| 19/07/2011 | 0 Comments

The Silk Way Rally proudly proclaims itself to be part of the Dakar series, and with 105 cars taking the start took a step away from being a giant Volkswagen PR exercise to become an enthralling battle between old masters, ascending champions and young heroes through the heartlands of Russia.

Story by Robb Pritchard
Photos by Maria Gorshkova

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Some might say that taking manufactures out of a series kills the interest and sounds its death knoll, but the departure of the utterly dominant VW team the Silk Way Rally, still full of world-class drivers in stunning thoroughbred racing cars, added a strong element of unpredictability.
Whether is be about the weather or horses, it’s human nature to make predictions and before the ceremonial start in Red Square few would have bet against nine-time Dakar champion Stephane Peterhansel in his pea-green X-Raid Mini All4. If there was a form book though, it was thrown out of the window and trampled into the thick mud that the summer rains had turned the first stage into. Just a few kilometres from the start his Mini developed fuel feed problems and starved of power had to crawl through the 260kms, dropping a massive 2 hours 24” and instantly the event that he had such high hopes for became a 4000km test drive…
Against all odds, at the top of the timesheets was the previously unknown Alexander Zheludov, the two-time Russian Rally Champion taking good advantage of the route cut through the tall grass by the 16 cars in front of him. Heroes die young though and his glory was sadly short lived as mechanical woes cost 50 minutes on the very next stage… and suddenly Polish X-Raid BMW driver Krzysztof Holowczyc had a lead of nearly an hour over Christian Leville in his Nissan buggy.
The French ASO team run the Dakar and they have a well-warranted reputation for laying out routes that challenge man and machine to the absolute limit. The 2nd stage was a mammoth 484km long and if anyone doubted Peterhansel’s heart after the previous day’s disappointment he showed why he doesn’t have 9 Dakar titles to his name by accident. After overtaking the 67 cars that started ahead of him he still managed to take the stage win by 14′ 09 over his Polish X-Raid stablemate.
A few places behind the battle for outright victory was a driver who made a name for himself with his exploits in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge and more recently for winning his class in one of the world’s most extreme off-road competitions, the Ladoga Trophy, a certain Roman Briskindov (119). “6th place is obviously good, but our performance was really good enough for 4th… but on the longest stage of the rally we had a problem with the engine loosing oil… every 50km it took about a litre… We had to keep driving off the route to find supplies in the villages which took a lot of time.
After his ‘blue giant’ slaying exploits on last year’s event, Russian Boris Gadasin was again hoping for big things in 2011… but it was not to be and he made a rather low-key exit when his 7 litre Corvette engine lost oil pressure… The team still had their moment of glory though when Vladimir Vasiliev took the honours of winning the final stage in his G-Force Proto… in only his third ever rally-raid outing.
Russia perhaps doesn’t conjure up images of diverse landscapes, but because of its almost incomprehensibly vast size if you draw a 4000km line across it the terrain will surely change. The dense forests surrounding Moscow opened up into flooded, fallow fields, crossed seemingly endless grasslands, then gave way to scrub and semi-deserts wastelands where the route crossed a dune filled expanse that wouldn’t be out of place in the heart of Africa. Camps were made every night in places with names straight out of a fantasy book; Stavrapol, Astrakhan, Maikop.
Whereas the story of the rally took place on the first stage for the car category, it was the opposite way around for the trucks. After the opening stage no one was too surprised that three Kamaz’s were in the top three positions, although on the next test 2010 winner Eduard Nikolaev’s engine failed, from where new team leader and ‘mentor’, two-time Dakar winner Firdaus Kabirov took over at the helm of the leaderboard. Despite the best efforts of Kamaz young gun Ayrat Mardeev and the gutsy Ales Loprais in the bright yellow TATRA (who almost knocked himself out after crashing over so many hard landings) he held a comfortable hour’s lead. So far out in front was he that he had time to become the Good Samaritan of the rally by stopping to help fellow Russian Alexander Mironenko out of a tricky spot. The recovery cost 16 minutes, but a lead of 46′ over Loprais should surely have been enough for the final 16km stage… but the next day he was caught speeding and had an hour’s penalty added to his time… In a nasty twist it seems as though his good-hearted generosity cost him the win… although in another twist, there was rumour that Loprais was also speeding in the same place… yet escaped penalisation. In Russia, absolutely nothing can be taken for granted!
Back at the front of the car class the winner was more clear cut. Holowczyc didn’t just take his inherited lead for granted and set a couple of fastest stage times on his way to one of the biggest wins of his career, although he was quick to complement his vastly more experienced team-mate. “You can always learn a thing or two when you are following an expert. I compare his pace to ours in different sections and see where I am being too cautious and where I am going too fast. He is the best reference there is right now, is he not?” To Holowczyc’s credit with Peterhansel chasing him down for well over 2000 competitive kilometres, the Pole only gave away some 20 minutes… a performance to be proud of and one that should put a marker against his name for future events.
After seven gruelling and unforgiving days of racing through the land of the Tzars, a memorable and extremely tough event (the penultimate stage was a staggering 689km long) the champagne bottles were sprayed with weary arms. Sochi is perhaps a fitting place for Holowczyc’s Olympic performance to be celebrated, but as wonderful and as spectacular as this event is, it’s only considered a dress rehearsal by those who hunt rally-raid immortality across the ocean in Argentina and Chile. He maybe have the Silk Way to his name, but it’s now the Dakar Holowczyc is dreaming of…

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Category: SPORT

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