Snow, sleet and deluges of rain were already sinking into the Cambrian hills when the ten Bowler 90s plunged into the forests of Powys on Saturday morning. The bitter deluge continued all weekend, creating treacherous conditions that caught out a number of competitors.
Stage times were close and attrition rates were high, with rough terrain, tight hairpins and the constant threat of encroaching trees keeping the drivers on their toes as they blasted through the seven long stages at speeds of up to 100mph.
The drama began even before the Saturday start, with a roll for off-road newbie Dan Trent and rally veteran Quin Evans during a practice session on Friday. Buckled bodywork and a dented roll cage made their 90 unfit for competition, so an emergency call was put in to Jonny Harford (2014 Defender Challenge champ) who trailered his Bowler 90 to Wales from Wiltshire, allowing the Bowler technicians to exchange the bodywork and roll cage in the middle of the night.
On Saturday, 2014 driver’s champion Edd Cobley stayed ahead of the pack in his new, red Bowler 90, sponsored by Sturgess Land Rover, with experienced competitor John Tomley in the co-driver’s seat. Equipped with a larger-than-standard turbo and a quicker steering rack, Cobley was often delivering the fastest times of any road-legal car at the Welsh Hillrally (finally pipped to the post by the road-legal 4.6 V8 Discovery 2 of Ashley Short and Steve Almond). Power steering pump failure brought Cobley's 90 back to the service area spewing hydraulic fluid and briefly put his lead in jeopardy, but after a quick pump swap Cobley was soon back in the game.
Chasing him down was Gareth Carruthers in the new Lookers-sponsored 90, co-driven by Wallace Mackay. Gareth’s a rally veteran with victories last year at the Scottish Cross Country Championship, and the Four Wheel Drive Club of Northern Ireland comp safari championship. Used to competing in Bowler Wildcats, Gareth was impressed with what the Defender Challenge 90s are capable of. ‘They do stuff you really wouldn’t expect them to, especially in the rough, technical sections – that’s where they really come into their own. You don’t need to back off much, because the suspension and the tyres are so good.’
Also from Northern Ireland, David Johnston and Joseph Monaghan had an early crunch, cresting a summit while ‘probably carrying a bit too much speed’ admitted David. His 90 came to rest on its side, to be recovered by the Tafts coming up behind. Having made the journey to Wales from Northern Ireland via Scotland due to a travel agent’s balls-up, it was a drama that David and Joseph could have done without…
Despite their gallantry, Damien and Simon Taft were later slapped with a hefty 15-minute time penalty for failing to stop at a time control, intended to slow vehicles down on the approach to a rickety bridge. Given how close the times were all weekend, chances of bouncing back from such a large penalty were slim.
Visibility worsened in the afternoon. ‘You’re absolutely blind out there,’ said Edd after the final stage of the day. ‘It’s bloody slippy too. We’ve had a couple of close calls but fortunately nothing too scary, no offs. I’ve backed down a bit now anyway.’ Meanwhile, as drivers and technicians chugged tea by the gallon to stave off the cold, Gareth Carruthers remained relaxed about the day ahead: ‘Just get to the finish and drive as smoothly as you can. That’s the trick – don’t be erratic.’
Fog descended on day two, and the competition became closer still. Remarkably, Stage 5 saw two sets of identical times being achieved by five teams: Dave Harlow and Christian Femont both delivered 15 mins 43 sec, while Damien Taft, Richard Hayward and Brian Palmer all came in with 16 mins 49 sec, with Dan Trent just ten seconds behind.
Stage 6 spelled an early end to the Tafts’ already frustrating weekend, with their 90 flipping onto its roof. Also pointing skywards on Stage 6 were the wheels of Dutch newcomers Bas van Driel and Frank Keijsers, putting an end to an otherwise admirable performance. Fortunately no one was injured in either roll, and Bas remained in a positive mood.
‘We’re enjoying the feeling of brotherhood here, and camaraderie,’ said Bas. ‘We’ve come here for the first time and everyone is really welcoming and supportive. In other events we’ve been to in Europe, it’s totally different. The way of thinking about the cars is very different here as well. People live for the sport. In the Netherlands, no – it’s a hobby. Here you get the kind of people who say, “Okay it’s expensive, so we’ll eat less”. They might drive a Ferrari but live in a caravan. We like that! In the Netherlands, first you get a big house, garden, children…’ Bas and Frank are the first Defender Challenge team to build their own Bowler 90, converting a Defender 90 in the Netherlands using a kit supplied by Bowler.
The final results revealed the closeness of the rivalry, but Edd Cobley took the victory, beating Gareth Carruthers by a little over three minutes – not a large margin considering they were competing over almost two and a half hours of stages. The two came in sixth and seventh overall, proving the competitiveness of the Bowler 90s, as well as the pace of their driving. Meanwhile, David Harlow lost the battle for third place to Christian Femont by just 14 seconds.
Having magnanimously recovered both upturned 90s as well as two other non-Defender Challenge competitors, David Johnston rightly earned the ‘Spirit of the Rally’ award – remaining upbeat throughout, despite the team’s own eventful start to the weekend.
Round three of the Defender Challenge 2015 takes place at Walters Hillrally on 18-19 July. Visit the Welsh Hillrally website for more info.
2015 Defender Challenge by Bowler – Round 2 Results
Welsh Hillrally at Sweet Lamb Motorsport Complex
1 Edd Cobley / John Tomley (Sturgess)
2 Gareth Carruthers / Wallce McKay (Lookers)
3 Christian Femont / Leon Vanhausebrouck
4 David Harlow / Sara Smith (The Defenderists)
5 Brian Palmer / Ann McCandlish
6 Richard Hayward / Matthew Lister
7 Dan Trent / Quin Evans (Land Rover Media)
8 Richard Johnston / Joseph Monaghan (Northern Ireland Racing)
9 Damien Taft/Simon Taft (DNF)
Bas van Driel / Frank Keijsers (DNF)
Land Rover Owner International is proud to be the official media partner of the 2015 Defender Challenge by Bowler. For more information on the championship, see: bowlermotorsport.com