“Very tough day.”
That’s how Andrew Houlihan (Speedcafe.com / Coca-Cola Racing / KTM) described Stage 2 of the 2023 Baja TT Dehesa Extremadura in Spain. And despite the rigours of one of the most challenging stages so far in the 2023 FIM Bajas World Cup, he finished the event 2nd in the Veterans class and 5th outright.
Houlihan has now extended his lead in the Veterans class and has a 37 point lead over second placed Mohamed Al Kaabi.
The result also moves him to 3rd overall in the World Championship.
Going into this event Andrew was cautious of the competition he would be facing. With over 200 combined car and bike entries, this event was the biggest Baja World Cup round ever held and attracted some of the world’s best Baja riders.
Pedro Bianchi Prata, who won the veterans class last year, and Portuguese rider David Megre were both expected to be very fast. A number of other riders preparing for the upcoming Morocco Desert Challenge later in April, some riders Andrew had raced against at Dakar and some very competitive European riders were also in the mix.
Megre eventually took top honours from Prata, with Sara Garcia third.
Houlihan also had a couple of other unknowns going into this event. He had contracted COVID during the second round of the championship in Qatar which impacted his preparation for the event, and he competed for the first time on a new KTM 450 Baja bike prepared in Greece by Aurora Rally Equipment.
“This bike is really something special and I can’t wait to ride it”, he said before leaving for Europe. “But it won’t even be started until I arrive in Spain because I’m carrying the custom suspension and ECU from Rex Fleiter at Fuel Torque in Brisbane on the plane with me!”
For the European rounds of the championship Andrew is back with Hernan Samaniego and the Nomadas Adventure Coca-Cola Racing team who will provide service on the bike.
Prologue (Stage 1)
After arriving in Spain late on Wednesday the final components were fitted to the bike ahead of the Prologue. He finished 2nd in class and 5th outright in the short Prologue that ran along the river close to centre of Badajoz.
“First time to ride the new bike, so I started a little conservative but the bike was flawless and felt great. Track was very fast and stony. Happy to get a solid result.”
Stage 2 – the first full day of competition – was divided into two parts. In the morning the motorcycles traversed a 130 km route through the towns of Higuera de Vargas, Zahínos, Oliva de la Frontera and Valencia del Mombuey while the cars tackled a 200km course.
“I was off at 7.05am in the cold darkness for a 60km liaison to the special stage. It was still very foggy when the stage started and I was really struggling, as the track was very very rough and tight. I caught up to Mohamed Al Balooshi after about 50km and we rode the 200km first special together like we were in a motocross race.”
In the afternoon, the courses were reversed.
“We were riding the car and buggy route from the morning and it was destroyed. Extremely dangerous everywhere with massive rocks hidden in the bull dust and deep holes. There were many destroyed cars and SSV’s along the route from the morning’s stage.”
“I caught Balooshi again but it was way too dangerous to try and overtake and in the mountain areas there were some huge drop offs over cliffs if you made a mistake.”
And by now both riders were also beginning to cramp very badly.
“The 2 special stages of just over 400km were punishing and with only a 7 minute allowance to stop and refuel and change the roadbook, it was very demanding”, Andrew said. “By the time I arrived back at the bivouac and having been on the bike for 12 hrs I could hardly move.”
Stage 3 – Final Day
The final day comprised 2 stages of 90km each and with the liaison the total distance was just 360km.
It was an easier day for the riders with a mix of fast flowing tracks and narrow winding paths through the forest, allowing the riders to reach speeds of 150km/h.
“Today was more enjoyable than yesterday”, he said. “Although I rode conservatively again, I still finished 2nd overall in the World Cup Vets class and 5th overall in the 450cc World Cup Class.”
The next round of the 2023 FIM Bajas World Cup is in Aragon in northern Spain from 21st – 23rd July.