There have been a few Russian teams in motorsport over the years, the most recent example in Formula 1 being the Marussia outfit, which rarely troubled the frontrunners. Both the F1 team and the sports car company that once owned a significant stake in it are now no more.
In endurance racing, the news from Russia is a lot happier: teams such as SMP have regularly been top contenders, both at places like Le Mans as well as at the Spa 24 Hours.
But there’s one area of motorsport where the Russians have simply crushed the opposition, year after year. And that is in arguably the biggest racing category – in terms of physical size – in the world. Step forward Kamaz: the most successful manufacturer in the awesome truck category of the Dakar.
These are incredible trucks that can quite literally go anywhere. Since the Dakar Rally moved to South America in 2009, the Russian squad has only failed to win it twice. In total (including the previous editions run in Africa) Kamaz has triumphed 16 times. Seven of those wins were claimed by former driver Vladimir Chagin: known as the ‘Tsar of the Dakar’ and now Kamaz team principal.
He takes the race very, very seriously, generally overseeing a factory entry of three trucks that each put out 980-horsepower, from a 12.5-litre diesel engine that’s capable of propelling the Russian leviathan to speeds in excess of 160kph. That’s actually around the same horsepower as a Formula 1 car.
It’s often said that these giants of the Dakar are built like tanks – and the Russians have certainly been training with military dedication, at a special camp in Kazakhstan designed to replicate all the obstacles they face in the desert.
“Train hard, fight easy: Alexander Suvorov – the last General of the Russian Empire – said that,” points out Chagin. “We try to follow his advice. What it means is that we make training as intensive as possible, choosing the longest special stages with maximum difficulty to see how the trucks will handle it, so that both the drivers and navigators get the maximum workload.”
Suvorov is reputed to have never lost a battle, remaining undefeated in 60 conflicts, and he even wrote a book about it: ‘The Science of Victory’. As a role model, he provides a lot to live up to. Yet with all those Dakar victories to its name, Kamaz – the largest truck manufacturer in Russia – seems already to be following in Suvorov’s footsteps.
Do not be fooled by the somewhat agricultural exterior: these Kamaz trucks are state-of-the-art racing machines, honed as carefully as their drivers over the course of the motorsport season. What’s even more remarkable is that these lumbering trucks are somehow capable of leaping effortlessly over sand dunes like turbocharged mountain goats. No doubt about it: Russia makes the most incredible competition machines that you will ever encounter.
That’s despite an all-in weight that’s something in the region of 9980 kilograms: around 15 Formula 1 cars (or more than 146 Lewis Hamiltons).
No wonder the Kamaz is such a beast, but in truth it’s actually been considerably developed and become much lighter in recent years, despite the classic HGV looks and 1000-litre fuel tank. The newest evolution of the Kamaz truck, catchily called the 43509, hides a plethora of new technology – such as a fully-automatic gearbox to cope with the estimated 10,000 gearshifts per day – which the team hopes will contribute towards victory number 17 when the Dakar heads to Saudi Arabia for the very first time. It’s a brand new challenge, but Kamaz has already conquered Africa and South America.
Despite the very best efforts of Toro Rosso’s Dany Kvyat – who met Chagin a few years back at a Red Bull event – the simple truth is that we’re unlikely to see a Russian winner in Sochi this weekend. Or a Russian car finishing first. But there’s every chance of seeing both in Riyadh next January.
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