Murmansk, Very, Very Northern Russia - Twenty-eight cars roared off from this town in the frozen Russian Arctic on Thursday for the world's longest winter car rally, an epic 16 000km slog for a 10kg pot of gold.

The Expedition Trophy, first raced in 2005, demands a mix of driving skill, resourcefulness and stamina. Last year it set records for including eclipsing the Dakar as the world's longest race and for having the most female competitors in a motorsport event.

Each team of two men and a woman is now heading from Murmansk on a two-week trek to the eastern seaport of Vladivostok.

"This is extreme," said Sven Beerweiler, a US-based travel operator from Stuttgart in Germany. "I'm expecting something very unusual... something exciting, since the weather will be very different to what I'm used to."

Last year the first prize went to the Moscow-based Sea Wolves who set a benchmark time for driving across some of Russia's most inhospitable terrain.

This year there are a number of underdogs - one unhappily called the Yorkshire Terriers, would you believe - with little experience of gruelling driving.

"We're like the Jamaican bobsled team - we'll be lucky to get to the other end," said Briton Philip Cornelius, adding that even if his team, racing like most competitors in a Mitsubishi, was eliminated they would press on to the finish.

The organiers are confident that, with two editions under their belt, the event termed "the new adventure of the 21st Century" will become a magnet for adventurers and enthusiasts and grow each year.

"This is the only event that crosses such a large territory," said chief organiser and Siberian entrepreneur Alexander Krasnov.

The basic route is about 12 000km but most teams will cover another 4000km as they deviate perhaps 400km from Russia's main highways to perform navigational and initiative tasks.

Places on a chartered train that will follow the teams is a tourist option for private adventurers seeking to cross Russia's vast steppes in comfort.

The race, for those taking part, is as much a test of self as a sporting event, say drivers who pressed on to the end last year despite being eliminated.

They had to drive continuously for up to three days on a single leg of the journey, taking turns to sleep in the back seat. At other times sleep breaks were organised in sports stadiums and supermarkets.

The rally will cross some of Russia's most beautiful but also most inhospitable territory, passing through the northern forests of Karelia and Siberian cities such as Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk and Khabarovsk. - Sapa-DPA