ULTRA4 EUROPE 2016: KING OF Italy
The most extreme off-road racing series, ultra4 Europe round 2. italy
While the rain and mud at the King of France will be remembered with an involuntary shiver from the soggy footed survivors of the Maxxis Tyres King of Italy in the rolling hills of Varano de Melegari was blessed with gorgeous sunshine and the type of big fluffy clouds that photographers always love in their photos. Nimbo cumulus they might be, as meteorology was never my strong point.
In a correctly operating universe fans of the King of the Hammers should have mental images of unfeasibly large rocks that the cars are somehow able to drive over and big rooster trails of dust kicked up through the barren desert, but if you're an adult well adjusted to civil society, or at least familiar with a pictorial alas, you'll know mainland Europe doesn't look anything like that. We have mediaeval villages with castles and countryside vistas that inspire painters to be landscape artists which moonscape race track aficionados seem to really dislike and there was a bit of half-hearted grumbling about the entire race course being laid out in a stunning valley on the banks of a gorgeous wide river meandering through the ancient hills. A special person had to be appointed to deal with all the complaints from the press about how the backgrounds of their photos would be full of vineyards, grand hillside villas and the occasional mediaeval monastery.
Each lap was 11 km long and the crews had three hours to race in the morning, before an extended break, as the Italians like to have a bit of a rest around midday to go for a coffee and intense argument or two with their friends and neighbours. There were no complaints about that from the race car drivers though as they never turn down an opportunity to tinker (or furiously try to fix things, depending on the state of the mechanical components). A three-hour conclusion would determine who would be the King of Italy… and it probably wouldn't be an Italian...
For the last couple of years. Local driver Roberto Ciani has always been in the thick of the battle for the lead… at least for a lap or two, but this year his car was broken before the start and that left the two top spots to the top two teams from the King of France race to carry on where they left off. It was an invitation they took up quite seriously with Portugal's Emmanuel Costa getting around the short but appallingly picturesque qualifying course 14 seconds ahead of France's Nicolas Montador. That gave him pole position, which, starting two at a time, he duly converted into a first corner lead… which soon became advantage of a few minutes… And then a few more minutes. And those who perhaps fancied themselves as rivals found themselves being lapped until the car throwing up well-fed hamster size rocks ahead was Montador. That meant that Costa could slow down… and proceeded to drive the rest of the laps that if represented in dance form would involve him skipping around in a circle, poking his tongue out and waggling his fingers by his ears.
In fact he found that driving slowly was more of an issue as his suspension had to work harder when it was dropping into all the holes rather than when it was flying over them. Something to do with physics, I suppose. Montador had no answer and settled into 2nd in that particularly French style of capitulation while the others concentrated on splashing through the water, creating patterns of spray and rainbows the like not normally seen by legal means.
Last year's champion Filipe Guimaraes took the title without winning a race, something a philosopher might call loosing every battle but winning the war, but with his second DNF in as many races means a repeat seems about as likely as Costa not winning it. The faults seem to be working their way through his car, the engine went in France and it was the gearbox here.
In 6th was Jelle Janssens, driving licence fresh out of the laminater. At just 18 he showed up his peers with a 3rd in the mud at France and was happy with his Top 10 result here. Sounding like a hardcore Ultra4 driver he actually felt relieved when he got to the rocks as the fast sections in the riverbed was pounding his car half to death!
Belgium's Axel Burmann was happy to finish and without a hint of sarcasm his co-driver Tom Olieslagers can't actually remember that last time they managed to finish a race. Sometime in 2014. Maybe. They are happy with 5th. One spot ahead is the giant killer from last year, Maltese driver Neville Ciantar of Nusu Off-road. He took two podiums in 2015 and added another 4th here to his 4th in France. As well as repeating his position he didn't need to be towed across the finish line by a small girl this time, which should definitely be considered an improvement!
Jaap Betsema is one of the most popular drivers in Ultra4 Europe and is so friendly that he bounds up to random press guys and gives them bear hugs on the finish line. My T-shirt helped absorb some of the moisture from his dripping wet race suit. This is his first podium for his monstrous D&G Fire Ant since he winched his way through the Scottish bogs in King of the Glens two years ago.
And it's no exaggeration to say that 1st and 2nd were decided in the first few hundreds metres of the race on Saturday morning. Montador has a very capable and very reliable car that will soundly beat anything else on the continent… apart from Costa's car. Costa himself is well used to driving on courses that actually have big stones on them and his only issue for the whole day was trying not to drive too slow… and he reeled off the last laps with the sort of tedium normally reserved for factory night shift workers with about an hour or so to go. It was an absolute master class and everyone else has a long way to go to get anywhere near him.
Series director Dave Cole waved the chequered flag, glamour being exchanged for authority, and with four wins the King Shocks driver now has the most wins in Ultra4 Europe, one more than Levi Shirley.
The next round is in Costa's back yard in Vimioso, Portugal and seeing how easily Montador rolled over and let his belly be tickled here everyone will seriously need to up their A-game if they have any hope of challenging for anything more than runner's up spot.
The King of Italy is from Portugal.