Surrey Off-Road Specialists Limited

Once again January is here and I find myself heading South to the Alps to compete in the fabulous Croisiere Blanche. This year our Daimler-Chrysler UK Ltd (DCUK) team consists of the "Rubicon" Wrangler, "Rubicon" Cherokee, two brand new Grand Cherokee Turbo diesels (GCTD) and a V8 Grand Cherokee in support. The other team members are; Brian Rees (PR manager DCUK), Barry Stallard (Events Executive DCUK), Peter Robain (DCUK Photographer) and Bob Cooke (Editor at Large for Off-Road and 4 Wheel Drive magazine). As usual we caught the 08.00 ferry from Dover to Calais and had an easy drive to Belleville arriving around 17.00 where we stopped overnight leaving a 4 hour amble up to Orcieres - Merlette on Tuesday. Excitement started to grow when traffic was spotted coming towards us with 100mm hats of snow on their roofs. All the signs were looking good for this event. Peter Roach and his co driver Bruce in "Godzilla" met us at the hotel and joined our convoy and en route to Merlette we met up with some of the other British Jeep contestants in the shape of Kenny Shann and Kath in "Daisy" now with it's matching trailer, Patrick Kear and Mark Askew (Editor of Jeep World Magazine) in "Jeepey", Lyle and Patricia Koen over from the USA in Kenny's Cherokee Orvis and Will Edwards (PIAA Lights) with Alex Notley co driving in the YJ. We all made our way to Merlette and sorted out our accommodation.

This year Team DCUK were in splendid new apartments that had every home comfort you could want as well as a fantastic view across the valley. Tuesday evening was spent planning Wednesday. Brian was still very much under par recovering from Flu so Peter and Bob took one of the Grand Cherokee turbo diesels and the V8 Grand Cherokee to Lyon Airport to collect the rest of the journalists who would be driving on the event. Barry and Myself took the two "Rubicons" to "Le Stickage" at a new location St Firmin en Valgaudemar some 40 minutes away and registered our team for the event and fitted the stickers. Here we met up with Gordon McBeath and Donie MacPherson in the G-Wagen. Gordon is part of the DCUK off-road team and this is his second time on the event. This year they had a secret weapon in the form of kilts. In true Scottish form we didn’t establish exactly what was worn under the kilt, but Donie lifted his hem to reveal a very long sock and an elastic band to protect one vital piece of equipment from frostbite. This went down very well, especially with the ladies. We then started on the new prologue. Normally the prologue consists of an elongated trial section that lasts approx. 15 minutes. The idea is that the organisation can have a look at you and your vehicle and see how competent both are, also it gives you a chance to experience your snow chains.

This year there was a new route with a roadbook that took approx. 4 hours winding through a beautiful new valley back to Merlette. There was plenty of snow and the new route made a welcome change to the event. When we got back to the apartments, the rest of our team had arrived and was being briefed by Brian. We stickered up the other vehicles before the sun went down and we were ready for the off Thursday bright and early.

Our new additions to the team are: Ben Oliver and his photographer Barry Hayden from Autocar Magazine who will be entering the green GCTD that the magazine is having on long term test. Brian Laban (Freelance) who is entering the event in the second red GCTD and writing for a number of publications. Next we have Gary Wright (Kent News and Pictures) also writing for a number of publications. The idea is that everybody gets to drive everything at some point to get as much from the event as possible.

DAY 1: We had decided in our strategy meeting Wednesday night that the Ancelle route would probably be the best introduction to the event for the journalists. This route has some beautiful snowfields with fantastic vistas overlooking the valley. Having made the journalists go through the snow chain rite of passage we then went up to the top and started on one of the most scenic routes of the event. The decision to go to Ancelle on the first day had sound reasoning behind it. We figured that the Grand Cherokee is a big vehicle and the stakes were high in the body damage area. Especially when you consider that no one driving them had done so before off-road, yet alone on ice and snow! At least we could get some good pictures of the vehicles before they got damaged. Our fears would prove to be unfounded. A combination of care and good driving skills by the Journalists meant all of the vehicles emerged at the end of the event totally unscathed. Well Done guys!

Having posed for a few photos in the snowfield, we headed off down the trail with me up front in the "Rubicon" Wrangler navigating and calling out potential obstacles. Peter Robain was in the passenger seat ready to leap out at any photo opportunity that presented itself. We had a whale of a time and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Ben and Barry Hayden were second in the green GCTD with Bob Cooke and Brian Rees in the red GCTD in third and Brian Laban and Barry Stallard following up the rear in the "Rubicon" Cherokee. Unfortunately Gary had turned up with a cold and resembled the walking dead Wednesday, so he opted to have a lie in and try to shake it off.

After a short while we encountered a Land Rover Freelander heavily stuck in some deep snow, I drove around it and gave it a tow. After that we had the Freelander as a sort of mascot in our group. The French father and son team were really keen and did really well considering the vehicles limitations, I would wander up a slope with moderately deep snow and as I neared the top I would look in my mirrors to see this Freelander frantically flying up, flat out in first looking mostly out of control and having huge fun. There were some parts that the marshal's wouldn't allow the Freelander to attempt and would divert them around the obstacle. We would then carry on and they would re attach themselves further on.

We made our way around some very tight and twisty tracks with some hairpins in the woods that required a 5 or 6 point turn with at least one wheel in the air. This was a perfect opportunity for the GCTD's to show their colours. We all ambled up with no dramas much to the surprise of the onlookers, in fact the Range Rover in front of me could not understand how the Wrangler could crawl around obstacles that he had a lot of difficulty getting up. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I had done most of the route in 2 wheel drive with the rear Airlocker locked, only engaging 4 wheel drive for the really tricky bits. There were a few treacherous parts but everybody sailed through with flying colours. We stopped for late lunch and then pushed on to the finish. As we were finishing the day it started to snow quite heavily. This is the first time I have seen snow fall whilst on the event, it transformed the whole feel to the first day adding a certain magic to it. It was back to the apartments to find Gary up and ready to go having made an amazing recovery.Grand Cherokee on the trail I got a call from Lemy Gresh who informed me that he had just filled up with fuel and whilst getting back in had managed to get his foot caught in the wiring harness for the immobiliser and had ripped the wires out leaving the vehicle dead. The owner of the Renault garage refused to help and locked up and went home leaving Lemy stranded. I went down and after some circuit testing I managed to bypass the circuit and get him going again. Back to Relaise de Merlette for a late bowl of soup.

DAY 2: We started the second day at Merlette. This route usually has the most snow and is fairly tricky in places. Having fitted the chains we headed off. The first obstacle is a very narrow cutting with a sheer drop off to the left of probably 50' and a vertical face on the right with rocky outcrops. To make matters worst the entrance has a telegraph pole that will take the side of the vehicle out if you hit it. I went down first in the Wrangler and then went back with a walky talky and guided the GCTD's through. It was tight but we managed without drama. Once that was out of the way we carried on through some lovely deep snow stopping for photos en route. I got a call from Kenny Shann who had managed to tear a front brake hose off when a branch got caught in his snow chains. I had a spare with me so I left it at a street sign where he could find it and we pushed on. We had a super day with everybody taking turns behind the wheel of all the vehicles. Grand Cherokee crossing suspension bridgeThis is my favourite route because it always has snow and some very interesting tracks. This route involves crossing over a suspension bridge that is a great photo opportunity. There is also a super hillclimb that had been shut when we got there. Apparently a 6x6 Pinzgauer had to winch itself up, so the marshal's decided to divert the traffic. It was a real pity because I believe that that we would have got up it having cleared it in the past. The 3 well-sorted Land Rovers belonging to the Reading lads were at the start line at the bottom when the marshals shut the hill. They were not impressed; given the chance they would probably have driven around the Pinzgauer and given it a tow to the top.

We went on our way to the lunch stop and after a leisurely lunch we pushed on to the finish.

Photo shoot on snow plainThis year the organisation had created an igloo village up on the side of the ski slopes at Merlette. There was a function with a laser display and the chance to sleep in the igloos if you desired. The only drawback was that you had to get the cablecars up and then walk for 20 minutes to get to the site. Once there you couldn't get back down for 3 hours. This put a lot of people off as it was bloody cold at night, and the thought of being stuck up there didn't appeal. I actually had an excuse not to go as I was fixing Kenny's brakes down the other end of the valley, however it would have been nice to see it. Having got Kenny sorted out it was back to Relaise de Merlette for a late supper and a chance to socialise with some of the others. Amongst the other British entrants were David Seager-Thomas and Rod Leighton in the Pinzgauer 4x4. The last time I met up with them was on the Mille Riviere. Other seasoned campaigners were Gerry and Iris Writer who were having a good time in their 90 and Colin Argent and David Jenden in their TD5 90 also enjoying themselves. There was the usual banter and tales of derring do going around that all adds to the fantastic ambience of this particular event. Monsieur Maurice who owns the Relaise de Merlette hotel has the best Genepe (a delightful local licquour made from alpine flowers) in the valley. Christine and Natalie bought out some glasses of this elixir and the rest of my evening is rather hazy but I did sleep well and really struggled to get up at 06.00 to do the bread run.

DAY 3: The final day's stages started at Saint Jean- Saint Nicholas. This route involved some quite tricky hillclimbs with treacherous rocks that will break your snow chains if you get it wrong. Everyone by now was driving like old hands and made light work of it. I continued my 2-wheel drive quest for a lot of it and we all had a good time. We did get held up a fair amount by lesser vehicles ahead of us resulting in us having yet another late lunch. Another factor that made us late was the unfortunate demise of the Rubicon Cherokee. As we were about to enter into the River Drac riverbed the steering box decided to break its mounting bolts leaving us with no steering. This vehicle has done nearly 50,000 miles of mostly abuse off-road, so I figure it is entitled to have the odd breakage. We recovered it back to the road and locked it up and continued. Grand Cherokees crossing the River DracWe wandered off into the riverbed and posed for photos etc. There was one bank with a vertical drop of about 1.5 metres that originally had some logs to create a ramp to enable the vehicles to get down it. They had broken away leaving a severe drop. The wrangler wandered down it with no problems, but it was obvious that the GCTD's would hang up, so Ben and myself did a recce and used the Wrangler to clear a route through some deepish snow and saplings for the GCTD's to come through. By the time we got to the lunchstop and finished lunch the course was only going to be open for another hour, so we called it a day and headed back. The end of another excellent event. We managed to arrive late at the prize giving to discover that Gordon and Donies secret weapon had worked and they had won a prize. Well done lads!

It was back to the Relaise de Merlette for a Last Supper and to catch up with the others and find out how they had got on. By all accounts everyone had had a thoroughly good time. I have asked for some reports for the website to give a different view.

Daimler - Chrysler were really showing the faith they have in the new Grand Cherokee turbo diesels as this was to be their first proper and very public off-road session, they had some minor tweaks done to them in the form of BF Goodrich MT's, extra belly protection and we fitted a 40mm suspension lift to get them up off the rocks and prevent unnecessary body damage, other wise they were standard. As it turns out they performed brilliantly The Quadratrac II transmission and Vari-lok differentials gave the "Grands" phenomenal grip impressing everybody who saw them in action. The 5 cylinder VM turbo diesel coupled to the automatic gearbox proved to be very flexible with plenty of power. Thumbs up all round.