Before the Volvo Ocean Race competitors set sail on the first leg of this year’s epic contest, two dozen equipment operators from across Europe headed to Spain for a test of skill and precision: the European Operators Club Final 2011.
At the start of every Volvo Ocean Race, there’s an atmosphere of nervous excitement in the race village – and this year, even more so, as Volvo Construction Equipment (Volvo CE) held its European Operators Club Final in the Spanish port town of Alicante in the week leading up to the race, which begins on November 5th.
The Operators Club started a decade ago in Germany and has grown considerably since then, with five other European nations now participating and several more to follow. All machine operators are welcome in the club, whether they operate Volvo machines or those made by other brands. Today there are about 9,000 members who receive benefits like free entrance to trade fairs, factory visits, Volvo merchandise and, of course, the chance to compete for the European title, which not only carries great prestige but also comes with a prize of €1,000.
“Operators typically don’t buy the machines themselves, but their preferences often have a very strong impact upon their employers’ purchasing decisions,” says Carl Gindahl, project coordinator for the competition’s grand finale in Alicante. “By bringing the operators together, we can better listen to their needs for future machines.”
Operators Club members compete in a series of national competitions, often held in association with trade shows or demonstrations, where their skill, concentration, determination and precision are put to the test. Winners of these national competitions go through to the annual European final – this year held before the start of the Volvo Ocean Race, another contest of dexterity, endurance and fortitude.
This year’s three-part final started in a cement quarry north of Alicante. In the first challenge, operators used a Volvo EC250D excavator to move three baseballs balanced on top of poles to an identical set of poles three meters away – all against the clock. Next they maneuvered an L110G wheel loader through a tight and uneven slalom course, picking up time penalties if they hit any of the marker poles.
The third and final discipline of the final was held in the pressure-cooker environment of the main stage in the Volvo Ocean Race village. Here, surrounded by hundreds of onlookers, the contestants had to operate an EC18C compact excavator, fishing for floating plastic ducks with a hook on the end of a chain that was attached to the excavator bucket.
“These operators are highly skilled and at the controls of some of the most innovative construction machines available, so the challenges were deliberately tough,” said Steve Skinner, project manager for the event and Volvo CE’s European corporate communication manager.
Prince Carl Philip of Sweden also made a special appearance during the contest, when, along with Volvo Group President Olof Persson, he tried his hand at an L250G wheel loader and an ECR305CL excavator. After just two hours, the prince demonstrated a real affinity for the machines – particularly the tiltrotator fitted to the excavator.
In the end, the champion was Yves Jans from Belgium, who completed the three challenges in the fastest overall time. Clearly delighted, Yves received a trophy and prize money from Olof Persson during a ceremony onstage at the race village.
“These guys are such good operators, and to beat them is absolutely fantastic,” he said. “To do it here in the middle of this amazing Volvo Ocean Race environment is beyond words!”.
This was Yves’s first Operators Club Final. As if to affirm the high standard of skills needed to operate equipment in Europe, he remarked: “I didn’t do any special training for this. I spend my working days in my excavator, and that’s where I get all the training I need.”
The runner-up in this year’s final was Austrian Othmar Pletzer, while compatriot Martin Moser claimed third place, with a margin of less than five seconds on Robert Bekink from the Netherlands.
Picture 1: Volvo Group President and CEO Olof Persson (far left) presents trophies to the top three competitors in the Operators Club Final, held before the 2011-2012 Volvo Ocean Race kicks off this weekend in Alicante, Spain. From left, the winners are Austria’s Othmar Pletzer (second place), Belgium’s Yves Jans (first place) and Austria’s Martin Moser (third place).
Picture 2: A contestant uses a Volvo EC18C compact excavator to complete a challenge during the Operators Club Final in Alicante.
Picture 3: The Volvo race village is shown by night in Alicante, where the Volvo Ocean Race will begin this weekend