Tag Archive for: FIM Baja World Cup

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

“I haven’t pushed that hard since I used to race motocross 5 years ago, but those races usually only went for 15 minutes not 6 hours.”

That was Andrew Houlihan’s comment after the final day of a challenging 5th round of the 2023 FIM Baja World Cup in Hungary.

The SPEEDCAFE supported rider has maintained his convincing lead in the Veterans Class and also still sits 3rd in the 450 class, now just 18 points behind championship leader Mohammed Al Balooshi.

The Hungarian Baja is typically a shorter but very intense event, with a short Prologue on Friday morning followed by two 110km special stages, and two 123km stages on the final day.

Houlihan was forced to compete on a near stock standard KTM 450 after his regular KTM Aurora Rally Baja bike couldn’t be transported from Valencia in time.

The bike was shipped there after the last round in Aragon, and plans to have it trucked to Hungary for this event went astray. Custom suspension parts from Sweden that were going to be fitted to the replacement bike also didn’t get to Hungary in time.

In the lead up to the event, it played on Andrew’s mind. “Riding this bike will be a challenge as I am so used to the specific set up and suspension on my Aurora Rally Baja bike”, he said.

“As I’m on a completely different bike I decided to pay the 200 Euro to ride the 7km test / shakedown course. 7km on this bike is nothing like 7km on my Baja race bike. The handling and power of this bike is something that I will have to be very wary of in the race.”

The terrain is a major factor in this rally as well. The event is held in the largest active military shooting range in Middle-Eastern Europe, situated between the mountainous region of Bakony and Lake Balaton.

“You can see the destruction caused from the military and the firing ranges so I might need to rethink my strategy for this race.” Houlihan had injured his shoulder in the last round in Aragon just 3 weeks ago.

The terrain took its toll, with the extreme vibration breaking the mount point for Andrew’s Aurora rally tower on the first day. He rode the final 15km of that stage one handed while he held the tower in place. It had to be secured with cable ties for the rest of the rally.

The final day was, in his words, “crazy hard”. The bikes rode the previous day’s course in reverse with a few additional routes over tracks that had been destroyed by cars and trucks the day before. 

“I took some big risks today that I would usually not take and rode at close to my limit in some sections.”

“It was extremely hot for the last 100km of the day and the fatigue set in. I had a very close call with a deer at about 130km/h on one of the fast forest sections.”

“With such a stacked world class field in the 450cc World Cup Class it was always going to be a hard race but I am so happy to come away without any major injuries and with great results, 2nd overall in the vets World Cup Class and 7th overall in the 450cc World Cup Class.”

Andrew Houlihan now carries a 31 point lead in the Veterans Class going into the next round on Portugal on the 6th October. 

RTD_FIM-Baja-World-Cup-2023_Hungary_Andrew Houlihan

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

Andrew Houlihan has retained his lead in the Veterans class and 3rd place overall in the 2023 FIM Baja World Cup despite a tough and challenging run in the 2023 Baja Aragón.

The event was held over 2 days – 21st and 22nd July – rather than the usual 3 because of elections in Spain. Shortening the event forced organisers to run 2 special stages on the final day.

Andrew Houlihan had travelled over 17,000 km to compete in the event, run in the mountainous region of Teruel Spain. He had left the relative cold winter weather in Australia to be greeted with 45° heat.

With 513km of special stages over just 2 days, the extreme heat and thick dusty conditions, riders found the event particularly challenging.

“Not the best race for me, a bad prologue had me start back in the field and it was a real struggle in the thick dust and extreme heat”, he said after the event.

“I just didn’t feel comfortable on the bike in these conditions.”

Consistency through the 3 special stages still allowed Houlihan to gain some good points with a 4th place in the vets class and 13th in the 450cc World Cup class.

The event attracted one of the biggest fields in Aragon history, including Dakar competitors Tosha Schareina (Honda CRF 450) and Lorenzo Santolino (Serco 450 SEF) who finished 1st and second respectively.

Mohammed Al-Balooshi, who went into the event as the championship leader, feels more at home in the desert environment of Dubai and struggled in the dry and dusty conditions. He finished 10th.

Tyre wear also proved to be a major factor. Excessive wear after the opening day’s 180km of competition persuaded members of the FIM jury to grant riders authorisation to change tyres between the two special sections on Saturday.

Andrew Houlihan was joined in Aragon by sponsor Adrian Channing from Channings Bottle Yard.

“A big thanks to Adrian Channing for his support and assistance here in Teruel. It’s been a great trip having him with me.”

Andrew now heads home to Albury for a week before heading to Hungary for the next round of the championship from the 10th to 12th August.

After a three month break between events, riders competing in the FIM Bajas World Cup are heading to Spain for the legendary Baja Aragón.

Whilst it’s normally a 3 day event, organisers of Baja Spain Aragón have been forced to squeeze the event into two days – Friday, July 21st and Saturday July 22nd – to account for the general election being held in Spain on Sunday.

Andrew Houlihan will travel over 17,000km to be in Teruel to compete on his Speedcafe sponsored KTM 450. He will spend a total of 23 hours on 2 flights to reach Barcelona, and then drive the final 5 hours in a rental car.

He is also shifting from the cold of winter in his home city of Albury to extreme 40°C heat in Spain. Combine that with the traditionally dry and dusty conditions competitors encounter at Baja Aragón, and Andrew is expecting it to be a tough event.

“I have raced in Spain a few times before, but this will be my first time at Baja Aragon. I expect this to be the toughest round of the FIM Baja World Cup”.

Andrew will be competing against some of the top riders he has raced behind at Dakar, like Tosha Schareina & Lorenzo Santolino.

“I think these guys will be very hard to beat in Spain! For Baja Aragon I just need to get some good points in the FIM World Cup Classes to retain my overall lead in the Veterans class and 3rd place overall in the 450cc World Cup Class.”

Dubai-based rider Mohammed Al-Balooshi goes into this round with a 12 point lead in the championship, but admits he feels more comfortable racing in the desert environment of Dubai than the dry and dusty conditions of Spain.

Canadian rider Jonathan Finn, who is second in the overall classification and leader of the Junior class, will also be a serious contender.

Andrew’s good friend Barry Howe will once again be sitting this event out as he continues to recover from an incident in round 2 at Qatar where he broke his femur.

“I was looking forward to racing against my good friend Barry Howe. I hope he is back on the bike and racing again soon.”

Andrew is once again on the KTM 450cc Baja bike built by Aurora Rally Equipment in Greece, and Nomadas Adv Racing have prepared the bike and transported it to Teruel.

“I have some great sponsors who are supporting me in this years Baja World Cup, including one of the world largest motorsports news media sites – Speedcafe.com.

“Another of my major sponsors, Adrian Channing from Channings Bottle Yard in Australia will be with me for Baja Aragon.”

“Channo” (Adrian) has many years of rally racing experience in Australia and at one stage was one of Australia’s fastest rally competitors.

“I have been good friends with Adrian & his wife Ange for a few years and having Channo with me in Spain will provide me with much needed support and assistance.”

“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

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.

Andrew Houlihan will debut an all new KTM 450 Baja bike in this week’s 3rd round of the 2023 FIM Baja World Cup in Spain.

The custom built bike has been prepared by Dimitri Lassithiotakis and the team at Aurora Rally Equipment in Greece.

Starting with a KTM 450EXC supplied by KTM Greece, Aurora Rally Equipment have fitted some of their latest equipment to the bike, including a newly designed SuperLight navigation tower.

Since their launch some 10 years ago, Aurora have been innovators in the design and construction of  specialist equipment for rally bikes. The company has gone to great lengths to find the best combination of materials that provide strength while reducing weight, and also allow some flexibility to absorb the shocks that rally bikes experience and protect the essential navigation gear.

The new SuperLight tower fitted to Andrew’s KTM 450 Baja bike is reportedly lighter, lower and more robust than any of the company’s previous designs, and it also helps to improve the safety of the rider in the event of a crash.

The bike is also fitted with a larger fuel tank than the standard 450EXC and some other equipment specifically designed by Aurora for the tough environment of a Baja rally.

“Dimitri and Aurora Rally Equipment have worked their butts off on this bike and have had many late nights getting it ready to race. This bike is really something special and I can’t wait to ride it”, Andrew says.

But the bike won’t even be started until Andrew arrives in Spain because he will be carrying the final components in the build.

“I have custom suspension and a custom ECU from Rex Fleiter at Fuel Torque in Brisbane which I will be taking over on the plane with me, and then I think we will have as close as you can get to the perfect Baja Bike !!!”

Andrew will ride the newly built KTM 450 Baja in the remaining 6 rounds of the championship.

He will also be back with Hernan Samaniego and the Nomadas Adventure Coca-Cola Racing team who will provide service for the European rounds of the championship.

“I’ve spent the past 5 years including the Africa Eco race and two Dakar rallies with these guys and to have their support again for the remaining Baja World Cup rounds is amazing.”

The Spanish round of the championship, the Baja TT Dehesa Extremadura 2023, will be held from April 14 to 16 in different locations in the province of Badajoz and in Portuguese territory.

 

Andrew Houlihan has won the Vets class and finished 4th outright in the Qatar International Baja.

The final stage of the event, which is the second round of the FIM Bajas World Cup 2023, covered a total of 224.96km split into four sections of 33.73km, 28.51km, 43.23km and 113.20km and separated by three non-competitive transfer zones.

Andrew went into the final day with a 6 minute lead in the Vets class and 7th overall.

His closest competition in this round, Cesare Zacchetti, won today’s stage by a margin of 3 minutes 30 seconds but that simply wasn’t enough to claw back the deficit.

Zacchetti has a long list of successes and several Dakar Rallies to his name, and was recognised as one of the strongest competitors in this round.

Britain’s Barry Howe, who was also expected to do well and challenge Andrew Houlihan for the class win, failed to finish today’s stage.

With today’s class win, Andrew has consolidated his championship lead in the Vets class but his outstanding result almost landed him an overall podium finish as well.

Dutch female racer Mirjam Pol took 3rd place overall behind Konrad Dabrowski and Robert Wallace, edging Houlihan out by a margin of just 66.4 seconds!

But the 4th place overall is Andrew’s best ever finish since his debut on the international rally scene in 2018.

“What an unbelievable race with everything – sand, rocks, dunes and some very tough competition”, he said after today’s stage.

“I’m very happy to come away with another win in the Veterans World Cup and 4th place overall.”

The tough navigation and demanding terrain took its toll on many riders, but Andrew says his success in this event, especially with the depth of talent that was present, has given him confidence heading into the remaining events of the year.

The next round is in Spain from the 14th to 16th April where Andrew is expected to debut the new KTM Baja bike being prepared by Aurora Rally Equipment in Athens.

17/03/2023 8:59pm, Qatar

The past few days have been quite busy with the usual pre-race checks and then the start of racing.

Qatar Baja is the biggest event on the calendar with record entries and some of the fastest Baja Rally riders in the world.

The vets class at Qatar is very strong with quite a few fast Dakar riders. Italian, Cessar Zacchetti, is the one to beat. He has heaps of experience and a few Dakars under his belt.

The Prologue was over a fast track with a lot of very rocky sections. Despite a couple of small mistakes I finished in 21st position overall and 2nd in the vets class. I was very happy with that and it put me in a good position for the start of Stage 1.

My start time was 8:04am, and as our hotel is 30 minutes from the bivouac Katie and I were up early for a nice breakfast.

The liaison section to the start of the stage was only 90km, and by the time I got to the start it was already very warm and windy.

We are given our roadbooks 15 minutes before our start time and with the heavy winds it was quite a challenge get it in to holder. There were a few roadbooks torn to pieces from the wind!

The start of the stage was sandy but with big nasty rocks underneath, and it was challenging trying to avoid a big accident. I started off very conservatively and concentrated on my navigation.

The navigation was by far the hardest I have done in my 5 years of rally racing.

And trying to follow another rider’s tracks was impossible as the wind would blow the sand away immediately, and when there wasn’t sand it was rocky – f*@#$%# rocky.

By the first fuel stop I was feeling very good and had caught and passed many bikes. But just after leaving the fuel stop I had a cable on my trip meter come loose and I lost the ability to adjust my distances.

This becomes a big problem, because if you miss a corner or turn by only a few metres it keeps accumulating.

I managed to catch a small group of riders and we all rode together to the end of the stage. We missed a turn and because of my trip meter issues l lost 20 minutes finding the correct track again.

Despite losing a lot of time I was one of the few riders to make every waypoint and not get any penalties. I finished the stage in 5th place, which puts me in 7th place overall and in the lead of the Vets class going in to tomorrow’s final stage. I have a 7 minute gap over second placed Ola Floene and just over 8 minutes to Cessar Zacchetti in third.

Overall I’ve had a great day. Many riders got badly lost and missed waypoints, and there were a couple of bad crashes which didn’t surprise me considering how rocky and unforgiving the terrain was.

16/03/2023 8:25pm, Qatar

SPEEDCAFE.com sponsored rider Andrew Houlihan is in Qatar to compete in the 2023 Qatar International Baja, the second round of the 2023 FIM Bajas World Cup.

The Qatar International Baja is the largest event ever hosted by the Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation, with 51 motorcycles and four quads participating.

Fourteen riders are eligible to score points in the FIM Veterans category for over 45s, with Andrew leading the class after his ninth-place finish in Saudi Arabia. However, competition will be intense in the Qatar deserts.

Andrew is facing a six-strong Italian challenge from Cesare Zacchetti, Francesco Catanese, Fabrizio Macchitella, Alberto Bertoldi, Elio Aglioni, and Enrico Tanganelli, as well as from Britain’s Barry Howe and Norway’s Ola Floene.

Andrew and Barry have a growing friendship and rivalry, which will undoubtedly add to the excitement of this competition.

Howe came third in the Vets class last year and is wanting to step it up and claim the title, while Houlihan made his intentions – and capabilities – very clear with his strong result in round 1.

Andrew will be riding the Husqvarna he raced in the first round last month, but plans to debut his newly built KTM Baja bike at round 3 in Spain next month.

The KTM450 Baja bike has been prepared by Aurora Rally Equipment in Athens and will be freighted directly to Spain later this month. And new will not see or ride the new bike until the third round starting on April 14.

With the short Prologue completed Andrew said he was happy with the bike and his performance, despite making a couple of minor errors on some of the tight corners.

“The track was very rocky and mostly marked so there was almost zero navigation for the prologue.”

His time in the Prologue earned him 3rd place in the vets class and 21st overall, and he will now start Stage 1 from 21st position.

“Tomorrow’s stage will be a very hot one, and I’m very happy with my starting position as the calibre of riders at this round is extremely high.”

12/03/2023 10:05am, Melbourne

For the first time in 5 years we only have a short 14 hour flight to Doha. Normally I arrive in Doha or Dubai and then have another 8-9 hour flight to my next destination.

The past few weeks have been mayhem with my work being the main focus. I did manage to sneak 4 days of riding in the high country with one of my sponsors and good friend Shaun Walsh from Walsh Earthmoving.

He’s a good rider and a great person who has been supporting me for the past few years, and my time with Shaun always helps me get mentally prepared before a big race.

Not to mention riding with him also keeps me on my game!

The weather for the second round of the FIM World Baja Rally Champs in Qatar looks like it’ll be hot. The temperatures in Doha are forecast to be in the mid 30’s, and hopefully we don’t have the freezing cold mornings like we did during round 1 in Saudi Arabia.

I am so lucky to have Katie with me at this race. She will definitely make things much easier and  will work great with the guys from Saudi Dirt Bike Centre.

We’ve only ever transited through Qatar on the way to other destinations, so it will be great to spend some time there to check everything out. 

But when things don’t go to plan, which is what usually happens with travel at the moment, it’s “entertaining” to have Katie there with me to sort the problems out!!!

The event in Qatar will be a much bigger event than Round 1 and has the highest ever number of entries for this event. There are quite a few big name riders racing too, and with many of the Dakar riders now recovered and attending the competition will be taken up to the next level.

It’ll be great to catch up with a lot of the riders I have raced with at Dakar and other events.

The bike is serviced and ready to go. I’ll be on the Husqvarna FR450 Dakar bike I rode in the Saudi Arabian round last month. The new KTM 450 Baja bike the guys at Aurora Rally Equipment in Athens are building wasn’t quite ready in time, but I’ll have it for Round 3 in Spain.