It’s a long way to Várpalota

Road to Dakar_FIM-Baja-World-Cup-2023_Hungary_Andrew Houlihan

It’s over 15,000km from Andrew Houlihan’s home city of Albury to the township of Várpalota in western Hungary, the venue for the 5th round of the 2023 FIM Bajas World Cup.

To get there, Andrew and wife Katie endure a 3 hour train trip to Melbourne, 22 hours on aircraft and then a 90 km car trip from Budapest to Várpalota. Then there’s the bike preparation, admin, scrutineering, rider briefings and route planning.

And then Andrew can go racing!

It’s a demanding regime to be competing in the FIM World Cup of Bajas, but one that Andrew is relishing. And he’s proving that even in his 50’s he has what it takes to be competing at a world class level.

Going into the 5th round, Andrew has a solid lead in the Veterans Class and sits 3rd outright in the 450s.

But he’s hoping for a better run than he had at Baja Aragon just a couple of weeks ago. An incident on day 1 injured his shoulder and he drowned his bike in a water crossing on day 2.

“I need to push hard in Hungary to build on my lead in the Veterans Class”, he said. “Pedro Bianchi from Portugal is pushing very hard to close the gap and he is faster than me in the European conditions so I have to really be focused in Hungary and get some good points.”

The Hungarian Baja runs through the largest active military shooting range in Middle-Eastern Europe lying between the mountainous region of Bakony and Lake Balaton. Military helicopters and tanks are not an uncommon sight!

It is typically a shorter but intense and high-level race. The short Prologue occurs on Friday morning to determine the starting order, and then the competitors will complete two 110km special stages, followed by two 123km stages the next day.

The level of competition will be high. Slovakian Stefan Svitko, a 10 times Dakar competitor will be the rider to beat. And Houlihan will be trying to close the gap to current championship leader Mohammed Al Balooshi.

The journey to Hungary – as told by Andrew Houlihan

After the 6.30am train and 15 hour flight to Doha (Qatar) it was nice to have a shower and refresh ourselves at Doha Airport before boarding the next flight to Budapest.

There’s some logistics dramas with my race bike on my mind. After the last round the bike was taken back to Valencia and the plan was to get it on a truck to Hungary in time for this event. Unfortunately that didn’t go to plan, and the transporter now has to travel directly from Portugal to Hungary, so I won’t have my regular Aurora Baja bike.

Fortunately, I have my Nomadas Adv Coca-Cola Racing Team supporting me in Hungary and they will build one of the team bikes into a Baja bike for me with some custom suspension and an Aurora rally tower. It won’t be like my regular Baja race bike but it will be as close as possible, and I know they will go above and beyond to have that bike set up and ready.

My mechanic will be Nacho. He was my mechanic at the Dakar Rally and also with me 8 weeks ago at round 3 in Badajoz, and he is one of the few people I trust with my bike setup.

But it’s on my mind as we arrive in Budapest after travelling 32 hours and 6 minutes from Albury.

Honestly, I couldn’t handle all the travel logistics without the help of the best travel agent in the business – Brendon Mahoney from Savenio Travel in Albury. Brendon takes care of every trip for Katie and I, and makes sure I have my flights all connecting, hire cars available and accomodation sorted.

We arrived at Budapest airport at 7am in the morning. It was nice and easy getting the rental car and then we set off for the 90 minute drive to Székesfehérvár which is approximately 20 minutes from Várpalota. Székesfehérvár is the ninth largest city in Hungary with a population of around 100,000.

Katie and I were both amazed at how beautiful it is with very old buildings and churches much like in Budapest.

After a quick stop at a coffee shop and an early check in at our hotel, we drove to Várpalota to catch up with my Canadian mate Johnathon Finn for lunch. The food in Hungary is amazing, we have not stopped eating since we arrived.

Johny is currently leading the World Cup Juniors class and is one point behind me in 4th place in the 450cc World Cup. He’s based in Valencia and made the switch from road racing to rally last year. His father Shawn is based in Saudi Arabia and flys in to help at each rally. We always setup up in the bivouac together and help each other out as much as possible. It’s guaranteed to be a great time with these guys.

Várpalota is an old town. It was a mining town during the Socialist era, and the buildings remind me of the damaged war torn ones I saw in Mongolia a few years ago. You can sense the military presence, it’s got that funny vibe.

Our Baja Headquarters and office is at Thuri Castle in Várpalota. The Castle was built in the 13th century and is like something out of a Robin Hood movie. It has an “interesting” dungeon and torture chamber – there’s some wild machines in there!!

We relocate from Székesfehérvár to an Airbnb in Várpalota not far from Thuri Castle for the rally. 

We’re also joined in Várpalota by Esther Merino Garcia from Spain. We met Esther at the Hellas Rally back in 2018 but haven’t seen her since Dakar in 2022. Esther is currently sitting in 4th place in the Women’s World Cup class.

We’re here! One more night and it’s time to get down to the business of racing.

Road to Dakar_FIM-Baja-World-Cup-2023_Hungary_Andrew Houlihan