The pit-pat of leaves falling to the floor, the call of a nearby bird, the trickle of a small stream winding through the woods. With autumn turning the isthmus of Istria to oranges and golds the sparely populated region around Buzet is a wilderness lover's paradise, especially as the forests are only interrupted by the odd medieval village perched on a hill top. And because it's Croatia, the newest member of the EU, it's also a long way from the strict land use regulations that Western Europeans are familiar with. Things that would get you arrested and your vehicle impounded in neighbouring countries are perfectly legal here and local off-roader Gordon Krota has taken that to extremes to make his week long winch and navigation extravaganza something very special indeed. Welcome to the Wild Boar Valley Challenge.
Split over two classes a massive 53 cars took the start making it one of the biggest events of its kind in the Europe but as special as the numbers were it was the quality of machines that was the real talking point. A lot of the focus on stunning and insanely capable 4x4s in Europe has been (quite deservedly) on the Ultra4 cars but the extreme winch challenge scene has also blossomed with some absolutely gorgeous new creations seeing the light of day in the Croatian forests. Each would be worthy of a full feature but what better way to find out which is best by having them race head to head in what has to be considered one of the toughest events in the world.
Shaking off the cobwebs is what Gordon called the opening prologue where 20 cars blasted off together three wide heading for a small gap into the trees. Feet to the floor a chorus of the V8s roaring as they blasted towards the first corner… where just 40 metres from the start of a seven day event Romanian Andy Visoiu rolled, blocking half of the track. It was a lesson for everyone, speed doesn't really apply in the Wild Boar, the event is far too hard and technical for that. To do well here you need a driver who knows exactly where to put the wheels and where the tip-over point of his car is at every angle, guided by a co-driver who can operate both winches at once with an advanced knowledge of trigonometry... and a car that can basically take anything you can throw at.
With such a vast expanse to play Gordon spends a lot of time perfecting the roadbooks for both the classes, three months in fact, and the result is a week of massive 90km long roadbooks filled with winch sections that were almost impossible to walk, never mind drive. So first crews have to battle against the extreme unforgiving territory before even thinking about racing against each other.
For a couple of years Szilard Magyar's BMW 3-series bodied proto has been the crop of the high-tech builds with its unique fully independent suspension that somehow includes portal axles and four-wheel steering. Szilard as such a fan of BMW's the original dash is still inside, complete with walnut trim, although the instrument displays report on the condition of the 2.9 L Mercedes sprinter engine. Podiums in the huge Croatia trophy and plenty of events closer to his native Hungary the car is well due a big win. The car has had a couple of years of development and it was never unreliable to start with, but victory was going to be hard though as some very serious rival machines lined up with him at the start.
Both best looking and by far the best sounding car was Claudiu Pestean's buggy from Romania which is a pure work of art. Hours of pouring over Busted Knuckle YouTube videos of American Rock Bouncers inspired this 'freestyle' tube-frame chassis, although it's about three quarters scale compared to the American monsters so it can actually fit through the trees. Thanks to the 42 inch Boggers and extremely deep dish rims it is still pretty wide though. And it sounds almost as good as it looks. The 4.7 litre BMW V8 is out of X5 and with tiny metre-long front facing exhausts the forest echoed with awesomeness every time Claudiu put his foot down. Stand close and its the audio equivalent of having a new orifice ripped into a sensitive part of your body.
Massive suspension travel, all wheel steering and enough power to drag it up the steepest slopes it could cope with the hardest terrain but it did suffer a few teething troubles. A prolonged period stuck in a deep muddy ford let water enter the clutch, and an oil feed issue while car was on its side slowed them but it was a time chain problem that put them out on one stage that dropped them down the order. This is one amazingly cool car though.
As well as having a huge area to use the Buzet hills are also full of some very tough natural obstacles, most famous of which is called the Blue Sands, although it is actually a type of shale, or in heavy rain, thick sludge. The deep rain-worn channels running down the side of the hills are jagged fissures that are impossible to drive up and although it looks like the end of someone's bad day on the photos, dragging the car along on its side is actually the best technique. A few trees in the gulley and some large rocks in the way all hindered progress but the top guys all made it look easy. No normal 4x4 with a normal winch would ever make it up. And all of this was just 100 metres of that day's 90km road book!
Scoring slightly less on the awesomeness scale, but still nimble and extremely light was Hungarian Robert Hajdo in his Cobra Proto 2, the evolution of his Mercedes engined, portal axled Smart Car bodied car. Apparently for Hajdo the cat that won last year just isn't good enough any more! It perhaps doesn't look like quite as cool as its Mercedes-grilled predecessor (being raced by another Romanian team) but at just 1200kgs it's extremely light and was in the Top 3, locked just a few minutes behind Szilard and within striking distance of the lead... until the steering arm broke in the middle of the penultimate stage. His co-driver, with nothing but a GPS to guide him, had to find his way through the forest for 10km to get a spare from camp and then run all the way back for it...
Then there was Johann 'Hansy' Eibensteiner in his brand new mid-engined lightweight buggy. A 7 litre race tuned LS V8 sits hidden in the back giving out an awesome 546bhp, and at just 1400 kg the car moves. Seriously moves. 0-100 as fast as a Bugatti Veyron fast! His well-known Jeep-based car needed a lot of work to make it both reliable and competitive so instead of putting a lot of money into the rebuild he decided to start a new project from scratch and despite the build needing some 4000 parts to put together and things like the transfer box needing to be geared backwards (because of the rear engine configuration) he managed to build it from a blank sheet to the beauty in Buzet in just six weeks. That's pretty amazing. But because it's so new he insisted the event was just an extended test. His last Jeep-based buggy was more often seen on the back of a recovery truck than the podium so after winning the Night Stage finding himself in the lead came as a pleasant surprise. But the same happened the following days and as bewildered as he was he settled into a lasting lead… always expecting the car to blow up at any moment. But it didn't. And try as Szilard could Hansy couldn't be caught. After 350km of brutally tough stages it was a very welcome win for the popular Austrian.