A Day Out for Petrol-heads
Photos: Ian Mitchell
except: Tatyana Andreeva
With all its wild country and forest roads, Russia should be ideal for car-rallying. Yet who knows anything about the Russian Rally Championship? Who has heard of Sergei Uspensky, the Subaru specialist who has won it thirteen times? And who is aware of Patrik Flodin, the unassuming young Swede who, in 2009, became the first-ever foreign driver to win the Championship?
Young Flodin is back for this year’s competition, driving for Uspensky’s Subaru team, and his main opponent is Evgeniy Novikov, in a Mitsubishi. The first event was to be held in deep snow, not far from Moscow, near the famous beauty-spot of Lake Seliger. As a former track-racer myself, I have always been curious about Russian motor sport, so when one of Team Uspensky’s sponsors, the Moscow-based OilTrade Company (who supply the Mobil lubricants the champion uses), invited me to join their party at the rally, I jumped at the chance. And a wonderful weekend it proved to be.
The first surprise was just how long it took to get to Lake Seliger, which does not look all that far away on most maps. We travelled out along the Riga highway, through Rzhev – we passed the gates of the tank factory – and it was over five hours of fast driving before the wall of forest on the right gave way to the sight of moonlight on an expanse of snow that was so flat and vast that we were obviously next to a lake.
We were accommodated in beautiful log cabins at the Ozernaya holiday complex, situated amidst tall pines on the edge of the lake. Vodka, a barbecue in the snow and a sauna set us up for an early start next morning as we had to drive further into the forest to the starting point of the rally, which was also where the circuit-driving element in the competition was to take place.
This was the only part of the rally course where spectators could watch as, unlike in Britain and western Europe, there are so few roads in rural Russia that there is no way of getting to the trackside except along the track itself. Given the presence of high-speed rally cars, being driven flat-out by young men of varying degrees of skill, it is probably best to avoid these roads on competition days.
Photo by Tatyana Andreeva
But this proved not to be a problem, for two reasons. The first was that there were hardly any spectators, a hundred at the maximum. Russians in general display such an extreme love of highspeed motoring, especially in the centre of Moscow, that I assumed they would flock in their thousands to watch souped-up rally cars barrelling through the forest and perhaps disappearing into the undergrowth accompanied by the sound of banging and crunching as they ricocheted off the unbending trees. But no, there were more mechanics and officials present than members of the public.
An even bigger surprise, given the way Russian women parade themselves in the city was the complete absence of what, in my Brands Hatch and Silverstone days, we used to call ‘pit lizards’. Perhaps the fact that it was –15C had something to do with that. The only two women I noticed who seemed to have come to watch the action were soon fast asleep inside a car with the heater running.
The second reason for restricting ourselves to the circuit stage of the rally was that our party needed time to set up the barbecue and the samovar and make the ukha, or fish soup. Naturally, given the cold conditions in which this was done, a certain amount of warming vodka had to be taken. One thing led to another and we were soon in the Uspensky enclosure where “glintvein” (the Russian equivalent of gluehwein) was being distributed along with brandy, sausage, cheese and more vodka - plus tea and coffee for those who felt the need of such beverages. Since the Uspensky enclosure offered the best vantage point for watching the circuit, this was an ideal arrangement.
All in all, I reflected over my fourth glass of Martell, this was motor sport as it should be. It fulfilled the old Brooklands rule of “the right crowd and no crowding”.
For me, though, the icing on the cake was provided (before the lunch interval got really going, thank goodness) by the Uspensky team who were running a fully competitive rally car round the circuit and inviting selected guests to sit in the navigator’s seat for a lap. I was lucky enough to be offered a spin.
I had to remove my coat and hat and put on a crash-helmet, and was then strapped in beside a man in flame-retardant overalls who slowly idled us round to the entrance to the circuit and then, as Mario Andretti used to say, he “dropped the hammer”.
The car leaped forward with astonishing speed, given that we were on ice. But with heavily studded tyres and four-wheel drive, perhaps this should not have been so surprising. What was truly amazing was that we were heading straight into the sky. The first hundred yards led up a steep slope, between walls of snow perhaps five feet high, so there was nothing ahead of us but grey clouds and a few passing birds. At every gearchange the tyres would bite into the ice and, with a wrenching jolt, we would be catapulted forward even faster.
Before we actually took off, my chauffeur started turning the wheel round to the right, which seemed unnecessary as the sky had neither track nor off-track areas. Then, as we switch-backed over top of the rise, I saw that the course twisted away down to the right. There was method in his madness. We were now heading, at still-increasing speed, towards a rapidly-approaching wall of snow and ice from which the only way out was by means of a sharp turn to the left. But any escape in that direction looked as if it would require a drastic reduction in speed, and braking did not seem to be on this gentleman’s agenda.
Almost without taking his foot from the throttle, my driver grabbed the iron bar that was next to the gear-stick (I had assumed it was a grab-hold for the navigator) and yanked it up, while spinning the wheel round to the left. We made a perfectly-executed hand-brake turn and were suddenly facing down towards the next corner.
Being at least fifty yards away, that obviously called for further savage acceleration. We crashed up through two further gear changes before shifting down one, and standing very briefly on the brake pedal for the first time. Before we were down to anything like a safe speed, the driver stomped on the gas pedal and swung the wheel round to get the car into the right attitude to broad-side round a long, gentle curve at a fascinatingly high speed. I had to keep reminding myself that we were on ice.
So it went on, up hill, down dale (usually with a bone-jarring crash as we hit the bumps at the bottom of any dip) and through a narrow bridge with concrete supports that would have destroyed the machine entirely if the driver had made even a slight misjudgement in his drift angle.
It was over too soon. I would have loved two laps, or five laps, and then to have had a go in the flame-retardant overalls myself. But, almost before I had a chance to stop observing and start analysing, we were idling back into the paddock, where I felt I had a valid excuse for yet another glass of vodka.