There are a few 4×4 competitions around the world famous for being the toughest of the tough. Dreams of many have been smashed to pieces against the rocks of the Hammers or sunk in the mud of the Croatia Trophy and I know someone who threw millions at a 20-something finish in the Dakar. And on the same list of the near-impossible events needs to be the fabled Malaysian Rainforest Challenge.
2015 saw the 19th running but the RFC earned legendary status way back in the 90s when, before the advent of the internet, tales about this mythical race in the Malaysian mists came back to Europe thanks to the adventures of some unimaginably intrepid off-roaders. One year the army had to evacuate the crews and their cars out of the flooded forest with helicopters… that’s how hard it is.
35 cars of varying quality and capability arrived in the luxury surroundings of a 5* hotel in Kuala Lumpur, a short foray of refinement before the suffering that was to come. Old friends met, T-shirts were handed out and the cars put through scrutineering… and this is where guest of honour, King of the Hammers director, JT Taylor first got into difficulties. Not up to spec is a charitable way of describing the condition of his rented mount. But fortunately the effervescent Chinese businessman Li-Pak was on hand to offer something a little more suitable… a well used Land Cruiser on Simex tyres and fitted with one of the insanely fast God winches, a PTO put through a car differential…
On the face of it 35 cars might not make the RFC the biggest event in the world but the sheer breadth of the international contingent that makes their way to the jungle ensures that this is a truly global event like no other. Where else would you see Chinese, American, Indian, Australian, Russian, Czech, Korean and Lebanese all winching through the stages and helping each other through the transport sections?
The general format of the RFC is one day of competition followed by one of moving the huge convoy to another part of the jungle… and trying to get all the media and support cars over the trails of soft mud that were already driven over by the whole field does take a whole day. We waited 8 hours to go over a tricky, washed out section, gave up and turned around at dark, stopped at a friendly Chinese team’s camp for some food and then spent until 5am looking for a way back into the forest. After not being allowed to stay under the eves of a mosque we ended up sleeping in someone’s garden for a few hours. Fluid is the key word. But then it was back into the SS again, short sections of intense off-roading brutality.
One was a double winch effort that some got seriously wrong and ended up way down in the trees. Another was a steep hillclimb with a killer side-slope that again many struggled with. Crushed snorkels, dented rollcages and oil-flooded engines make for good photos, but bashing your car to death isn’t the best way to get a good result.
As well as the short stages each edition of the RFC has a longer trail known as the Twilight Zone… not because it takes place at dawn but because it is run in such thick vegetation that sunlight never penetrates the jungle canopy. Just 12km… yet it took the best teams the full part of 24 hours to get through. Others got back after 40 hours. Some had to walk out of the forest. Unfortunately JT and Thomas were one such crew. A busted knuckle on the steering meant that they had to leave the car where it was… and after a misunderstanding with Li Pak, it’s where it was left.
If you’re used to ULTRA4 cars or Trophy Trucks, even Land Rovers, then racing Suzukis might not seem so spectacular, but make no mistake, these are thorough hardcore off-roading machines and will go places an ULTRA4 would have no chance. For example, the nice-looking Maxxis sponsored Jeep-bodied proto runs on a modified and reinforced CJ7 chassis with a 3.2 Nissan engine as it is lighter and higher revving, Toyota Land Cruiser LC78 axles with Trailgear shafts and Yukon diffs, extended drop and trailing arms and Profender shocks. Plus a God winch, of course. A serious piece of kit!
But from early on in the event it was clear that there were only a few teams in the hunt for overall glory. 100 points are awarded for a win, 95 for 2nd etc which means that the consistent teams do well and the consistently fast are the ones chasing the podium. One mess up to get a DNF you loose 100 points and are pretty much out of the fight. Both fast and consistent was Chang Chiew Shen in the Team Sabah from the Borneo part of Malaysia, organiser of the Borneo Safari, an event quite similar to the RFC. Their Toyota Celica engined Suzuki on Volvo portals was simply unbeatable and they took a well deserved win. His team mate Lee Beng Loon in the gold Jeep took 2nd.