After a triumphant 10th-anniversary celebration last year, during which over 100 teams conquered the challenges of the Balkan Peninsula, Balkan Offroad Rallye was back with the 11th edition of the iconic marathon.
Photograpy Paolo Baraldi, story Hristomir Nikolov
The Balkan Offroad Rallye has always been about pushing the limits of off-road motorsport while exploring stunning landscapes, and the Dracula edition last year was no exception. Looking ahead to this year’s rally, we're RBI sport once again raising the bar. This year promises even more heart-pounding action, fresh challenges, and a renewed spirit of friendship as Alex Kovatchev and his crew uphold their tradition of venturing into uncharted terrains.
Last year, Romania showcased its rich motorsports traditions, offering fantastic terrains with vast forests, expansive mountains, splendid roads, and incredible sections for extreme competitions. This year, these terrains are even more exciting. RBI Sport, once again, has the honor of collaborating with local automobile and motorcycle federations, providing substantial support for the event. In comparison to the Rallye Breslau in Poland, competitors at the Balkan Offroad can expect vastly different, three-dimensional, and untamed terrains that will present a truly demanding challenge.
Balkan Offroad Rallye 2023 featured five full rally days from October 1st to 6th, along with an additional day at the start for the official kick-off and the prologue. Once again, the event commenced in the picturesque region of Sighisoara and conclude with a grand finale in the historic city of Alba Iulia. These two cities will respectively host the two camps for this year's competition.
Sighisoara is a popular tourist destination for its well-preserved walled old town, which is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site with its rich millennial history, including the famous fact, that this is the hometown of the The Wallachian voivode Vlad Dracul - father of Vlad the Impaler – Dracula.
Alba Iulia is a city that serves as the seat of Alba County in the west-central part of Romania. The city is historically important for Romanians, Hungarians, and Transylvanian Saxons. In December 2018, Alba Iulia was officially declared Capital of the Great Union of Romania.
Anticipating 120 rally vehicles representing all classes, including bikes, quads, SSVs, and cars, will participate. The traditional three categories - Cross Country (all classes), Extreme (limited and open cars), and Discovery (all classes) - will be maintained.
While speed is undoubtedly a factor, the primary focus was on precise navigation through the dynamic terrains of Transylvania. The Cross-Country route was about 1400 km, with over 1000 km timed against the clock. The Extreme category, presented formidable challenges, with tough sections across mountains, rivers, swamps, and more. Meanwhile, the Discovery category has explored captivating sections of the rally route without the pressure of timing.
Competitors hailing from various European countries, including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Austria, Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Bulgaria, Switzerland, and our host country Romania, joined the event. Some of these teams comprise past winners and veterans from the very first editions of Balkan Offroad Rallye, promising the ultimate off-road adventure.
Except for the prologue and Day 3 (Marathon Stage), the two competing categories, Cross Country and Extreme, had separate routes specifically designed for the different characteristics of the vehicles. Race director Alex Kovatchev provided new sections for both EX and CC teams, as well as implementing novelties from this year’s Fenix and Breslau rallies: reduced fuel autonomy and the usage of the digital roadbook in addition of the paper ones. And, of course, all the competitors can count on the traditionally high standard of racing services and safety.
Balkan Offroad Rallye 2023: warm up the engines! First taste of the race with the prologue
After the administrative and technical checks, Balkan Offroad Rallye 2023 is finally on its trails. The marathon began with a 17,6 kilometers long prologue, which served as a compact stage, offering a sneak peek into the elements that await competitors in the subsequent days. Both Cross Country and Extreme teams kickstarted this amazing adventure on the same race course. This initial leg encompassed a blend of fast gravel roads, complemented by picturesque "grass tracks" winding through fields, and punctuated by brief forest crossings. It promised to provide participants in the race with a genuine taste of authentic off-road rallying in the stunning natural landscapes that make this European region truly exceptional.
Starting with the bikers, who attacked the stage first, it was Krzysztof Jarmus from Poland (KTM) who kicked the best time. Second fastest, only 44 seconds behind was Joonas Oja (KTM) from Estonia, and daily top 3 was completed by Reijo Karppinen (KTM) from Finland, some minute and a half after the winner.
In the ATV class, the opening victory was for Ireneusz Ostafin from Polaris Polska Racing Team. He stole 1:40 minutes to Yoann Verlay from France (Polaris) and almost 2 minutes to his compatriot and team-mate Marcin Wilkolek.
The well-known pilot Dalius Olechnaviciud (Can Am) made it fastest in the SSV class. The pilot from Lithuania managed to overpass Gergo Nagy (Polaris) from Hungary with 47 seconds. Third for the day was the Bulgarian Murat Kapanoglu (Can Am), some 58 seconds behind the winner.
In the car CC class, the famous rally-raid veteran Miroslav Zapletal (Ford F-150) debuted in Balkan Offroad with style and performance. The Czech pilot took the prologue win with 1:21 min. advance to Christian Femont (Nissan) from Belgium. Third for the day was the last year champion Doncho Tsanev from Bulgaria with his famous Suzuki proto, almost 3 minutes behind Zapletal.
Hardo Mere (HM7 Proto) from Estonia came to Balkan Offroad Rallye 2023 with the clear objective to add another Extreme category title to his list, after the win from last year in Romania. Second for the day was his compatriot and another pretender for the victory in Balkan Extreme Tarvo Klaasimae (Honda Proto). The third place went to Edward Ruszczyc from Poland (Land Rover).
Balkan Offroad Rallye 2023, Leg 1: the real battle just began
The first full-scale day of Balkan Offroad Rallye 2023 was more than interesting. The competitors had the chance to taste the maximum of this year’s race. The first full-scale day of Balkan Offroad Rallye 2023 offered 137 kms against the clock for the Cross-Country category and demanding 52 kilometers for the Extreme category. The route was in the region of the host city Sighisoara, promising an abundance of natural trails through the lower hills of Transylvania. These trails comprised a mix of high-speed technical pasture tracks, offering breathtaking panoramic vistas, and challenging navigation through narrow forest sections and expansive open areas, providing a true "off-road experience." The terrain was partially rugged, presenting a thrilling challenge. The extreme route sent the participants through the northern part of Sighisoara, characterized by dense forests, meandering valleys with small rivers, muddy stretches, and natural trails featuring steep ascents and descents. This demanding course will test your skills and push your vehicle and equipment to their limits.
It was an epic battle in the Car Cross-Country class The well-known rally-raid veteran Miroslav Zapletal took the command of the race after a duel with last year’s champion Doncho Tsanev (Suzuki Proto). The pilot from Chezch republic took the advantage of his powerful Ford F-150, clinching almost 5 minutes to the 2WD machine of the Bulgarian. Third for the day was the pilot from Belgium Vincent Vroninks (Red Lined Proto), almost 12 minutes behind the winner.
Stepping to the SSV class, the stage win went to Tomas Zaleckas (Can Am) from Lithuania. Second for the day was the Balkan Offroad debutant Murat Kapanoglu (Can Am) from Bulgaria, followed by just a minute by Hungarian pilot Zoltan Garamvoelgyi (Can Am).
Continuing with the bikes, the first leg win was for Gunter Sannen from Belgium (Husqvarna). He finished with 7:43 min. advance to Joonas Oja (KTM) from Estonia, and 3 minutes more ahead to Andrius Daunoravicius (Honda) from Lithuania.
In the ATV class, it was Albert Hommel from Germany who clinched the best time, 3:47 minutes ahead to his compatriot and team-mate from Can Am Team Ost Philipp Voeller. The daily top 3 was completed by Pawel Gwiazda from Polaris Club Poland.
It was another great day for Hardo Mere (HM7 Proto) in the Extreme category. The pilot from Estonia faced the first leg as an undisputable winner, finishing with almost 11 minutes ahead of his fellow countryman Tarvo Klaasimae (Honda Proto). The third place went to Loic Mauro from France (Suzuki).
Balkan Offroad Rallye 2023, Leg 2: adjusting the puzzle
The second leg of Balkan Offroad Rallye 2023 offered another trip in the region of the host-city Sighisoara. The participants had the opportunity to savor the picturesque surroundings of the area, delving even deeper into its scenic landscapes. They anticipated another immersive experience amidst the enchanting forests and rolling hills. In the Cross-Country category, speed enthusiasts found ample opportunities to accelerate. However, co-pilots had to maintain sharp focus on navigation, as it promises to be another challenging task. The total distance was near 210 kilometers, more than 166 – against the clock. The day was marked by several neutralizations, caused by some route blockings.
Meanwhile, those competing in the Extreme category had multiple opportunities to put their winches to the test as they followed the intricacies of the road book through the rugged terrain of the typical Transylvanian forest. Slightly more than 61 competitive kilometers, but really, really hard.
In the Car Cross-Country class Miroslav Zapletal (Ford F-150) clinched his second stage win. The rally-raid legend from Czech Republic finished with almost 6 minutes advance to the well-known RBI veteran and Balkan Offroad champion Frank Stensky (Lenson Mercedes). Daily top 3 was completed by Christian Femont (Red Lined Proto), near 17 minutes after the winner. In the general rankings, Zapletal, logically, is the overall leader, with a good 25 minutes advance to Stensky before the long marathon stage to Alba Iulia.
Moving to the SSV class, Dalius Olechnavicius (Can Am) was the fastest in the stage. The rider from Lithuania managed to take 7 minutes advantage to Andre Thewessen (Can Am) from Nederland. The third place for the day was enough Murat Kapanoglu (Can Am) from Bulgaria to keep his lead in the provisional rankings. Kapanoglu has 12 minutes active to Tomas Zaleckas (Can Am, 5th for the stage) from Lithuania.
In the bike class, the winner of Leg 2 was Vytautas Radzevicius (KTM). The pilot from Lithuania finished with slightly than a minute advance to Krzysztof Jarmuz (KTM) from Poland. Third for the day was Gunter Sannen from Belgium (Husqvarna), who still holds the lead in the general ranking in front of Jarmuz and Radzevicius.
Stepping to the ATV class, Marcin Wilkolek from Polaris Polska Racing Team grabbed 36 seconds to Philipp Voeller (Can Am) from Germany. Third for the day was another rider from Poland – Ireneusz Ostafin, also from Polaris Polska. Ostafin is now overall leader, in front of Wilkolek and their countryman Pawel Gwiazda (Polaris, 5th place for the day).
Believe or not, Hardo Mere (HM7 Proto) couldn’t win the stage in the Extreme category. The pilot from Estonia was overpassed by his compatriot Tarvo Klaasimae (Honda Proto) with almost 4 minutes. But, the good advance of Mere from the first leg, keeps him as a (not so) comfortable leader in the general standings. The good news to the host-country of Balkan Offroad Rallye 2023 was the third place in the stage for Tudor Mircea (Gekko 2 Proto) from Romania.
Balkan Offroad Rallye 2023, Leg 3: the longest marathon day. The race moved to its second camp with a demanding marathon stage
Balkan Offroad Rallye 2023 is in full swing, after the competitors halved the race with a well-long marathon stage towards the second camp in the city of Alba Iulia. In the menu there were more than 325 kilometers, with some 252 of them as competitive sections. Both Cross-Country and Extreme categories shared the same paths and the leg not only marked change of the bivouac, but also a shift in the natural terrain. The route commences amidst the familiar Sighisoara region, which has been well-received by participants in the previous days, and continues along the northern side of the awe-inspiring Transfagarasan Mountains.
First tackling the longest day of Balkan Offroad 2023 were the bikes. And it was Krzysztof Jarmuz (KTM) who set the best time for the day. The rider from Poland finished with almost 11 minutes advance to his rival Vytautas Radzevicius (KTM) from Lithuania. Third for the stage was his compatriot Edvard Sokolovskij (KTM), some half an hour behind the winner. This situation means that Jarmuz is the new overall leader of the race, 17 minutes ahead of Radzevicius and more than half an hour to Gunter Sannen (KTM, 5th on the stage) from Belgium.
Polish “rocket” Ireneusz Ostafin set the pace in the ATV class, beating his team-mate from Polaris Polska Racing Team Marcin Wilkolek with 1:39 min. Third for the day was Philipp Voeller (Can Am) from Germany, with 11:33 minutes passive to the winner. The results from the marathon means, that the trio is keeping the same positions in the general rankings.
In the SSV class, the marathon winner was Zoltan Garamvoelgyi (Can Am). The pilot from Hungary clinched almost 2 minutes to Dalius Olechnavicius (Can Am) from Lithuania and some 4 minutes to Marcin Graczyk (Can Am) from Poland.
Garamvoelgyi steps on the third place in the provisional standings, where still reigns Murat Kapanoglu (Can Am, 7th place for the day), with 4 minutes advance to Tomas Zaleckas (Can Am, 4th in the stage) from Lithuania.
In the “royal” Car Cross-Country class, Vincent Vroninks (Red Lined Proto) clinched the stage win with 2:20 minutes advance to Miroslav Zapletal (Ford F-150). Third for the day was Vroninks fellow countryman from Belgium Christian Femont (Red Lined Proto), almost 12 minutes behind the winner.
Zapletal is an undisputed leader of the general rankings, counting on his good advance from the previous days. According to our calculations, Femont removes Frank Stensky (Lenson, 4th for the day) from the second place in the overall, and there is a solid gap between them.
Hardo Mere (HM7 Proto), who has proved that he is very good also on rally-raid competitions, blasted his rivals on the unusual for the Extreme category cross-country stage. The Estonian finished with 14 minutes and a half advance to his compatriot Rainer Ruutli (JP5 Proto) and more than 22 minutes to his main opponent Tarvo Klaasimae (Honda Proto), also from Estonia. Mere is first in the provisional rankings, in front of Klaasimae and Ruutli. And there is a half an hour difference between every one of the pretenders in the top 3.
Balkan Offroad Rallye 2023, Leg 4: nothing is decided yet
The penultimate leg 4 of Balkan Offroad 2023 offered new routes in the high mountains near the renowned "Transalpina" road, reaching elevations as high as 1850 meters. There were 280 kilometers for the Cross-Country category, with 131 of them as timed sections. For the Extreme there were only 63 kilometers against the clock, but as usually, from hard to harder.
Starting with the ATV class, there were the only changings in the general standings as a result of hard Polish battle. Marcin Wilkolek won the stage in front of his team-mate in Polaris Polska Adam Krysiak. Third for the day was the Frenchman Yoann Verly, also with Polaris. The best time allowed Wilkolek to step up on the top of the provisional rankings, where he is in front of his other team-mate and compatriot Ireneusz Ostafin, with 2 minutes advance. Third is Krysiak, but almost half an hour behind the leader.
Poland is the leading country also in the bike class, as Krzysztof Jarmuz (KTM) claimed another stage win. He finished with comfortable 9 minutes advance to Edvard Sokolovskij (KTM), and 8 more to Vytautas Radzevicius (KTM), both from Lithuania. In the overall, Jarmuz is leading to Radzevicius with more than enough 34 minutes, which can grant him the title of Balkan Offroad Rallye 2023 if everything is according to the plans. Top 3 in the general rankings is completed by Gunter Sannen (KTM, 7th on the stage) from Belgium, who, in turn, is half an hour behind the Lithuanian.
Dalius Olechnavicius (Can Am) is attacking the overall win in the SSV class with a stage win. The Lithuanian finished with tiny 25 seconds advance to Ainar Susts (Polaris) from Austria and 1:23 min. to Murat Kapanoglu (Can Am). Olechnavicius climbed to the second place in the overall, where he is some 7 minutes behind Kapanoglu from Bulgaria. Third in the class for the moment is Zoltan Garamvoelgyi (Can Am) from Hungary, who took the 5th place for the day.
The Hungarian is only 9 seconds behind Olechnavicius and less than 2 minutes in front of Marcin Graczyk (Can Am, 4th in the stage). And this means that everything will be decided, including the victory, at the very last finish line of Balkan Offroad Rallye 2023.
I’s a totally different situation in the Car Cross-Country class, where the well-known rally-raid veteran Miroslav Zapletal (Ford F-150) is heading to his first title in Balkan Offroad Rallye. The Czech pilot clinched another stage win, beating the German legend Frank Stensky (Lensson Mercedes) with more than 7 minutes. Third for the day was Christian Femont (Nissan Red Lined) from Belgium with more than 12 minutes passive to Zapletal.
In the general standings, Zapletal has comfortable 53 minutes advance to Vincent Vroninks (Nissan Red Lined, 8th for the day). But there will be for sure battle for the second place, as Stensky is 6 minutes behind the pilot form Belgium.
It was once again Hardo Mere (HM7 Proto), who take the daily win in the Extreme category. But this time, the Estonian managed with only 43 seconds to his fellow countryman Tarvo Klaasimae (Honda Proto). The Baltic country is total occupant of the podium, as Rainer Ruutli (JP5 Proto) finished on the 3rd place. This is the situation also in the overall, where we expect the Estonians to be crowned as the big tripple winners.
Balkan Offroad Rallye 2023, Leg 5: the new kings of Transylvania
The 11th edition of Balkan Offroad Rallye is now in the books. The second campaign of the race in Romania gave to all the participants 6 amazing days, full of adventure and adrenaline. And now it’s clear who are the big winners.
Before the award ceremony, the competitors had to tackle with the last challenge – 186 kilometers against the clock for the Cross-Country and grueling 66 for the Extreme. And it was a very good luck to all that there wasn’t rain, which could make the finish day really heavy in both the categories.
Starting with the bikes, Krzysztof Jarmuz (KTM) didn’t curse the throttle until the last kilometer. The rider from Poland claimed the last stage win and, logically, the title of this year’s race. Second for the day was to Edvard Sokolovskij (KTM) from Lithuania but the runner-up place in the general standings went to his compatriot Vytautas Radzevicius (KTM, fourth in the stage). The 5th daily position was enough for the Belgian Gunter Sannen (KTM) to take the “bronze medal”.
In the ATV class, Ireneusz Ostafin from Polaris Polska Racing Team tried to beat his team-mate Marcin Wilkolek for the overall win. Ostafin won the last stage, but it was not enough to short the distance and Wilkolek is the crown-champion of Balkan Offroad Rallye 2023. Poland and Polaris made a hattrick with the third place of Adam Krysiak, who finished the stage on 6th place, but had sufficient advance to step on the podium.
Turning the eyes to the SSV class, the new big winners are Murat Kapanoglu and Alexander Trendafilov (Can Am). The duo from Bulgaria made a very good strategy and managed to succeed without a single stage win, but almost always in top 3 after each day. They finished on 4th place in the last day, but it was enough for them to grab the crown. Their main rivals Dalius Olechnavicius and Romualdas Karuzis (Can Am) pushed hard till the last kilometer, but the second place of the final stage wasn’t enough for the Lithuanians and they are second also in the overall, less than 3 minutes behind the winners. Well-deserved third place for Tomas Zaleckas and Aidas Bubinas (Can Am), also from Lithuania, who finished the last stage with an undisputed win, dethroning the Hungarian crew of Zoltan Garamvoelgyi and Abert Horn (Can Am) from the podium in the last kilometers.
Miroslav Zapletal (Ford F-150), co-piloted by Marek Sykora, made a really spectacular debut in the Car Cross-Country class of Balkan Offroad Rallye. The famous rally-raid driver from Czech Republic and his Slovak navigator didn’t win only the marathon stage this year (but was second there) and finished as a winner (also in the last SS) with a huge advance to their rivals. The “silver medalists” in the so called “king class” this year are Vincent Vroninks and Dave Berghmans (Nissan Red Lined) from Belgium, who were very constant and managed to hold their position. The return of the RBI veterans Frank Stensky and Christof Trautsch (Lennson Mercedes) was as everyone expected – to be in top 3 with claims to the title. And the Germans proved the predictions, finishing 3rd on the podium.
It's time to mention the Car CC Limited category, where were three crews. Here, the modifications are limited and the vehicles are near stock, with only reinforced suspension and safety modifications. The winners are Marian Andreev and Valentin Capota from the host-country Romania with Dacia Duster. But also interesting are their rivals – Fritz Becker and Constanta Ilie (GER/ROM) plus Alexander Paas and Andreas Perterer (GER/AUT) who counted on… Audi A8! Yep, the two crews used the famous German limo, with some reinforcements according the T2 rules…
Last but not least, in the Balkan Extreme category, Hardo Mere once again proved that even the hardest terrain is a park walk for him and his HM7 prototype. Co-piloted by the Romanian veteran Marius Pop, the Estonian took his second consecutive win of Balkan Offroad Rallye. Estonia is the triple wining country as the second place here belongs to Tarvo Klaasimae and Ats Tsupsman (Honda Proto) and the third position on the podium is for Rainer Ruutli and Rainer Oja (JP5 Proto) from the Baltic country.
As we said, Balkan Offroad Rallye 2023 is already in the books. But RBI race director Alex Kovatchev and his crew already think and work for the next season. And first in the menu for 2024 will be the unique Fenix Rally in Tunisia, which is planned for April next year. After that, in the beginning of the summer is coming the jubilee edition of the legendary Breslau Rallye, which turns 30 years. And, of course, next autumn will be bring another magnifique Balkan Offroad.