Despite it being the toughest event in recent memory, a brand new car and the fact that Franck and Francoise of Euro4x4Parts had never raced together, they didn’t do too badly at all. In fact on their 8 day long Balkan experience they did astoundingly well! “Our hard off-roading adventure actually started a bit sooner than we were expecting,” said Francoise Graciet-Hollender. “It had been raining in Croatia for weeks before so the campsite was just a field of pure mud. Where we got the service van completely stuck we decided that’s where we’ll stop and stay!” At about 30 meters from the start and the first turn of the prologue, also a little premature was Francoise’s first taste of serious winching recovery! “We were near the end of the groups so the track was already pretty destroyed and when we came into where the spectators were we found a car stuck in the middle of the track! So when we hit the hill it was at the wrong angle and we lost momentum. A couple of days earlier I’d posted on Facebook, ‘Do I need a ground anchor in Adventure class?’ A lot of people said no, but there I was with one at the very first corner! Fortunately I got an X-Eng one that was 8 1/2 kg which is a lot easier to carry than the normal 20kg ones! But despite that we still got in the Top 10. 8th, I think.
Then it was into the woods for the first real stage and it was quite like what we were expecting. Our first feeling was that Adventure class in the Croatia Trophy is even harder than the Extreme class in the Breslau. It was 77km in the forests with lots of hill climbs and descents. All day we were going up and down, we had to drive sideways on the slopes. It was very humid, very wet and there were lots of water crossings but we were doing really, really well… until we had a problem with the propshaft. It was a second-hand one and weak, and a U-joint exploded so we had to stop to change it. That meant we finished 5th, which is actually not bad at all. But the stage was a whole different philosophy to anything else we’d ever done before. We had such a great sense of achievement from getting out of the woods and back to camp! Then on the Saturday it was Trophy day which is where the teams have to work together. We thought it would be like last year when the first four cars in the standings went as a group, so we got together to make a plan with the second group… but then were told the groups are five cars so we had to go with the Russians! Working as fast as you can in a team where we can’t speak the language… well, it was a little complicated. But fun. And lots of hand waving! We had to make a bridge from a pile of loose logs and we actually did pretty well. Next it was a little technical stage in the woods, up a big bank, inching around some trees on the roof bar and then a race back down to the finish line. Franck is a very good driver, very fast and confident, and that is why we won!
The next day was the circuit race, another one for the spectators rather than the teams. 13 cars all started off together in one group and we were right in the middle. There were only two short laps and as nothing was going to effect the result of the whole race we had two options of how to drive; nice and safe and to get around in one piece… or go flat out. I didn’t actually have any say in the matter because as soon as the flag dropped Franck put his foot down! We all started on top of a hill but there was only enough space for one car into the first turn. There were lots of cars all around us, which was a new experience, but it was obvious that priority was given for the man with the most guts. Franck won this little battle! And because he didn’t take his foot off the pedal for the whole two laps we won that day too… which meant we went out first on the road the next day… and this was another real experience! For the people in the middle or at the back in the Croatia Trophy I would say most of the day you just follow the tracks of the cars that went in front of you, but for the front runners it really is a navigation race as you follow nothing but the roadbook and markers painted on the trees. In the Breslau I needed two days to get into the race but in the Croatia Trophy I went right into it because the roadbooks are excellent. When it’s properly calibrated with the TerraTrip, it’s just perfect.
This was the first time I felt like we had pressure, as it was so easy to make a mistake. We were doing quite well until we found a bog and got stuck. The Russians passed us and there was nothing we could do about that because it wasn’t possible to catch them. We never saw them again for the rest of the stage. It was a very nice day though and because those three teams were so good we decided that if we could finish in fourth place, it would be a fantastic achievement. At first look the Russian UAZ and two Land Rover Defenders all seem quite basic, but actually we came to understand that there is a serious amount of money and effort in these teams. The anchors, Hi-Lifts, wheels, bolts… they’re all titanium! The first Land Rover only weighs 1600kg! Ours is 2300kg so it’s no wonder that they didn’t need to winch so much in the mud. They also told us that the races in Russia are much, much harder so for them the Croatia Trophy is like a holiday!
But if navigation is hard in the daytime, imagine what it’s like in the middle of the night! It doesn’t matter how good your roof-lights are when you are pushing through the trees, all you can see is very well illuminated leaves in front of you. It rained for two days straight before and I don’t think anyone really wanted to go out at 10 or 11pm to do this stage, but maybe Igor is a master of psychology because in the briefing that evening he managed to convince everyone not to go to sleep and go and race in the forest instead. And it was the hardest stage we did in the whole event! We were just going through metre by metre as the trees were so close we couldn’t see anything. Croatia Trophy Euro4x4Parts Day 6 was our worst day. Nobody can hope to do such an event like Croatia Trophy without having any problems but when things start to go wrong it’s a really horrible feeling. We had two punctures, but only carry one spare. The first was easy to fix as we used the winch to lift the car up and change the wheel, but the second blew on a tree stump 30km from the end… There was nothing to do apart from continue but we had a few problems with the car leaning over to the right side too much on side slopes. Many times I had to get out and use the strap on the roof bar around a tree to stabilise us.
Then the last two days. If you look at any of the photos or videos you can see how much mud and water there was. There were only a couple of days when it wasn’t raining. The nearby river broke its banks but penultimate day was the only day I really got wet! As we came close to the finish line in the last stage, I had to calm Franck down as the adrenaline was making him drive a little wild, until we reached the camp where he span around in circles splashing mud everywhere… But I must say it feels so good to have got to the end, racing every day and finishing every stage. Seeing the Euro4x4parts banners on the finish line and back in the campsite was a brilliant feeling and our 4th position is actually the position we deserved, so we were very happy. ‘Best of the Rest’ behind those incredible Russian teams was like a real victory for us. And yes, we will be back next year. The car needs only a few modifications. What w learned in the forest is that we need a stronger transmission, a heavy-duty clutch, a stronger transfer case. Another problem we had was the damper pulley on the timing belt. It wasn’t strong enough and we ended up changing it every day… and when these cost €600 each it wasn’t long before we were thinking about Plan B. We found a stronger one made in Australia and will try this next time. Next step? We’ll be doing another type of race in a dryer and very diverse country Breslau Balkan in Bulgaria next September. Watch out for #318, the orange Land Rover as it got 2nd place in 2012 in the Xtrem Class and we’re coming back in top gear!