The King of Portugal has always been the stand-out event in the Ultra4 Europe series, and this year, with a massive entry of 51 cars spread over four classes it really came of age. The small town of Vimioso, used to a much quieter way of life welcomed crews from every corner of Europe for the fifth time and this year two came from America. But the U4E regulars had a few more teams to contend with than they usually do as Portugal is the spiritual home of extreme off-roading and there were some serious new machines ready to do battle.
The traditional prologue in an artificial arena just outside of town is only 3km long but always provides a show for the fans assembled on the far bank. Getting blinded by their own dust was only the least problem for the drivers; the digger-dug trenches, jumps and obstacle course of half buried tractor tyres were all there to separate the good from the greatest. Just as it was in Wales a couple of months ago it was Rob Butler who was by far the most spectacular. Taking the jumps flat out and being in the air at the point he needed to turn for the next corner made the crowd cry out in appreciation because they knew they'd just witnessed something very special.
Fellow Brit Jim Marsden of Gigglepin Racing didn't fare quite as well though, only managing a couple of corners before a belt slipped off… and that meant he would have a long day in the dust at the back of the field.
The first of the two days of racing was six times around a fast 36km course with deeply rutted tracks leading to tricky but flowing rock sections. Off the line the two heavyweights, U4E's own Rob Butler in his new single-seater IFS Euro Fighter with American main series driver Casey Currie in his Monster sponsored truck following 30 seconds later. The opening few hundred metres wound around an abandoned quarry to show off the cars to the spectators but it was at the first rock that Butler discovered that he had a small problem. The front locker wouldn't engage so with the new IFS Euro Fighter pointing almost straight up at the sky he struggled to get over 2 metre high boulder. Currie took another line and with all four wheels working got through and was out into the lead.
At the same place Spanish driver Jose Quintanero Galvez fared much worse though. He slipped off the ledge sideways and barrel-rolled down the side of the cliff. The crew were fine but the fuel pump and the radiator were damaged so they had to spend a couple of hours affecting repairs. No one gives up here though and he managed to continue.
Jim Marsden starting way down in 26th, at the back of the U4 class picked off a few people in the queue for the route through the Devil's Rock and tore off into the dust kicking up massive rooster trails all over the north Portugal valley… dust so thick that it meant overtaking was virtually impossible.
First of the big guns to falter was France's Nicolas Montador who is not having the best year. A repeat of the gearbox failure he suffered in Wales put him out after just a few kilometres.
Butler managed to slip by in to the lead when Currie took a wrong turn but lost it again when the same happened to him but had the lead again as they came back into the stadium to complete the first lap. Up to 3rd was Jorge Araujo in a first generation Euro Fighter. Driving hard but controlled he concentrated on reeling the laps off without damaging the car, because he knew his strong point was going to be the massive rock sections coming the next day. Another great drive was Bruno Nunes in his diesel powered buggy. Diesel power has a bad rap against the V8 beasts but this has a 3.0l twin turbo out of a BMW X5… the same as the Dakar MINIs use. And in fact this one was tuned by an X-Raid mechanic. The 800Nm of torque is enough to pull the car up the steepest rock sections .
With such a huge field, by far the biggest ever seen in Europe, team Nusu's Neville Ciantar was going to have a hard time getting his now customary 3rd place, but was once again running above expectation in 5th until an RCV CV joint snapped in the quarry. Fortunately he didn't have too far to run to get a spare but the repairs in full view of the beer drinking spectators took 45 minutes.
Axel Burmann was enjoying his first time out in a Rob Butler special. In his two seater IFS Euro Fighter he spent a few laps learning just how good the independent front suspension really is by hitting bigger and bigger rocks and watching how the front wheels just floated over them. He had a misfire that was only cured when the engine was pushed above 6000 revs but going a little bit too fast around a deeply rutted turn he tipped onto two wheels and a small tree pushed him over onto the roof. The recovery truck not having a working winch didn't help so with some knowledge of advanced trigonometry he and co-driver Tom Olieslagers hooked up a solution with their front winch… until the hot brake disc resting against a tree set it on fire. Far from being a religious experience the burning bush was extinguished in a panic but once back on its wheels the raging beast called Samantha carried on.
Marsden was always flat out, his klaxon horn ringing out over the landscape to warn slower drivers of his imminent desire to overtake, but his race was curtailed when a trailing arm snapped and he lost nearly a lap fixing it. Once done though he set out at maximum attack and was an absolute joy to watch, gunning the big V8 wherever there was a piece of track that resembled a straight and sliding with locked wheels into the rock sections.
Picking his way through the rocks in such a careful manner it seemed Filipe Guimaraes should have been much further down the leaderboard but the 2015 champion finished the day in 3rd… He was struggling with feeling sick though so even he was surprised with his position. But it came at the expense of Rob Butler. The front prop shaft died and although he managed to make it to the pits with just two wheel drive there was no way he was going to make a full lap so pulled in with only four of the six laps done.
Out in both a physical and time corrected lead was local driver Araujo who slipped by Currie while he was pitting. He could see the American in his mirrors but there was no way by and the local spectators gave a huge cheer when he came over the line… a lead of 50 seconds after nearly 5 hours and 216 kilometres.
The King of Portugal is famous for the Dinosaur Eggs and Saturday's course took full advantage of them. Towering granite boulders stacked on top of each other from some ancient volcanic activity are hard to clamber over on foot… but this is the racetrack. 51 teams started the race on Friday, a little over half made it to Saturday and first of them was Araujo in his Euro Fighter. But Currie was all over the back of him once they'd made it to the Eggs for the first time.
Things got more complicated on the second lap though. At the far end of the Egg section Araujo had to find a way around some beached backmarkers and ended up getting very stuck himself. His co-driver struggled to find a rock to hook the winch strap on and his five-minute lead evaporated in frustration. He got out just as Currie came around on another line. But passed them both had sneaked yesterday's 3rd place man Guimaraes. At the next hard rock section at the top of the hill another back marker had got stuck in the easy line… 'Easy' being a relative term here. Stuck on a couple of big rocks just at differential height Guimaraes struggled to get around, the front wheel being far higher than the level of the roof until his co-driver found something solid at a right angle to where the car was stuck.
Araujo was next through but then it all seemed to go wrong for Currie. The only viable winch point was tight to the side but after a few turns the cable on his little Warn winch bunched up and snapped it in two. He got back to the pits but considered the course impassible without winch and when a quick scan around the car park only revealed one on a Toyota that the owner didn't want to part with it seemed as though the race was over. But then the Toyota owner changed his mind… so half an hour of action saw it fitted to the race truck and with nearly a full lap lost, he was on his way again.
From 6th off the line Marsden's Off-Road Armoury car stayed together and he opened up a big lead on the road, but over an hour down from Friday a podium was all he could realistically hope for. But he has been racing long enough and has enough trophies in his office to note that you should never give up. Behind on the road the fight for the win looked to be in the hands of Araujo. With a 20 minute lead with three laps to go he looked to have everything in the bag and just needed to be careful not let anybody overtake him. But a large bang and a burst of free revs was the T-case disintegrating and with bits of cogs in the top of the bash plate he was going further. It was a very disappointing retirement for the popular Portuguese driver. His demise then left Guimaraes in the time-corrected lead. He'd been slow on Friday and had never faced such strong opposition so hadn't thought about being in the hunt… until he crossed the line with Currie just starting his last lap.
With a working car Marsden is a formidable driver and pushed all day to get back to the quarry in 1st after the six 24km long laps, front tyres stripped almost bare, with a Tyreball poking out over of the sidewall that had somehow lasted since the first lap. An amazing second home was the N-Power team in their diesel buggy, driver Nunes pulling up after the finish line with his dust covered face streaked with tears. With a 47 minute deficit from Friday though it was a very nervous wait for 2015 champion Guimaraes. as the minutes ticked by while Currie finished his last lap. Despite talking the championship he's never won a race and his home event would be the one he would most like to win… And he came very, very close. But with a few minutes in hand it was the Monster sponsored Currie who took the win, a gap of 7 1/2 minutes after 11 hours and 360 kilometres of hardcore racing.
The American was very impressed with everything he saw and experienced in Portugal and said that it was the second best U4 race in the world, behind only King of the Hammers itself. The rocks were even harder in his opinion as he's never rolled a car in his racing life… and did it three times in one day here.
The effort Marsden put in meant that he secured 3rd, some more shiny hardware to add to the ever growing collection. A superb 4th was the diesel powered buggy of Nunes and behind in 5th, but significantly ahead of his two closest championship rivals was Jelle Janssens who with a steady drive extended his lead before the final round in the UK in October. 6th went to the awesome and consistently giant-slaying Neville of the Maltese Nusu team.
All credit and attention went to the drivers who managed to compete and conquer the brutal race but there is one man who brought everything together. He might have stood with the specially made sword anointing the newest U4E winner Casey Currie but the real King of Portugal is event organiser Jose Rui Santos.
The next round is in England for the championship decider at King of Britain.