In the second half of 2013 doors were opened to a new Rally World in Poland for Dominyks Butvilas. A conversation about two years on the Polish roads.
Take us through the autumn of 2013, when your speed in Kaunas and Mikołajki caused quite a stir in the Polish rally community. Did you feel at that time that this could be a turning point in your career?
2013 “Kauno Ruduo” was the first big rally that we won together with Renatas Vaitkevičius. Not in class but overall. We didn’t know what to expect because this was the first time we started in the same rally with all the fastest Polish crews. I knew there were some fast drivers out there who were also good on gravel, so we pushed from the first kilometer. The start of the rally went impressively well as we had more than 30 seconds of advantage after the first two stages. We were faster than the second-placed K. Kajetanowicz, who was called a gravel expert in Poland at that time. In the various rally forums, Polish rally fans wrote “Co za Butvilas?!”, like “who is that Butvilas?”. We realized that we had attracted attention and expanded the geography. The second significant step was ERC ” Rajd Polski “, where we started in the same year, and won ERC2 class by clinching the third fastest time overall in one stage. We were hoping it would be a step forward in our career as we had been improving all the time up until then.
Tell us about the Subaru Poland Rally Team. Was it a full factory team? How was your relationship with it later, after the season?
“SPRT” is not a full factory, but an importer’s team. It has fewer resources than factory teams, but decisions are made more easily. Afterward, the relationship remained good because I became friends with all its members. We cooperated together in 2019 as well, where I worked as a coach and helped a young team driver to catch up on the gravel.
What kind of relationship did you have with Kamil Heller, the co-driver with whom your journey in the Polish Championship began
It was not easy at first, because Kamil had not read English. In the first race, there was a bit of irritation, we had differences in character. However, after the first rally, the relationship started to improve, Kamil quickly got used to the pace notes and worked very professionally. He already knew the team well, as he had been there for several years. He had the difficult task of being the intermediary between me and the team. Often small matters had to be resolved through him. The atmosphere in the team was not always good with the team director (not the owner) who did not seem to be very happy with my arrival. But he disagreed with almost everyone. All teams, like families, have their own nuances, conflicts, and some kind of friction. Not everything is as rosy as the press reports might suggest. We are still friends with Kamil and he continues co-driving.
Compare your 2014 and 2017 seasons in the Polish Rally Championship. How much did the experience from the first season help you in the second season? What perhaps unexpected challenges have arisen?
These seasons are very different. The Subaru team gave me a lot of knowledge, I learned a lot about asphalt rallies and the specifics of Polish rallies. That knowledge came in handy when in 2017 I started with a new car – Škoda Fabia R5. That time it was a start with our own team, so I had more responsibility, but I could also make more decisions myself. In terms of speed and “performance” – 2017 was much stronger. At the end of the season, I was already able to fight with the leaders for victories in stages. In 2014 I could only dream about it.
The 2017 season seems to have been full of challenges and setbacks. How did you manage to deal with all the situations psychologically at that time? Was it precisely because of the difficulty that there was a break?
Yes, 2017 required a lot of resources – time, energy, and finances. It was a tough end of the season when I underestimated the grip on the cold tires in the penultimate race at the first turn of the Shakedown and we went off the road and rolled. Although the impact was not very strong, there were only a few hours left before the start. “Proracing” mechanics were in a hurry, but we didn’t have time to get the car ready for the start. We prepared very seriously for that competition and I think there should have been a turning point in the championship, which never happened for us. Another, final race of the championship followed two weeks later. Renatas Vaitkevičius did not start in them, so we rode with Kamil Heller. In the first stage, which was like a prologue, in the dark, we made a simple childish mistake. The track was very short, but we got lost in one of the roundabouts and went one lap too short. We received a 3-minute penalty for this failure to complete the course and we had to chase our opponents throughout the rally. We won most of the stages because the form was great. Despite this, it was possible to achieve only 4th place. Psychologically, it wasn’t sweet, because we never took the victory in the RSMP rally and that was only due to my mistake.
After that season, we naturally saw the need to take a break and rethink everything.
Which competitors in those two years were the most memorable?
In 2017, we mostly fought with F.Nivette, who was co-driven by K.Heller. It is very difficult to fight against Polish teams because they have great resources. This means more training, tests, latest generation cars. Also, they can afford to take risks when necessary without over-protecting the car. In a serious fight, such aspects make an impact.
Although a lot of time has passed since your regular starts in Poland, it seems that this community has not forgotten you. What connections do you have in the neighboring country?
We have partners from there, racers often call me for help with gravel training or coaching. We have good relations with Polish sports journalists and photographers, whom I am always happy to talk to when I meet. It’s really nice that I’m not forgotten there.
One of the most unique phenomena in Poland is Rajd Barborka. What is this event all about?
It is the biggest rally event of the year and a phenomenon at the same time. All racers compete on stages located in the capital Warsaw, in a small rally format (about 20 km). The fastest gets an invitation to start in the evening on a classic stage/street in the heart of the city, in the old town (Karowa stage). A huge event has already been organized there, a celebration for the spectators, where they can see the best pilots competing for the fastest title. Winning there is a matter of prestige, as it is the most famous rally event in Poland. Unbelievable, but in 2017 we took second place there, behind only K. Kajetanowicz with Ford Fiesta WRC. I think such results are one of the reasons why we are not forgotten there.
Tell us about the specifics of the geography of the Polish rally. It seems that the vast majority of asphalt rallies take place south of Warsaw and Poznań, and gravel rallies take place further north. Why? Are the stages closer to the Czech border significantly different from those further east closer to the Slovak/Ukrainian borders?
Rallies and stages are mostly influenced by terrain and housing density. Closer to the Czech Republic, there are mountains and hills, so the roads there are winding and very interesting. Slovakia and Ukraine borders are also mountainous, but around Lublin the terrain is flat, there are huge apple trees, so the rally is more like the Belgian “Ypres” or “Rally Germany”. In the north of Warsaw, the population is much less, but the terrain is Lithuanian – quite flat with straight roads. There are simply no gravel roads in the south of Poland, so there can only be asphalt rallies.
The French have Monte-Carlo, the Austrians have the Janner Rallye, and in 2017 Poles – Rajd Swidnicki. Tell us about that extremely strange combination of snow and asphalt.
Such rallies require a lot of experience, as they are repeated year after year. Usually, winners are those who have started most time. They know where and when the snow melts, where it is dry, and where it is dangerous. For beginners, such rallies are pure stress, because you don’t know where you will make a mistake. Grip is constantly changing, and so is the weather. The service zone is quite far from the stages, so the choice of tires becomes even more complicated. You don’t know what you will need after an hour and how mountain roads look like at the moment. For that, we had assistants on the team who checks the pace notes and records the weather. On asphalt, this is extremely important, much more important than on gravel. Experience, resources, skill, and a bit of luck – all this is needed for a successful finish in Swidnicki.
This year, even three events of the Polish championship took place on gravel, which is an unusually high number. What determines this direction of the championship?
Poles want to improve, and gravel is a less familiar rally direction. In the past, just like here in Lithuania, there were disputes about the costs of participating in the championship. Racing on different surfaces makes the starts more expensive because you need to prepare the technique differently and do additional training. However, the decision was made to go in this direction anyway, because then the skill of the drivers rises, they see different stages and learn new things. Now not a single Lithuanian is competing in Poland, even though those rallies are only half a day away. There is a whole other, undiscovered world of rallying. I would like to and have repeatedly raised the question to the Lithuania Federation about the possibility of holding joint championship events in Poland.
What is the attitude, experience, and opinion of colleagues from Poland about the Lithuanian rally?
Poles are happy with the cooperation of the federations and our rallies. Here, the gravel stages are like they have never seen in Poland, so every trip to Lithuania is a new challenge for them. Although all rally organizers have their own nuances, and rally traditions are slightly different, Poles are often surprised at how popular the rally is in our country and the great attention of the spectators.
The partnership of Polish and Lithuanian rally communities. What do you think, in which directions would it be worthwhile to continue working, and what benefits, experiences, and perhaps challenges can be obtained from this cooperation?
I see a lot of benefits from the exchange of experience, but this process is very slow because our federation went to the Polish championship stage only this year for the first time (after 2013). As cool as we are, there are things our neighbors do better. Bringing the experience back home, we should draw conclusions and make changes. Such processes take place very inertly, there are things that I have been talking about with representatives of the federation for several years, and although no one is against changes, it takes time, sometimes determination to make them. In short, we need to learn from each other and continue to expand the geography of the rally. My dream is a Lithuanian rally event in a good Polish rally. This year’s attempt at Rajd Podlaski was not a good one and was only carried out for the first time in the championship. There are other rallies, and now only determination and decisions are needed.
Finally, what are the three lessons/experiences you value the most from your career journey in Poland?
The first lesson is that it is always worth searching, expanding your horizons, and not limiting yourself to your own world. When you see how big the world is, you remember how small you are. How much more do you need to learn when you move from gravel to asphalt stages. This leads to the second lesson – rallying on asphalt. Completely different specifications, both in the compilation of pace notes and in the driving style. I had to work a lot on myself to get out the aggressive and fast steering that was common on gravel. Pace notes require a different precision with special attention to the distance between the corners. The third lesson – new acquaintances and friendships, and the Polish language. After the first year with the team, I could speak fluently in Polish and there are people with whom I still communicate only in their language. If it weren’t for the rally seasons in Poland, I wouldn’t know the language now.
Photos – Nuotraukos – Jakub Nazim, Tomasz Macherzynski, Tomasz Kalinski, Maciej Niechwiadowicz, Bartolomiej Zywarski, Grzegorz Rybarski