In my humble and mud-stained opinion there are a couple of special things about Europe's Ultra4 racing series. One is how far the vehicles have been developed from what we had just a few years ago. Huge V8s put 500bhp to the ground via 40 inch tall tyres, suspension is from companies that supply the King of the Hammers and Baja 1000 winning cars and a pair of axles cost the same as a whole car from the another series. Put simply the trucks unloaded in the paddock are the most powerful, advanced and capable 4x4 machines that have ever turned a wheel in Europe.
The other is how far people will travel to race. We're used to crews coming from as far and wide as Portugal, Malta, Norway and the UK to do battle to find out who is the best of the absolute best in the world of extreme off-roading but this year teams came from Norway, Sweden and even Azerbaijan!
Laid out around the end of a small airfield in the green lands of the eastern Parisian commuter belt the Maxxis Tyres King of France wasn't the biggest course in the world, nor, if compared to Italy or Portugal, the most spectacular, but it was fast and brutal, which are the two main tenants of Ultra4. The spectator area was filled with large artificial mounds and banks and a nasty deep water-crossing, a big infield section had a couple of serious rock climbs plus a tricky little treed area full of mud and at 7km it was long enough to cause a lot of pain for a lot of teams. On home ground last year's King of Wales winner Nicolas Montador really wanted to win. He blitzed the qualifying course to start Saturday's 12 laps first but his advantage only lasted a couple of hundred metres as a missed gate let Portugal's Emmanuel Costa to slip through… and his chances of victory looked to have ended right there as his engine started to misfire and the lack of power meant he struggled so much in a few places that Costa had lapped him before the race had even really begun.
At that point it looked like being a Portuguese domination with 2015 series champion Filipe Guimareas in 2nd and Jorge Araujo close behind in Levi Shirley's old Euro Fighter. But nothing is ever certain in Ultra4 and before long both 2nd and 3rd places had ground to a halt with engine failures, possibly caused by the ever deepening water-splash. At the end of the day the still misfiring Montador was back up to 2nd with Jaap Betsema doing well is his D&G Fire Ant… but on the last lap of the day a broken front axle and a roll dropped him back down the order, promoting Portugal's Rudy Farrugia up to the remaining podium position. An amazing place for a first-timer!
Axel Burmann was the star of qualifying, although for the wrong reasons as he went nose first onto his roof over one of the big mounds, but he was doing well in the race until the bearings in his water pump went. The replacement didn't fit and as they didn't want to risk any engine damage they didn't start the next day. There's only one man who seems to have even less luck than Axel and that's Phillon Parpottas. This time, as bizzare as it sounds, his wheels didn't fit. The look on his face said it all as his mechanic took an angle-grinder to shimmy the rotors of his Spidertrax axles down a couple of millimetres.
5500km is a long way to drive a truck with race cars on it and it took the Azeri team a week to get to France… and their first race experience lasted just 0.1% of the distance they travelled. They came with a couple of very interesting machines, an 80 series Toyota Land Cruiser, the likes of which I have never seen before, and a huge Ultra4 car. A software issue meant that the big V8 was running on just 6 cylinders from before qualifying and although they thought it was fixed for the main race it only lasted a few hundred metres before starting to cough again. But it wasn't the motor that let them down and put them out before the end of Lap 1, it was the gearbox. Trying to fly across the ditch that others were content to drive through probably didn't help, but in their brief U4E experience they did manage to get the fastest time through King Shocks Shock Zone so didn't go home empty handed.
A few people made some comments on Facebook about the rain that fell on Sunday morning while we stared miserably out of the press cabin windows. The Biblical deluge saturated the track and flooded the ditches and there were rumours about postponing the start and then about cancelling it altogether. But Ultra4 cars are made to tackle anything and if all traction is lost co-drivers scramble out with hooks and cables to the strategically placed JCBs as all the cars are equipped with winches. The 12 laps were reduced to 8 but if Montador had any hopes of catching Costa and fighting for the win they were dashed at pretty much the first corner when it was evident that his BF Goodrich tyres were absolutely no match in the mud for Costa's Big Rocks. It wasn't just muddy though, the going was so serious it could have been the Croatia Trophy they were racing at instead of KoF.
Everyone struggled, blinded by mud splattered on windscreens and visors and slowed by misfires as racing V8s don't really like being drowned in water but one crew really stood out from the others for their determination with an amazingly gutsy drive. In Dan Roderick's Nissan Patrol, Emma Jones, the only girl to drive in Ultra4 Europe, towed Wrex Racing's Dan Elias around, who would go on to win the Everyman challenge with her assistance. But he wasn't the only one she helped. Coming to the finish she had Malta's Neville Cianter with a hydrauliced engine at the end of a rope behind her. This act of selflessness actually cost her 4th place as despite Cianter not getting back under his own power he was still classified 4th. Still, it did mean that she, very deservedly, won the Spirit of the Event award as well as taking a massive 5th overall.
The Everyman Challenge is for cars not built to the same unlimited regs as the big racers but they still had to do every obstacle, as well as follow in the deep ruts with much smaller tyres. If anyone read the whole of Dan's Facebook masterpiece on his weekend you'll see he won despite breaking a brake calliper… and because a brake calliper is all he broke. He was classified 4½ hours ahead of the 2nd placed crew.
Through the soggy carnage it was Holland's Jelle Jensen who kept on going to get up to an incredible 2nd for the day. Montador was slithering around helplessly, struggling just to get his buggy to turn never mind go forwards and so it looked like Jensen would be 2nd overall. But the local hero had done enough on Saturday to be able to take the runners-up spot. Luckily. The father and son team drove their first Ultra4 races last year with father Steffan behind the wheel. He took the decision to let his 20 year old son take over in the driving seat and they got on the podium in his first race. Beginner's luck, or the rise of a new star? We'll see in Italy at the end of June.
Taking the win in the most convincing way since Jim Marsden was the only finisher in Scotland a few years ago, and unheaded since about the third turn on the first lap, it was Portugal's Costa. He doesn't speak much English but, “Mud, no problem. Rocks, no problem. Number one!” sums up his race pretty well. For 2016 the King of France is from Portugal!
Now there is another race going on behind the scenes. There are many teams with a lot to fix for the next race in Italy. The Azeris for example will need half that time just getting the car back home. Their route back includes going through Iran!