King of Portugal 2018
Full report on the 2018 'James Baroud' King of Portugal
The King of the Hammers is arguably the world's hardest and most extreme off-road race, but there is absolutely no argument against the fact that the King of Portugal is Europe's premier Ultra4 event. With 30 km long laps around the rolling valleys of the host town Vimioso and the backdrop of the fabled Dinosaur Eggs no other event in the calendar is its match.
A massive field of over 60 cars entered, spread over the usual four classes, from Stock to Modified and Legends, (which has slightly smaller tyres and restricted suspension set ups). There was also a record 27 of the top class Unlimited beasts lined up in the autumn sun.
Event director Jose Rui Santos is Europe's absolute master of course design and the sparsely populated, semi-arid landscape of north east Portugal is perfect Ultra4 territory. Fast and open like the desert tracks of the King of the Hammer's Johnson Valley it also has plenty of natural features to make the course a constant challenge and is unlike anything else on the U4E calendar. Even the qualifying course, normally just a quick blast around a natural amphitheatre on the outskirts of town was changed into a 10 km blast that finished in the next village.
Starting the race out at the head of the field, and therefore out of the lingering dust, is an obvious advantage so qualifying is always a serious affair. The UK's Jim Marsden is always a driver to watch… but sometimes not for the reason he intends. On maximum attack around the serpentine course he was unsighted by his own dust, missed a corner, and slid backwards down the hill. The dusty display of blasting up an almost sheer cliff to get back on the track was well received by the crowd but it meant he'd only be 12th off the line. It certainly wasn't a great start for an event where clean air is so important but faring much worse was current Ultra4 Europe championship leader Jorge Araújo. With his 3rd place finish in France and 2nd in Britain a good result in his home race looked off the table as he was lined up in a lowly 27th place...
At the opposite end of the starting grid, with a qualifying time almost a minute ahead of anyone else and so starting with a crystal clear road in front of him, was Britain' Rob Butler, the man behind Off Road Armoury. He was hoping all the teething troubles that had plagued the independent front suspension car in its inaugural year were now all worked out and duly tore off the line and through the short but technical quarry section.
The action was behind him though and there aren't many sights in the world of motorsport more spectacular than Jim Marsden on a mission and he only needed the quarry section to pick off three cars. By the end of the first 36 km long lap he'd managed to haul himself back into an incredible 2nd place. Unfortunately the charge didn't last too long though. An overheating gearbox that had temperatures of over 150°C melted the wiring harness and with fuses frazzled he was out with just a single lap in the books.
Another big name out of contention early was Nicolas Montador, another in a self-made buggy. A burst steering hose stopped him right in front of the horde of spectators in the quarry at the end of the first lap and although he got it fixed the same thing happened again a few laps later.
In marked contrast to just about everyone else the day's leader by almost an hour Rob Butler had an easy day with just a single bolt loose in the steering the only thing for his mechanics to fix. Compared to Marsden's car that was basically stripped bare for a new gearbox to be fitted wasn't such a big job.
Drive of the day though belonged to championship leader Jorge Araújo. Starting plumb last after gearbox problems in qualifying he spent the first few laps overtaking the 26 cars in front of him and then rest lapping them to finish an unexpected and absolutely astounding 2nd. With the second placed man in the championship, Britain's Daniel Roderick, not in Portugal the 2018 Ultra4 Championship now lay enticingly close. He just had six laps of some of the world's toughest off-roading to complete to get there…
The second full race day was 6 laps through the now rightfully world famous Dinosaur Eggs. With a few bypasses so as not to cause too many bottlenecks Rob Butler decided to skip the very tough JT's Rocks the first time around and enjoy the dust free tracks for as long as he could. But behind it didn't take too long for the carnage to start. Nicholas Montador lost reverse gear early on and the rocks are so technical that not even someone of his skill get through without needing to back up. Marsden broke a propshaft near the start and never made it to the Eggs and then on the second lap Butler pulled over with oil gushing out of the side of his Euro Fighter. Although it was his lead ticking away it was still an amazing sight to watch as he calmly joined two pipes together to bypass the leaking cooler and pumped out the gearbox cooling fluid into a bottle to top up the steering fluid. He managed to carry on but a broken propshaft before the end of the lap but pay to his day.
Weaving a way between the rocks and dead trucks parked up blocking the track Iñaki Lanzagorta Egia in his Montador built WSR buggy made the rock crawling sections look easy…. But that's what being a five-time Iberian rock-crawling champion does for you. Towards the end of the day it sounded as though he had a bad misfire but it was actually the oil from a leaking shock absorber spraying on to the exhaust and popping and although Araújo managed to catch up with him with two laps to go the dust in the fast sections kept him back and Egia's skills in the rocks kept him ahead.
For years the competition has kept building bigger, tougher and faster trucks around him but the popular Maltese driver Neville Ciantar in his trusted Goat has an uncanny habit habit of always finishing 3rd And after the first day, despite having low-box selection issues and a rear differential lock that wouldn't engage, 3rd is where he found himself once again. In the much tougher laps of Saturday though he was a bit slower and came home 6th, the same place as he took last year.
In a new build the UK's James Ayre came to Portugal not knowing what to expect and was certainly not expecting to finish 5th, and possibly more importantly for him, the best British driver home. Despite a roll at the bottom of the Eggs he was quick to learn the lines through the rocks and unlike many others had a trouble free run to take an excellent result.
Just five minutes ahead was 2015's U4E champion Filipe Guimarães who had a quite race. He was driving his old Big Rock Tyres shod Jimmy's Chassis truck that he won the championship in three years ago, even though he'd sold it… and the new owner was his co-driver. He gave a pretty good demonstration of how to master the course and conditions and even though his co-driver was totally inexperienced in winching and helping to pick lines through the hardest rocks he still managed a fine 4th.
Although he crossed the line first on Sunday, after a master class in the rocks, Spain's Iñaki Lanzagorta Egia didn't make up enough time to challenge for the win. By just 8 minutes, after racing for over 11 and a half hours was beaten into 3rd by a new name on the U4E leaderboard, Pedro Costa, another local driver, and this time in a Portuguese-made truck as well. Although they never looked particularly fast, and traditionally diesel cars have been completely outclassed by their more powerful rivals, they finished Saturday’s 6 laps just 10 minutes behind the event winner to take a very impressive 2nd overall.
As soon as Butler was out of the race it was Araújo’s to lose and he duly took control. Although Egia was ahead out on the track he needed to finish 25 minutes in front to win, so all Araújo needed was to keep his Iberian rival in his sights. A couple of times he was close enough to overtake if he wanted to take the risk but chose just to take each obstacle at his own pace, just quick enough not to let Egia get too far away, and went on to take a very popular win.
With just a few scant points now between him and the championship it will require Roderick to win in Poland and for Araújo to have a seriously bad weekend for him not to be crowned the third Portuguese King of Europe, after Guimarães in 2015 and Emanual Costa in 2016.