The Graf Adventure Trophy 2017
After a good year on the race circuit this year, the Gigglepin Team bagged another 1st at the Graf adventure series in Portugal recently. One of Portugal’s toughest off road races and Jim Marsden is back in 2017 to battle for the retention of his crown from the 2016 series.
Here is their story, by Jim Marsden.
Image credits; EMSLOOKS Photography
The sun shines brightly over the grape vines as we drive through the vineyard on our way to Renato’s workshop. The sky is clear and the temperature is nearing 30 degrees. The team is in high spirits after a superb come back at KOP 2017, but all know that the hard work is only just about to start and this racer needs to be ready in only two days! Renato is a superb host and allows us open doors to his awesome workshops while our good friend Helder da Rocha allows us to stay at his house and to enjoy his famous hospitality. Our team refreshed and the racer rebuilt, we head to Lamego early on Wednesday morning.
Lamego is a beautiful town sat on the banks of the River Douro and there is hardly a flat piece of road with hills round every corner. But there is no time to relax as we unload the racer, have a late lunch before heading straight into the first drivers briefing.
All racers are lined up in the large hall and it’s an impressive display of weaponry with the best crews from across Portugal and Spain lining up to try to claim the title we have held for 12 months.
At 7.15pm we leave in convoy, heading up one of the many mountains to a large military camp for the opening stages of Graf 2017. We are allowed to walk the stage and it’s mental! Including at the halfway mark an area where the co-driver has to clamber under a large barbed wire obstacle before the car can race on. Crazy, but loads of fun. We charge off the line, our LSX motor singing its song but I make a mistake on a vertical climb and drop on to the front axle still under load. The Maxxis tyres bite hard and the mighty Spidertrax shaft can take no more. This then destroys the front locker and we lose front wheel drive. It’s a real baptism of fire for our new co driver James Ayre. But he rocks on like a pro as the Gigglepin GP80 winch works hard to drag us over huge rocks and vertical climbs. James really impresses with the ground anchor and we break free of the stage knowing our event could be over before its even started! After leaving the stage it’s all hands on deck to get the racer repaired. We work hard to make the repairs and are able to start the final night stage just before midnight, taking joint fastest time! Then it’s back to Parc-ferme for a check over before heading to bed at around 3am.
The next morning we head out of town and this is where the event really starts. We are in seventh place after our breakage the night before and now have ten stages on the hills above the town with big rocks, trees and a load of dust. As we travel from stage to stage we keep hearing that Helder, Rui, Luis-Jorge and Bruno are really flying. But I’m not concerned, the racer feels great and James is working like a pro. The day over we return to town to check over and service the vehicle, time to sample some Portuguese hospitality before heading for an early night to be ready for the next day’s stages.
The following morning we head out of town and once again the day starts with an awesome 2km super stage. I love these stages and I open up the throttle, our Fox suspension soaking up the mountain rocks as we fly through the finish. Then its 9 further stages, this time based in a forest area with plenty of big rocks to catch out the unwary. Section 23 was a world of pain with many cars taking DNF’s and with Manual and Nuno Sotomayor tearing off an entire hub trying to achieve the stage. James is looking worried as we wait “Can it be as bad as they say?” he asks as the dust billows past. “It’s probably going to be even worse than that!” I joke as we wait for the marshals to clear the stage. We are not allowed to see the stages and have to wait for the car in front to complete the course. We can hear engines and winches screaming, but still the clock ticks by. Nearly a full twenty minutes after they started, the team before us limp out of the stage looking more defeated than triumphant! Then it’s our turn. The engine howls as we charge through the trees taking a sharp left with our own dust enveloping us. As it clears a huge pile of sharp jagged rocks comes into view with cones on the top. It’s a nightmare with three huge peaks to navigate over.
We both dive from the car as James’ lack of experience leaves him wondering what to do. But he learns fast and within seconds we have a plan and I’m back in the driver’s seat. James runs the winch rope to a big tree and our Gigglepin winch takes the strain as we heave our racer over the rocks. We can’t believe she clears them and we get stowed away before turning round and crossing them again to make for the stage exit. James is now in the zone and running like the wind. Once again our Winch takes the load and we winch up and over as the jagged points try to tear lumps from our arms and belly plates. As we break free James is already stowing the kit and climbing back on board, the engine responds to my touch and we arrive at the finish in a huge cumulous cloud of bull dust.
We finish the rest of stages strongly, although we had a scare when James slipped under the back wheels which so nearly ended in a nasty accident.
Back at Parc-ferme we only had a couple of hours to get the car serviced and ready for the night stages. We have been promised they would be tough and I am hesitant as I know we will have to open the stage. At 9 pm we travel in convoy through the town to an area surrounded by houses where some amazing stages have been excavated. We are not allowed to walk them and wait in trepidation. We are first of the line and I have already briefed James, once again he works like a seasoned solider and we clear the rock hard course in good time, but we know now the course is set and that others would soon destroy our time. We waited late into the morning for the second stage but sadly it was cancelled after a swarm of bees was disturbed and several competitors stung. The first time I have known bees win a special stage!
The final cars left the night stages nearing 4am and at 10am we were lined up ready for the next day’s specials stages. This is not an event for those that like sleeping!
The convoy made its way up the largest mountain, climbing switch back bend after switch back bend. In the town it had been warm in the morning sun, but the higher we got the colder it was and we cursed leaving our hoodies in the support van. The views across Portugal are amazing and the terrain stretches out forever in all directions. We are still shivering when we arrive at the next 10 stages and they are a world apart from the previous days. Not a tree in sight and everywhere we look there are huge rocks and vicious drops.
Once again we are not allowed to walk the stages and each of the top running teams are allocated a starting stage. We arrive at stage 30 and its intimidating entry does nothing to steady the nerves.
There are rumours that we are leading, but it changes nothing. We need to focus and take out every stage as safely as possible, in the fastest time possible. Not an easy task.
The sections fly by until we come to one with a huge gatekeeper and I stutter trying to drive it. Then James struggles to find a winch point, all the time the clock is ticking by….
“James stow the winch, I’m going to try to drive it” I call down the intercom. I think I can see a line to the right but the tape is blowing across the track. “Pull that tape straight James, don’t bend it and be ready to get the hell out of there if this goes wrong!” James is a brave sole and does not hesitate, the engine roars and the Maxxis tyre bite the dry dusty rocks, and we make the climb without breaking the tape and clear the stage. It’s a bad time but at least it wasn’t a dreaded DNF. “You have a 5 minute penalty for touching the tape” says the marshal. “You have to be joking? We asked at briefing and were told we could do as we please with the tape if we don’t break it” but the marshal is having none of it and the penalty stands. Sometimes you just have to take it on the chin.
We know that Helder is having a great day on the rocks and is winning stages, but Rui is faltering as is Luis-Jorge who had a nasty roll in section 35. It’s all looking good as we come to our final stage and it’s the feared section 35. “James let’s not take a chance, we will centre winch round the peak if we have to” I say as we wait for the marshal to start the clock. It’s a tough stage and we have to work our way round a mountainous peak with big rocks and nasty descents. The car feels amazing and it tackles everything in its path, cruising over the rocks with ease. Not at one moment did we want or need a winch and we crossed the line taking the fastest time of the day, halving those who had gone before us. But would it be enough to retain our title?
Back in Lamego and once again we are surprised when all the racers are directed into the large hall and the cars parked around the tables that have been set up for this evenings prize giving and banquet. What an atmosphere as we arrive back at the hall showered and changed. The party is in full swing with tables full of food and racers everywhere telling stories of their own challenges. At around 11.30pm-you don’t want to rush these things- Filipe Santos leads the event with a eulogy for two friends lost during the previous year. It’s a reminder that life is short and precious and we must live it to the full. Then the music starts once again and the ceremony gets in full swing with every team receiving a trophy for completing the event. Then it’s the serious business of the top three places overall. Rui Querido and Ivo Mendes are third overall and our great friend Helder da Rocha and his co-driver Flavio Gomes are second, also winning the 37” class. An amazing achievement! But then we are called to the stage, we have won the 44” class and the event overall by a staggering 100 point margin. It’s an amazing feeling and the end of our Portuguese adventure. We owe a huge “Thank You” to our Team and friends who have been incredible working throughout the night when required and always with a smile. To our sponsors for their continued support and help with all things racing and to our families and fans that always keep us smiling no matter what happens.
Next it’s King of Britain in the wilds of Lincolnshire. Can we hold on to our 2016 title? Can we fight our way to the top of the Ultra Europe rankings at this final event of the season? It’s going to be epic whatever happens.
Image credits; Edgar Santos