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Thursday, December 2, 2021

Formula Offroad: up close with Iceland’s most extreme motorsport

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In the stramash of power and rocks, others struggle. Stricken cars – stuck, rolled, overheated or a wheel short – are forklifted away and frantically repaired.

The teams help each other out while the whole entourage – marshals, crowd and classic rock-blaring sound stack – shuffle along to the next track. Then comes the timed stage, in which the drivers launch themselves off the cliff, race around the valley floor and fly back up the hill.

I watch with Icelandic Motorsport Association president Tryggvi Thordarson, who literally wrote the rulebook. Even he’s shaking his head at the banzai tactics on show.

Alexander Steinarsson over-eggs it in his 91 car. He pitches over the crest and finds himself facing the ground, travelling 25m with the car on its nose, tipped just past vertical. Unbelievably, he lands it. Then the car snaps to the right, but Steinarsson corrects, transitioning neatly into a leftwards drift through the first gate. It’s the most jaw-dropping manoeuvre I’ve ever seen. The crowd goes wild. Árnason drives with typical style and skill, finishing with a delightful uphill drift, but the stage is abandoned because of timing issues. Even so, he hasn’t dropped a point all day – a new record – and leads Jonsson by a couple of clipped gates.

An evil technical stage begins day two, with many failing the sheer final ascent. One car sheds a driveshaft and there’s a 10-minute delay as marshals hunt for it in the sand.

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Árnason goes clear but nicks a gate on the second stage, fails to complete the third and suffers a puncture on the timed stage. Jonsson’s fortunes are also mixed, so it’s still tight as they enter the water course.

Here, Formula Offroad goes into proper lunatic mode, with a generous sprinkling of slapstick. Suited in plastic, competitors drive across – not through – a 200m-long stretch of river. Yes, these tonne-plus machines go full New Testament and drive on the water, skimming like a stone (a massive, roaring, four-wheel drive stone with a terrified human strapped in).

With his nitrous turned up in preparation, Árnason explains the technique: “You get lined up and just hit it – and hopefully you get over. If the revs drop, you sink. If the intake gets wet, your engine’s ruined.”

Not to mention, if you flip, you might drown…

A small island of gravel halfway up the river has some doubting its depth, but poor Atli Ásgeirsson discovers otherwise as he fluffs his entry and his car trickles into the water before completely disappearing below the surface. Deep enough, then.

Jonsson, however, nails his approach, pointing at the island and pinning the throttle. It’s as if the water has spontaneously frozen over. He scarpers across at 50mph, working the steering wheel to tame the flailing rear, the tyres roaring like jet engines. The gravel patch lends a moment of traction, flinging the car across the final stretch and back onto dry land. It’s a masterly job. With a clear run, though, Árnason can edge to victory.

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