way. If there’s one issue with the Gumball it’s that it’s become a bit of a victim of its own success. If there weren’t enough people on the bridges or the sides of the roads then those at the Koenigsegg factory in the south of Sweden caused a jam so big that it was a race for time to get the rest of the way across Sweden to catch the ferry… and we really had to push to get there. Miss it and there would be no way to get to Russia! With old aged Volvo drivers going slow and stressed sportscar drivers blasting along in big rooster tails of spray the soaking wet Swedish roads were no fun to race a Kombat as fast as I dared for 600km.
As an indication of how much power and reach the race has they managed to get the ferry to wait for a couple of hours for the stragglers. It wasn’t a private boat either but one of the Scandanavian floating palaces with hundreds if not thousands of normal fare-paying passengers. If there was any discontentment though we were kept blissfully unaware of it in the ‘Baller’s-only VIP section. The private party was throbbing, the drinks were free and they auctioned off John Olsen’s X-Games winning skies. In fact they held a charity auction every night and raised a whopping $600,000 for underprivileged kids. After 4 hours sleep we made our way down to the car deck to the cacophonic symphony of a hundred supercar alarms going off together, but if that didn’t bring us back to cold consciousness then the line of Finnish police waiting with breathalysers certainly did. With confused looks they let the Kombat through… and as the Battery girl pointed out, they couldn’t really stop us if we didn’t want to… The whole Finnish route was lined with speed cameras but despite officers dressed in camouflage hiding in the bushes they were woefully unprepared for the full Gumball entourage. The news paper headlines the next day were that they had missed out on a million euros worth of fines!
The whole palaver of getting a Russian visa just for a day hadn’t appealed to any of us so from Helsinki we skipped St Petersburg and took a short-cut ferry over to Tallinn. In the welcome sunshine the were cars parked up in the stunning ancient square under the medieval church tower we heard the stories of a 200km high-speed police escort that didn’t slow from racing speeds even through the centre of the city…as well as the massive ‘fines’ people had to pay to get back across the border again. Lunch was in a restaurant that has continuously been a restaurant for 600 years. Old Hansa. Magic. But then we headed south to Riga and gone were the easy motorways… instead it just wide but single lane roads choked with slow-going trucks and oncoming traffic. The Kombat has a 6.6 V8 Duramax under the heavy hood but the armoured body panels mean that acceleration is not that magic… especially as it has manual transmission. It was a horribly long drive! Riga was a huge street party, even though it was again heavy rain and I almost squashed the Rebellion as I parked. The view to the side is very restricted and I couldn’t see him at all… just a white-faced guy waving his umbrella as I inched towards his flimsy carbon fibre body panels!
There was another packed party that night and I started to wonder if the celebrities and rich people had slightly different DNA to the rest of us. A couple of nights partying I can handle but these guys had been going for nearly a week! I smiled to the breath-takingly stunning girls dancing on the bar and went to the hotel to crash. Vilnius in Lithuania was pure, beautiful chaos. The old cobbled streets up to the centre square were so narrow that at one point both the wing mirrors were touching the walls of the old buildings. And as no one could get past I flushed dozens of grumpy pedestrians out onto the street in front of me. It was pouring rain again but once more the crowd were so into the cars and celebrities that they didn’t care. I also vote for Vilnius to win the unofficial accolade of having the most beautiful girls on the route.
Program a normal GPS and it will give you the quickest route between A and B, but if you have a fangly new one it will also divert you around traffic jams ahead. Great… except if it takes you on eastern Polish back roads where someone is doing roadworks. I grew up off-roading and although it’s heavy, with low box and a rear difflock the Kombat is pretty capable off-road … but the little queue of a lowered Aston Martin, Lamborghini and one of the Galag creations were all looking with trepidation at the 3cm drop onto the gravel. “It’s a bit rural,” said one concerned driver as we drove off laughing. (And now no one can say that there wasn’t any off-roading in this story!) The Polish countryside was stunning, although perhaps the sun coming out for the first time in days had something to do with that… but if any of us had thought Vilnius was crazy, we weren’t prepared for Warsaw. The solid crowd started 500 metres away from the car park and then swamped the security guards to fill the compound. It wasn’t a free-for-all though, everyone was reverential in their appreciation of the tens of millions of dollars worth of supercars that they were posing next to.
After the madness of Warsaw it was on to the cool soave of Vienna but by now I was so tired from over a week on the road and constant parties that I don’t actually remember the drive there. I do remember that was a cover charge on the party. Maybe I was getting to used to being mistaken for a VIP but I was outraged… and then it was on to Monaco. Up through the Alps we actually got into the snow line. Stunning. Although if a week of rain for the poor guys in the open top Mercedes SLR Stirling Moss wasn’t enough the snow was! I also remember the queues of racers going through the tunnels… Drop it into neutral and floor it… even through the 6cm thick glass it sounded awesome. Especially the 1000bhp Nissan Skyline! It was a damn long drive that day, 1300km in fact, and it wasn’t until long after dark that we wound down the hill to check into the Fairmont hotel on the GP circuit. We’d got used to crowds on the cities we’d visited but Monaco on the F1 weekend was something else! And the queue behind when I got the Kombat stuck in the underground car park entrance was just hilarious. The last party was wonderful. There weren’t really any barriers between all the different types of people to start with, but after a week and 3000 miles on the road together it really felt as though the Gumball army was one big family. There are no time controls so no one actually wins the race, the main prize is for the team that most encapsulated the spirit of the event. The Galag Team rented a recovery truck to carry the stricken Tumbler all the way from Denmark but the other insane cars, including the VW Beetle were well-deserved winners. I was on a table of people telling their speeding ticket stories, especially from Poland and with zero, it seems I was the winner of the award for the least amount of tickets. Maybe it had something to do with the radar reflective paint…