Land Rovers were never meant to be fast. And they certainly weren’t meant to be chucked around forest tracks at speed. But that’s exactly what was happening at the Forest Experience in mid-Wales when the crews competing in the Bowler Defender Challenge 2022 got behind the wheel of Defender racers to enjoy their first taste of the vehicles they’ll be competing in this season.
Twelve crews will be competing in the 7 rounds, across a variety of terrains, from gravel stage rallies to off-road comp safaris in the modified Land Rover Defender 90s. The P300 models they’ll be competing in have rolled off the production line and been transformed into the off-road racers by the experts at Bowler Motorsport, now part of Land Rover’s Special Vehicle Operations division.
Changes have been made throughout the vehicle, with the biggest being the introduction of a full internal roll cage and bracing which makes the already stiff monocoque bodyshell even stiffer. Other safety-related changes have been made, and vulnerable – in rallying terms – items like the twin auxiliary radiators and lower door sections have been removed. You can read more about the changes in our October 2021 issue.
And it’s a good job that the changes have been made, as after a safety briefing the first drivers are out in the vehicles onto the slippery Welsh forest rally stage. Although it’s a practice day, Clerk of the Course Jon Aston is running it like a full competitive event; motorsport can be dangerous, as the saying goes.
And after a few runs a message comes over the radio that one of the racers hasn’t passed a marshal control point, so the course is closed and recovery crews and ambulance are sent out. One of the drivers has miss-judged the corner and slid off into a tree stump, taking out the front bumper and denting the heavy-duty steering guard. It’s a good job the auxiliary radiator had been removed as part of the build – that would have been punctured in the impact.
The crew are fine; the Defender is extracted and after a thorough check-over by Bowler’s mechanics, is back out again, albeit looking a little more battle-scarred than it started the day.
‘I’ve been interested in motorsport since I was 15 or 16. I used to watch a lot of rallying, then got more into circuit racing and Formula 1, but it’s always been on my bucket list to do this.’ Gareth Bent
The crews consist of two people – driver and navigator – and there’s a real mix of experience, from those who have never competed in motorsport before, to others who have numerous rallies under their belt. And there’s a wealth of knowledge on-hand for the crews to learn from, from Dave Marsh and John Coburn in the driver’s seat and Jon Aston and John Tomley from the navigator’s perspective. And, of course, the mechanics to explain to the crews how to keep the vehicles going – if they have a problem on stage, like needing to change a wheel, they’ll need to know how to do it safely.
They also need to know what to do in the event of an accident or being first on the scene of an incident on a stage – and the events marshals are roped in to act out what could happen.
Dave Marsh passes on some wisdom: ‘a fire extinguisher is solely there to buy you time to get out of the vehicle – it’s unlikely it will be able to extinguish a vehicle that’s on fire.’ Get out and get clear of the vehicle.
Jon Aston sets the scene with a ‘crashed’ Defender, explaining crews’ roles. ‘Once you are sure the vehicle is secure,’ explains the paramedic, ‘if there is someone still in the crashed vehicle, approach it from the front. If you approach from the side, the occupant may try to turn their head to talk to you, which could exacerbate a neck injury.’ Sound advice that also applies if you’re first on the scene of a road crash.
With the ‘casualty’ safely extracted, Debbie from Maverick Recovery shows how to recover the Land Rover.
This may seem like a lot of not racing, but it is key for the crews to finish events – everything from kit to carry, marking up road books and lines to take is covered. And the unpredictable Welsh weather makes for equally as unpredictable driving. Low sun blinds drivers as they exit from corners, a light snow shower makes the track even more slippery, but not as slippery as the second day of the event, when early morning ice is a factor, thawing to leave a slushy surface.
‘It’s been a great couple of days, the customers are having a great time with the car, learning it. I think people are realising how good and strong the car is. There’s been quite a steep learning curve from some of them, but they’ve progressed quickly because the car is so good; it’s very controllable, it’s very predictable in how it behaves.’ Calum McKechnie, general manager, Bowler Motors
Dave Marsh has tried to incorporate a little bit of everything into the practice route, with fast sections, tight bends, rocks, water, forests – everything the competitors should expect when it comes to competing in the series. Which is just as well – the first round, a Bowler Defender Challenge-only event takes place at Walters Arena on 5-6 March. And after that they’ll be competing at:
26 March 2022 Rally North Wales
25-27 May 2022 Welsh Borders Hill Rally
18 June 2022 Kielder Forest Rally
23-24 September 2022 Trackrod Rally Yorkshire
29 October 2022 Cambrian Rally
19-20 November 2022 Scottish Hill Rally
So you’ll be able to pop along and hopefully see some of the action.
For more details about the Bowler Defender Challenge, check out the Bowler website.