With carefully orchestrated theatricality, Rudi Thoelen scrambled up the bank, high-fived his rivals and placed his outstretched palm on the bonnet of the Range Rover. Then, in a moment of natural drama, the Belgian collapsed in a state of exhaustion. "I'm completely spent," he spluttered between gulps of air. "I've given 150%, and there's nothing left."
For the winner of the inaugural Land Rover G4 Challenge, this finale, staged on the banks of the Colorado River in Utah, marked the end of an adventure that had begun a month earlier on the streets of Manhattan. Thoelen and the 15 other contenders had raced for 4,000 miles across the east and west coasts of the U.S., South Africa and Australia.
The Challenge was inspired by the now defunct Camel Trophy expeditions. But while the Camel events were full of derring-do, they were hardly a by-word for environmental sensitivity. In an era when 4x4s are often viewed as the friend of Beelzebub, this was unacceptable.
The G4 was therefore based on the concept of "facilitation," in which the vehicle, while still encountering difficult terrain, carries the competitors to other extreme activities such as kayaking, climbing, mountain biking and rappelling. According to Land Rover media director Matthew Taylor, it's about reaffirming the brand's "authenticity."
The project cost "about the same as two national advertising campaigns"--roughly $15M--but Taylor's "delighted with the results." His enthusiasm is based on the assumption that just as people saunter to a bar in running shoes, Range Rover drivers will empathize with the spirit of adventure, even if they never leave Manhattan.
Around 2,000 people applied to represent the U.S., and after a rigorous selection process that included a weekend in Las Vegas and a week in Wales, Captain Nancy Olsen was chosen. Olsen is 29 years old and works as a public affairs officer for the U.S. Marines in Arlington, Virginia. She joined a disparate bunch of competitors that included a computer programmer from Moscow, a lady chemist from Italy and a water park manager from Dubai.
For the start the event, Land Rover persuaded the New York authorities to close seven blocks of Broadway. The organizers then worked through the night to build a spectacular 4x4 course that would test the competitor's teamwork and driving skills. Competing in teams of two and armed with a Freelander, they had to battle terrain littered with, among other niceties, a see-saw and a New York taxi. This was the first of the so-called "maximizers" during which the teams raced against the clock. Land Rover was determined to "bring the G4 to the people," and there were additional urban tests in Cape Town and Sydney.
In total, 169 vehicles were specially produced for the Challenge. The Freelanders used in New York were swapped for Defenders in South Africa and Range Rovers in Australia, while a fleet of Discoverys was provided for the final stage. In each case, they were tastefully dressed in Tangiers Orange and equipped with off-road body protection and a winch. Land Rover has recently introduced a limited-edition range of G4 Freelanders and Discoverys to tempt would-be (and wealthy) adventurers.
After leaving New York, the teams headed north to the Catskill Mountains, where the night temperature dropped to -20*C (-4*F). The abrupt climate changes and high altitude were otw of the biggest challenges facing the competitors, who slept under canvass. In the Australian Outback, the daytime temperature reached 40*C (104*F), and in the magnificent Canyon Lands of Utah, many of the activities were held above 2500m (8,000 ft).
The conditions, coupled with jet lag, limited sleep and the culinary delights of boil-in-the-bag food, inevitably caused fatigue, but there was only one serious injury. Canada's Jim Kuhn was leading the event when he fell off his mountain bike during a rapid descent. He required 60 stitches and returned home on the advice of the doctors.
The event had its obvious strongmen. Franck Salgues, who hailed from France, for example, boasted a physique that would be the envy of Action Man. "He's a Cyborg," complained the UK's Tim Pickering, his partner for the final stage. "I'm having to dig really deep just to keep up with him." In the physical tests, Salgues was imperious, but the Challenge was designed to balance brawn with brains.
Each morning the teams would be given the location of several exercises or "Hunters." Most Hunters specified a variety of tasks that could include anything from climbing to bungee jumping. Before leaving camp, the pairings had to post a battle plan, identifying not only which Hunter they would visit but also in what order the teams would arrive. It was a monstrously complex system that introduced an unnecessary element of luck, but it did place the onus on mental strength.
In the final week, the communal spirit born of shared experience gained a competitive edge. Guy Andrews, from Australia, was the first to crack. A three-time Iron Man Champion, he was one of the pre-event favorites, but after a series of navigational errors he would eventually finish fifth. "I was thinking too much about the man behind me and not enough about myself," he admitted.
At the final camp in Moab, the points were converted into time before the concluding "Separator." This hour-long time trial was billed as a mini-G4 and featured mountain biking, climbing, running, off-road driving and a mental aptitude test. The points leader would have a head start on his rivals, and only the top four at the beginning of the day could compete for the first prize of a new Range Rover.
For Olsen, it was to prove a difficult day. She started the Separator in 13th place, but disaster struck when her kayak capsized. In the difficult rapids, Olsen struggled to right herself and passed the wrong side of two buoys. The error resulted in a six-minute time penalty, which she was forced to serve on the riverbank. Olsen therefore started the final section in last place but recovered brilliantly to overtake Japan's Shinichi Yoshimoto and claim 15th.
The American's ebullient personality served her well throughout the contest; she was a popular figure in camp. Despite her ordeal in the river, Olsen remained upbeat at the finish. "My legs had just gone today," she said, "but I've had the time of my life over the past month. I want a week off and then to start it all again."
The fight for 1st place appeared to have been decided when Salgues, who was lying 2nd, also capsized his kayak. This left Thoelen with a commanding advantage, and all was going well until, within sight of the finish, he drowned a Range Rover in a water trough. The Belgian incurred a time penalty --"the longest 15 seconds of my life"--but his victory was sealed when the three chasers suffered a similar fate.
Land Rover therefore ended the G4 Challenge with four of its #60,000 ($100,000) flagships buried in four feet of water. It was an embarrassing incident but one that was quickly forgotten in the euphoria of Thoelen's victory. The Belgian fighter pilot was a worthy winner of an exhausting event, but there was also a trophy for the UK's Pickering, who won the Team Spirit Award, voted for by the other competitors.
To dismiss the G4 Challenge as nothing more than a marketing ploy would be to miss the point. The off-road driving was unnecessarily tame, but the Challenge was never billed as an off-road trek. Rather, it provided an intriguing test of physical endurance that united a diverse bunch of people from around the world. If Ford's beancounters judge it a success, it will become a bi-annual event, and that, given the current socio-political climate, can only be a good thing.