Sunday, May 19, 2024

Andrei Rudnitski “would like to see a Baltic countries (rally raid) championship”

The Baltic states might not come to mind when people think of a rally raid hotbed, but interest has grown over the years. Andrei Rudnitski feels the same, even going as far as to suggest a championship spanning Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Over the weekend, Rudnitski competed in the MudEST RallyRaid as the co-driver for Darius Žitlinskas. The two finished eleventh of twelve cars in the UTV category after their Can-Am Maverick X3 slammed into a tree stump during the first Selective Section.

Organised since 2018, the MudEST RallyRaid is the only major cross-country rally in Estonia. For 2024, the race took place in the Alutaguse Tervisespordikeskus outside Vasavere, going through forests and an old shale quarry. Urvo Männama, an Estonian who ran the Dakar Rally in January, won the overall.

“The race turned out to be very interesting from all perspectives, and I really enjoyed it,” Rudnitski told Cross-Country Rally News. Although he is Belarusian, Rudnitski regularly runs Central and Eastern European rallies as well as the Dakar, working alongside those like Lithuanian Benediktas Vanagas and Pole Jakub Przygoński. “I would like to see a Baltic countries championship in the future, including this race, as well as rounds in Lithuania and Latvia, and it would be great to add one round in Poland. I think such a championship would have good potential.”

Forty-six of the sixty-one MudEST RallyRaid competitors were Estonian, while nine came from Lithuania and four from Latvia. Poland and Finland each had one apiece.

Unlike Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia do not have prominent domestic rally championships. As a result, their citizens often compete in those of neighbouring countries like the Czech Republic and Poland, regionally in the FIA Central European Zone (CEZ) Cross-Country Rally Championship, or internationally in the Baja Cups and World Rally-Raid Championship. Amateur rallies in the region like RBI Sport’s Rallye Breslau in Poland and the Balkan Offroad Rallye in Romania are also popular destinations for Baltic racers.

Latvia has hosted various rallies and Bajas as well. Those who went on to compete at the Dakar Rally including Andris Dambis and Jānis Vinters in the 2000s, the latter finishing seventh in bikes at the 2007 race, and Didzis Zariņš in 2022. OSC, a Latvian manufacturer, became the first electric vehicle to complete the Dakar with Māris Saukāns and Dambis in 2012.

North of Latvia, Männama is among a small group of Estonians who have raced at Dakar, with Joel Tammeka being the first when he finished third in the 1991 edition’s Truck category months before his country’s independence from the Soviet Union. Toomas Triisa won the 2017 Dakar in the Malle Moto category before he and Männama became the first of their countrymen to compete at Dakar in an FIA category in 2023.

Compared to their Baltic brothers, Lithuania enjoys one of the most popular rally raid scenes in Europe. Ten teams at the 2024 Dakar hailed from the country like reigning W2RC SSV and Quad champions Rokas Baciuška and Laisvydas Kancius, the former also currently leading the W2RC’s Challenger standings.

“We are a country whose main sport is basketball. We aren’t very good at football, very good at basketball, but in January for the Dakar, it becomes the number 1 sport,” Gintas Petrus said in 2023. One of Lithuania’s rally pioneers, he made his Dakar début in 2002. “Everybody watches it and sends me advice on how to drive. Everyone is a Dakar specialist.”

As much as 98 percent of the Lithuanian population is familiar with the Dakar Rally while roughly seventy percent considers themselves a fan of it. Vanagas, who competes in the top-level Ultimate category, attributed this to the discipline’s attention-grabbing nature and increased media exposure in the country.

“It’s like really a religion and I don’t know another country in the world where Dakar is so popular,” commented Vanagas during the 2024 race. “There were much more Lithuanians who were doing Dakar before me, but I think that we’ve started to tell the story. It was twelve years ago when we first started Dakar, so we were telling the story and we were doing quite a lot of mistakes in the very beginning.

“People in all times were interested, especially if something bad happens so maybe this helped a little bit, but from another perspective, I think Dakar is like a diamond. Diamond is a stone which has a lot of angles, so one of the stone’s edge or angle is motorsport, rally, cars. Another angle is beautiful nature, it’s extreme personalities, it’s strong men and women, it’s even people who are dying here, unfortunately. If you start to tell the story from different perspective, I think people get interested and they find why they like Dakar. We invested into media team and we have nearly the same amount of media crew as technicians. When you tell the story and you yourself are interesting for people, then they start to follow.

“Another good thing in January, at least in the Baltics, it’s quite cold and nothing really happens. So everyone is sitting and watching TV.”

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