In its first full 24H SERIES campaign, Buggyra ZM Racing’s intention is clear: to win the GT4 Teams’ championship. That, of course, could be easier said than done, but as CREVENTIC discovered with Aliyyah Koloc last time out in Monza, this team is no stranger to success…
Words – James Gent
Images – Nico Mombaerts / Petr Frýba
“Oh yeah, we want to win the GT4 category this year. It will not be easy, but we are enjoying the competition, and it wouldn’t be as satisfying if we won the title ‘easily.’ So, it will be a long year but the fight will be fun and hopefully we can end it with a title!”
At face value, Buggyra ZM Racing’s championship aspirations shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Since its foundation as ‘Baghira’ in 1969 by the late Václav Král, Buggyra has established itself as one of the most successful truck racing teams on the planet, with six European Truck Racing Championships already to its name (five of which came in the seven years after the team’s rebrand in 2000) as well as six world speed truck records. Success is clearly nothing new to this Czech-based operation.
Having said that, while Buggyra’s FIA ETRC program is now more than two decades into its stride (and was built upon ‘Baghira’s first steps into national truck racing competition back in 1993), the team’s GT division, another equally as complex motor racing discipline to conquer, has only been up and running since 2019. And even that to begin with was focused solely on a Lamborghini Super Trofeo Europe campaign (fair’s fair, the acclimated Mičánek Motorsport
that oversees the program has been doing so since 2017).
Buggyra’s GT3 and GT4 Mercedes-AMGs meanwhile only joined the flock in 2020 and 2021, respectively. Indeed, while Buggyra ZM Racing has quickly established itself as a GT4 pillar in the 24H SERIES this year, the recent Hankook 12H MONZA was only the fifth CREVENTIC event for the #416 Mercedes-AMG GT4 since its debut at Spa last year.
Capable of on-track success as Buggyra ZM Racing has clearly proven itself over the last two decades alone, one does wonder, given the intricacies involved with endurance motor racing, whether GT4 championship success will be far easier said than done for the Czech newcomer.
As our conversation with Aliyyah Koloc continues though, our cynicism begins to crack. As it has done with truck racing, the Super Trofeo, GT3s and, as of 2011, the notorious Dakar Rally, Buggyra – “Bug-ee-rah” – is constantly adapting and improving with every 12-hour race that rolls beneath the Mercedes’ tyres. It’s a learning curve that, Aliyyah assures us, is starting to level out…
“For sure we’ve learned a lot since last year,” Aliyyah continues. “[The 2022 Hankook 12H SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS] was our first time doing a long endurance race, because before that, we only did one hour races, so it was a big jump. But this year, there has been a lot of new tracks, so there’s still a lot to learn. But compared with last year, we have a lot more experience, not just on the driving side but also with teamwork on tyre changes, refueling, strategy… everywhere, we’re getting a little better, so overall, there’s been a lot of improvement.”
Leaving the team’s challenge aside for a second, one could argue that the pressure of a championship campaign is a lot to hoist upon the shoulders of a still-18-year-old Aliyyah as well. Unfairly, as it turns out. Aliyyah after all, like her twin sister Yasmeen (both were born in Dubai in 2004, if you were wondering about that Emirati racing licence), is a graduate of the Buggyra Academy. It’s a training program based in the Czech Republic that’s tailored to “versatile, all-round” young drivers that gives them experiential opportunities in go-karts, GT racing, trucks and rally raids. It means, even at 18 years old, and still just three years into her motor racing tenure (both Koloc sisters were focused on a career in professional tennis before both suffered significant knee injuries), Aliyyah already has a wealth of motor racing experience behind her.
“Oh, the academy, for me, has been really great. I’ve had the opportunity to drive so many different cars, from karts to trucks, and off-road as well. I also started racing pretty late, at 15, so it was a great chance to get a lot of experience in a short amount of time.”
No kidding! In 2020, a then-15-year-old Aliyyah made her competitive debut in the French Truck Racing Championship (an official test a few months earlier aboard a Can-Am buggy in Tunisia acted as a warm-up!), and impressed by finishing on the podium first time out. Shortly after that, Aliyyah became the youngest-ever driver to compete in the European Truck Racing Championship, and later that same year, she broke two world speed records for a truck across the half-kilometre – one flying, one from a standing start – achieving a staggering 284.13kph in the process. All before she was legally allowed to drive on the road!
Since then, alongside her Smiling Eyes Foundation ambassadorial work, she has made – and finished – her debut on the Dakar Rally, completed a full season in the NASCAR Euro Whelan Series, and even won the FIA Middle East Cup for Cross-Country Bajas championship at her first attempt in 2022. A steep learning curve is clearly nothing new to Aliyyah…
“For sure it’s not been easy, especially going from off-road to circuits. But the more practice I get, the easier it’s been to adapt. And I think each discipline has helped me improve as a driver. I see this especially when I come back to GTs after testing in rallies. Somehow, I’m a lot quicker! Like in Abu Dhabi: I was really surprised, after competing on the Dakar Rally, my quick laptimes came after, like, five laps!” And yes, we will come back to Abu Dhabi shortly.
Aliyyah does modestly admit though that the jump to GT4 machinery, despite a season in the Championnat de France FFSA GT in 2022 to help get her up to speed, has been… different. Turns out driving a front-V8-engined, rear-wheel driven 476hp GT Mercedes is a little different to racing a mid-Gyrtech-engined, 1,150hp VK50 that stands just under 9ft tall, weighs just short of six tonnes, and can still hit 160kph…
“When I started, I started with truck racing: there’s shifting, there’s no ABS, and there’s no traction control, so you have to really rely on your skills. Then coming to GTs, there was all these electronics, which was so nice to have! Of course, the GTs are faster, so that took a while to get used to, but I think the trucks, for sure, helped me improve my driving skills without all the [electronic] help. So, going to GT racing was… not easier, because for sure, it has its difficult parts, but I think [truck racing] helped me get up to speed quicker.”
As her beaming smile suggests, Aliyyah is clearly happy with her progress, and as our conversation continues, her confidence in her family team, unsurprisingly, is absolute (her father Martin, the European Truck Racing Champion of 1995 and 1996, has been at the helm since 2000). And to be fair, Buggyra’s 24H SERIES results so far do back that faith up: in five outings, the team has finished all but one of them on the class podium and won two of them, the first of which was at the Hankook 6H ABU DHABI back in January.
A close-fought affair it was too: after the first hour, the Buggyra Mercedes led nearest rival Simpson Motorsport by just 17s, and while the British team was eventually felled by a broken rear sub-frame, the gauntlet was thereafter taken up by seasoned GT competitor, Ram Racing. A loose fuel filler cap for the latter, plus a time penalty, proved costly, but at the flag, with Buggyra gambling on a long final stint with worn tyres, there was still barely two minutes between the two Mercedes.
It was a performance the team called “the perfect start to the circuit racing season,” not least because both Aliyyah and teammate David Vršecky had just spent 15 grueling days completing the Dakar Rally less than a week earlier.
“For sure, the first win is always nice, and that race was very challenging: there was a lot of ups and downs! But that’s the beauty with these long races. You never know what might happen. At one point we went from last, then to 1st, so for sure the journey to the win made it more special.”
The fight for GT4 honours was similarly close at the European season opener in Mugello. Now up against South Korea’s Atlas BX Motorsport, a former class winner of CREVENTIC’s prestigious Hankook 24H DUBAI, Buggyra made a strong start to its weekend by setting class pole position, though a suspected brake issue, and the precautionary pit stop, meant the #416 Mercedes had dropped to 3rd, six laps adrift, going into the overnight intervention. Ironically, Atlas BX’s healthy lead was eradicated when the Mercedes’ left rear wheel came loose on the penultimate lap.
Though the pair were rarely more than a minute apart, the Tuscan day ultimately belonged to Atlas BX when a clutch issue ground the Buggyra Mercedes to a halt with less than 15 minutes left on the clock. A vexing way to start the European season, although a level-headed Aliyyah accepts that a solid points finish was nothing to scoff at…
“I think for sure it was a positive weekend, because we still learned a lot. Even though we didn’t get the win, we had a good strategy, and …yes, it was painful, and at the time it did not feel good, but over the next few days, thinking about it, we knew we’d made big steps.”
Championship momentum shifted noticeably at round two in Spa, ironically one year on from Buggyra’s rocky 24H SERIES debut (we don’t go into more detail, but Aliyyah lets a short, sharp laugh slip out, suggesting she remembers it all too well!). Three hours in, Yasmeen, whilst battling for 4th in-class, inadvertently made contact with AC Motorsport’s Stéphane Perrin on the exit of Les Combes, a collision that eliminated both the Mercedes-AMG and the Audi RS 3 in the process.
Paradoxically, while Buggyra had further obstacles to overcome at Spa this year – in biblically heavy rain, David Vršecky survived a terrifying aquaplane down the hill to Eau Rouge, the spinning Mercedes only just missing the barriers – the 2023 Hankook 12H SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS was easily the team’s strongest performance to-date. The #416 AMG, having controlled the rapidly changeable conditions, often on dry tyres, made no mistakes and came home three laps clear of the GT4 field, netting the class championship lead in the process.
Once again, and just to make life more difficult, Aliyyah went into the event having completed her first South Africa’s Sugarbelt 400 off-road rally one week prior!
“Spa was definitely my favourite [race]! Such an iconic track, and I think it’s my favourite [track] too. So much variation and so much can happen, and in terms of experience, we’ve only been there twice! So, across the whole season, we have the most amount of experience at that track! We had the spin, which was… stressful! But, no, I enjoyed that race a lot!”
Heading into round three of the season– the returning Hankook 12H MONZA – Buggyra ZM Racing held a 12-point lead in the GT4 standings over Atlas BX (alternator problems meant the South Korean team could only manage 5th in Belgium). As in Mugello and Spa, Aliyyah teamed with two-time European Truck Racing champion Vršecky – a team staple since joining in 1998 – and Adam Lacko. The latter, like Vršecky, is a former ETRC champion and a Buggyra Academy instructor, and before joining the team full-time in 2014 (he’d previously signed as a third driver in 2005), Lacko previously competed in both the World Touring Car Championship and the FIA GT Championship. Particularly handy, since Lacko was the only one of the three to have previously competed at Monza…
The team’s trademark consistency kept Buggyra in good shape early on. At the end of Aliyyah’s double stint, three hours in, the #416 Mercedes was running a comfortable 2nd in-class, just over 70 seconds behind title rival Atlas BX. As in Mugello, the #403 Mercedes-AMG GT4, having already taken GT4 class pole, was setting a strong pace, but bold strategy was keeping Buggyra in-play. During the fifth hour, the Czech team even took the class lead.
Sadly, during the final hour on day one, technical problems took hold towards the end of Vršecky’s stint…
“My stint [on the Saturday] went pretty well. It was long, it was a double stint, but it was good because I was managing my tyres and not doing anything crazy.
“Monza… doesn’t feel very long because there’s a lot of fast straights, but it’s a very nice track to drive, and it was cool to see the difference between all of us: it was the first time for me and David, so we’re learning a lot from each other, gaining a lot of experience, and our laptimes were pretty similar too. In the end, we did have a problem with the brakes during David’s stint, so then he had to pit for, I think it was 15 minutes.”
Come the end of ‘part one,’ Buggyra had dropped to 3rd in-class, seven laps behind Atlas BX. Not an insurmountable hill to climb for a team used to service stops in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert, but a blow, nonetheless…
“Dakar is the toughest race in the world, where you need to adapt and be able to quickly fix problems that occur. For GT endurance races that is very important as well, so our team has always been very good at that.”
Ironically mirroring Atlas BX’s woes in Spa, Aliyyah, Vršecky and Lacko ended up losing a further 37 minutes the following morning with alternator problems. The trio eventually went the distance at least to finish 3rd in-class, but ended up 20 laps down on the victorious Atlas BX, and heading into this weekend’s Hankook 12H ESTORIL, their 12-point championship lead has been depleted to just four.
As we said at the beginning, championship success could be far easier said than done for the Czech newcomer.
Aliyyah Koloc though, as she has done throughout our conversation, remains positive: we’re reminded that six European Truck Racing Championships don’t just happen overnight, and as in Mugello, a solid-if-truncated finish at Monza is better than no points at all. Plus, there’s still a lot of GT endurance racing to complete in 2023 – 18 hours alone in Estoril, plus Aliyyah’s maiden 24-hour race in Barcelona in September – and as team and driver alike have learnt from the gruelling, oh-so-unpredictable Dakar Rally over the last decade, going the distance is never easy.
“In endurance racing, it rarely happens that there are no troubles, so the ability to find quick solutions is an essential part of the success. We still have a long what to go and we are here to face any challenges in order to bring the best result possible. So, yes, [Monza] was a frustrating weekend but I think we managed things very well and can take some positives with us.
“In order to win the championship we have to keep delivering strong race results, especially with the points being so close. We, of course, want to win the championship, but we’re going to be taking this race-by-race, one step at a time.”