That’s a start…


The start of this year’s Russian Rally Championship was expected with different feelings. The changes initiated by the new management of the RAF Rally Committee were not to many people’s liking.

The start of the Russian Rally Championship of this year was expected with different feelings. Many drivers did not like the changes initiated by the new management of the RAF Cross Country Rally Committee. Prohibition on the performance of supercars of WRC category and the most “charged” A10 group, the termination of entry of the most popular sports car – VAZ-2108 – in “major league”, groups A and N, with the inclusion of “eight” in the general “heap” of the national category “P”. And the real injustice – to make “vazikas” compete in one category with two-liter foreign cars – was corrected before the new year. Separate sets of medals were still established. But not all crews managed to react to the situation. How else can one explain the fact that at the start of the first stage there were only … 37 crews! A record low number for the last years. And many of them simply preferred to start the season in February, at a completely new rally “Seliger”.

They miscalculated! According to experts, the Togliatti team of organizers has the highest potential in the country. Since last year a significant step forward was made. First of all, the route was laid out so that a significant part of it passed through a fairly narrow forest roads, and at the same time very high-speed. It requires not only high technique of piloting, but also courage. Secondly, a couple of special sections were added to the route, which were very convenient for spectators. Thirdly, the roads began to be prepared back in the fall. To the pluses of the organization you can add an enclosed park in a warm room, sensible technical commission and … general love for motorsports in the region.

Ралли "Жигули-2003" / 1
Ралли "Жигули-2003" / 2
Ралли "Жигули-2003" / 3

So, a decent line-up of four-wheel-drive vehicles is at the start, the main players in the new championship – the cars of the N4 series category. The new N2 (production cars with 1.6L engines) has also arrived – although the rally was not a Citroen Cup event, half a dozen newly minted owners of French cars decided to have a “battle test”. The other classes were represented by the local pilots, except that in P9 an interesting fight might happen between two factory pilots – Nikonenko and Shkolny driving a VAZ-2112-Super-1600. But Nikonenko first got stuck in a snowdrift for 11 minutes, and soon got off because of problems with the gearbox. No one could even dream of getting closer to Shkolniy here.

Everything came down to a battle in N4. At least four drivers could claim the victory. Sergey Uspensky, Stanislav Gryazin (team leader of returning “Lukoil” rally), Andrey Zhigunov and Maxim Novikov, winner of Russia Cup-2001. Chances of the latter, however, were considered lower – after all, he is a representative of business class, although referring to his hobby more than seriously.

Maxim confirmed this seriousness from the first meters – it’s no accident that at the Estonian autumn rally Saaremaa Novikov caused a sensation, almost coming second in class. Hard workouts gave a result – his driving skills are growing. In addition, Novikov had a frisky “horse” under his belt – a Lancer prepared by the German firm Getmo.

Uspensky complained about engine tuning, Gryazin left the track and lost almost half an hour. Zhigunov fought to the last. Until the moment when Novikov failed to “put the pedal down” properly on 25 kilometers of special section “Zhigulevskoye Sea” and brought his rivals… half a minute at once. The race could be regarded as finished. If only…

If someone in Europe still did not think that bears roam the streets of Russia. Even at the pre-start technical inspection a number of questions about the Novikov’s car arose, but taking into account the exotic origins of technology, it was allowed “under protest. Any competitor could have protested, and Novikov could have been withdrawn.

That did not happen, but the scandal could not be avoided. It was enough to remove the valve cover from the engine of the fearsome German Lancer. As one sports journalist has noticed, “it seems, Germans thought, we still measured the volume of the engine with a tailor’s meter. In the same spirit expressed Uspensky: “We have not only calipers, but also micrometers!

In general, when the first measurement already showed inconsistency of cam profile of camshafts, the German owner of the company gave up: “No need to dissect further! The result of Novikov’s situation was annulled, and the victory went to Zhigunov. There was no one willing to “throw a stone” at the unsuccessful winner – there was no doubt that Novikov, who did not particularly go into technical details, was not aware of the Germans’ “trickery”. So the statement about it, disseminated by Novikov’s E-Art team the next day, and (still!) an apology for the scandal was more of a formality. Everybody could see that Maxim rode excellent – beautifully, quickly and confidently.

But not less discouraging was the final in Citroen’s N2. But at least here on the track! Due to lack of experience, most of the drivers hit the nooks and crannies, and the advantage of Andrey Buneev from St. Petersburg over the only(!) remaining opponent before the last special stage was almost 7 minutes. As the saying goes, you may drive in reverse. And Buneev… he also got into a snowdrift! He could continue to fight, but he failed to win back the lost 10 minutes.

There is an informal notion in autosport – silly season when everything goes wrong. Unfortunate for the teams and pilots, but sometimes very funny for the audience. We can only hope that the remaining five stages will be rich not in absurdities, but in a beautiful struggle.

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