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Northern Forest: Speed and fight on the ice at Russian Baja.

With three rounds of 86 km each (interrupted by one service point) the ‘real’ race of Baja Northern Forest in Russia has began on Saturday. The day started in freezing cold: at 9 o’clock local time (7 am in Central Europe) thermometers show -33 degree – the coldest temperature in this region in the past weeks. These conditions were problematic not only for some cars but also for their crew. ‘We were just freezing on hands and feet,’ – told us Mitsubishi driver Ruslan Misikov, “and we couldn’t clean a part of the windscreen either. But this was a problem for almost everybody here.’ It was especially difficult for the crews of old Lada Niva and UAZ cars: the numerous gaps on these vehicles let much more of the ice cold wind into the cockpit.

The track lead through a huge forest area with some ice-bound lakes. Especially in the morning provided the cold conditions a really beautiful scenery: the tall pines were clouded over by white, glittering steam and millions of snowflakes kept dropping from the trees at least as glitteringly.

For the foreign guests was the design of the track a bit strange: instead of tricky off-road sections the competitors drove on wide and icy forest tracks, most of which could have been suited also for classic rally cars. It had the disadvantage that in the end only great speed – and the courage of the drivers to drive this fast on the icy tracks – decided the top positions. Off-road driving techniques were less important and the lack of ‘challenging’ sections dashed all the hopes of those with a heavier or slower car for any good results.

‘It was fast like mad’ – recounts FIA Cross-Country Rally T2 World Cup winner Christian Lavieille, ‘at the wide sections I could drive at top speed. But, unfortunately, our (rented) Toyota is not the fastest and 165 km/h was the end. We had even problems with the rear breaks and our Terratrip failed as well. The track was really splendid, mostly iced, and sometimes very narrow. But I would have been happier with some more curves and more challenging terrain, then we would have had more chances.’

So the first stage became a race of high-speed vehicles which – like in Formula 1 – with loud engine sounds just ‘flied’ through the road, to the greatest joy of many fans alongside the track. In a close fight with last year’s winner Alexey Berkut (Mitsubishi Pajero) Nissan driver Boris Gadasin managed to grab the top position by the end of the day, followed by Latvian Janis Naglis (Mitsubishi Pajero). Best French driver was again Dominique Housieaux (Mitsubishi Pajero) on the 6th place with a 8:21 gap from the leader. But a little mistake almost cost him a huge time penalty: he smoked in a refuelling zone but later in front of the stewards he managed to prove that the place wasn’t marked as such a zone.

Christian Lavieille in a Toyota completely unknown for him clocked the seventh best time, Jacky Bourgin (Mitsubishi Pajero) ended in 20th position, Etienne Smulevici (Toyota Landcruiser) in 29th. While snow for Housieaux, Lavieille and Bourgin was a brand new experience, Smulevici drove already under such conditions 14 years ago. Even so he had difficulties with the all-white background. ‘In the first round we went on very slowly as the glass-smooth ice we were a bit unsure’ – told the Frenchman. ‘But as time went by, the pins of the tyres made the track more solid and safer, so in the third round we could push a bit more. I’m not accustomed to this kind of driving but it’s interesting.’

Although the stage ended already around midday, all the competitors seemed to be satisfied. ‘To tell you the truth, we had loads of problems with the heating and we were really happy to finally get to a warm place after the finish’ – smiled co-driver Alexey Kuzmich. ‘Although the navigation itself wasn’t too difficult, we fought a lot with snow dust and we hardly saw anything. This made it really difficult to fight for the top positions.’

As so many things in this Baja, snow dust is for ‘rookies’ a brand new experience. At high speed, the pins of the tyres rasped extremely small parts of snow and ice from the track which formed a big cloud behind the cars – just like in desert rallies. Without wind, this ‘snow cloud’ disappears as hardly as dust cloud – and as the rays of the sun makes it glittering, it makes the vision even worse.

The second and last stage of the Baja on Sunday won’t make much difference: the drivers are to compete on the same track in the opposing direction but only twice and without service time.

2007/02/25 | 09:23 CET | Editor: Northern Forest Liveteam

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