What’s the off-roading mantra? As slow as possible, as fast as necessary? Hmm, we’ll have less of that. How about as fast as possible, as slow as necessary, instead? That sounds better…
We’re at the Phil Price Rally School (philprice.co.uk) in Powys and have booked the venue to learn how to rag the nuts off our Freelander without killing it. Or us. Or anyone else.
Ace rally driver, Freelander Challenge co-creater and vehicle modifier Chris Ratter is going to show Martin and me the ropes, so we’ll be up to speed when we compete in the Freelander Challenge later in the year.
Martin has done a fair amount of fast driving – he has a talent for drifting saloon cars after growing up in the Bronx – but I have little experience of what it feels to like to drive on the more interesting side of 50mph. Let’s see how we get on.
Chris modified our 1.8-litre Freelander 1 station wagon in his workshop (xceedmotorsport.co.uk) to bring it up to Freelander Challenge spec, which included fitting the roll cage, bucket seats, harnesses and fire extinguisher, and removing the rear seats and trim. We featured the project in our Aug 2015-Jan 2016 issues.
He gives the vehicle a quick check-over, then we go for a gentle run around the course so we can see what’s in store.
We’ve got the site to ourselves; and in case we break the our Freelander, Chris has a spare in the back of his comprehensively equipped support truck (Yes, it looks as cool as it sounds).
We have a safety briefing, including the importance of fireproof overalls (they’re only designed to give a few seconds’ protection, but those seconds can be enough to get you out of a burning car), plus what to do in the event of an accident.
‘If we do roll, wait for it to stop before making any decisions,’ says Chris, ‘and don’t just release the seatbelt, especially if we’re on our side – you may fall.’
The roll cage should protect us if we do overcook it, but the rally school’s tracks are built on a hill so, if we get it wrong, we could go quite a way before stopping.
Chris has brought along crash helmets and HANS (head and neck support) devices. Designed to stop your neck breaking in an accident, a HANS device sits over your shoulders, under the shoulder straps of the harness and attaches to your helmet.
‘You don’t need these for the Freelander Challenge,’ explains Chris, ‘but I’ve walked away from a couple of very bad crashes thanks to one of these, so I won’t race without one.’
Fair comment, and they cost only £20 or so to hire per event (hirefit.co.uk). Gaining experience I head out in the Freelander first. It has rained overnight, but it’s drying out now. I start off gingerly, letting the 1.8 engine get up to temperature. We’ve replaced the cooling system but haven’t really tested it since, so I’m watching that needle.
‘Give it some revs,’ encourages Chris through the intercom when the motor’s warm. ‘You’ll need to keep the revs up if you want to make progress – take it to the redline before changing up.’
I obey and the engine screams.
Chris is right – the engine is right in the middle of the power band when I change up.
‘You can see where you should be putting the wheels,’ continues Chris, his eyes darting up the track ahead of us. ‘Look for the smooth areas, where the stones have been pushed off the track – that’s where the traction is.’
I steer to avoid a rock and place the Freelander’s wheels in the clear area of track and we approach a hairpin right. ‘Keep the power on and brake hard at the last minute, drop to second gear and floor it.’
I don’t quite achieve that on the first run – I brake early, select second gear and accelerate slowly out of the corner. But by the third run, I’m getting better.
Off the racing line
‘Run wide and you’ll see the dierence in traction,’ says Chris.
I do, and the Freelander slides. I flick the steering to get back on the right line; I’ve plenty of experience of driving off-road on loose surfaces, so basic control is still the same. Just one dierence – the speed!
I’m getting faster, but I’m still way off where I should be – I need to have more confidence in the Freelander and the grip available from the 235/75 R15 Toyo OpenCountry A/T tyres.
I head back to the pits and we let the vehicle cool down a little – the engine’s fine but the dampers are struggling – before Martin heads out.
He’s taking the corners much cleaner than I was and is a second or two quicker through every corner – not much individually, but added up over an event, the time dierence would be huge.
The suspension is starting to clunk a little. We’ve replaced a few parts recently, but some – including the anti-roll bar bushes – are probably original. And they don’t like what we’re doing.
‘The suspension is one of the best bits of the Freelander 1,’ says Chris. ‘The independent set-up means the wheels can respond to the bumps quicker than beam axles on Defenders, making it much easier to drive.’
It certainly doesn’t feel like it’s getting out of shape. Well, not to start with, at least; but towards the end of the day when we’re getting more competitive and driving quicker, the dampers are getting seriously hot.
Like driving a jelly
We don’t need to touch them to know that – the handling is really starting to deteriorate, with the Freelander lurching all over the place. I start to slow a little, but Chris urges me on: ‘Keep going, so you know how to handle it when the dampers fail.’
I can’t help thinking that I’d back off in competition, but we flollop round the rest of the route – it’s much harder to drive when you’re bouncing all over the place, uncontrolled.
We let it cool for a while before Martin heads out again – and he experiences the same problems, but keeps it all under control.
We haven’t managed to kill the Freelander – the only bit we’ve broken is the exhaust, and the bushes are worn. The engine is responding favourably to our thrashing and ticks over nicely.
Martin is still quicker than me – carrying more speed into the corners and getting the line right – while I still lack the confidence to go into corners hot. I’ve always said I’m a better navigator than driver – but at least I now have the skills to drive the Freelander fast under control.
And you know what? It’s made normal on-road driving more fun because I know the engine will take the abuse – now we’ve just got to get along to a round of the Freelander Challenge and put our training into practice.
Watch this space...