A large thump echoes across the clearing. One of the racers has just endured a very hard landing after a jump, and the sump guard has done what it was designed for; to protect the engine from trauma on this sort of thing. I’m at round 1 of the Tata Elxsi Bowler Defender Challenge 2022 and the crews are getting to getting to grips with their new Land Rovers.
The twelve Land Rovers have been brought up to identical stage rally spec and today is the first time the crews have seen their vehicles – and it will be the first time they’ll be racing them, but first there’s a bit of set-up required.
We’re at the fabulous Walters Arena motorsport venue and this round of the challenge is a Bowler-only event, allowing the crews to get used to the vehicles, initially with a road drive out, then a day’s practice before the timed event on Sunday.
It’s soon clear that the crews aren’t going to take things easy despite times not counting on the practice day as they start to push the P300 Defenders, and themselves, to the limit on the twisting 7-mile course.
Clerk-of-the-Course Jon Aston has done a great job of the track, including as much variety as possible to let the crews get the best experience, and they are appreciating being in their own vehicles, rather than Bowler’s demonstrator.
‘I preferred it,’ smiles Gareth Bent of GP Racing. ‘I felt quite nervous driving the Bowler car, but driving something that’s mine – it’s our problem if we prang it, I’m a bit more comfortable with that.’
And things don’t quite go to plan on the practice day: ‘we had an off mid-way through the afternoon, which curtailed our testing. I think we were quite lucky; we went down a steep bank and the trees stopped us rolling down the bank, but we did get stuck in a ditch at the bottom. It probably took us about 3 hours to get it out,’ Gareth explains.
Others are coming back in with light damage to their vehicles, showing they are pushing it, and lap times quicken as the day progresses, and everyone is ready for race day.
With the dirt of the practise day washed off, and the crews seeded in speed order, they’re sent off at one-minute intervals. Manx rally driver Mark Higgins has been seeded first, so he heads off and sets the time to beat, the gravel track still being wet after a cold night. All crews get round and line up for the second run. But disaster strikes.
The all-female Norwegian ACE-Racing team have had an off. ‘We went into the ruts and mis-judged it slightly,’ recounts Christina, ‘we slid into them, the rear end went out and we went sky-rocketing out on the side, did a 360º flip in the air, landed on the roof and then did a somersault and landed on the wheels.’
‘It could have been worse,’ continues Christina Dobloug, ‘no engine or transmission problems; mostly body panels.’
‘And we’re both okay,’ adds co-driver Anette Fjeld, the relief evident in her voice, ‘but we need some sponsors to help fix the car…’ Interested in helping them get back on the road? You can find them on instagram.com/ace_racing.no
As more laps are completed the conditions change. ‘It’s dried up a bit but there are a lot more punctures now; we’ve just come in with one,’ Gary Bulley in the Dartmoor 4x4 Defender tells me. ‘That was a bit of a disaster as we were up to fourth, but we’re back to sixth now.’
Gary has come to the series with a wealth of experience. ‘I’ve done comp safaris and stuff in the past, I’ve got a bowler wildcat that I race with the Cornwall and Devon Land Rover Club and also the All Wheel Drive Club, so I’ve competed here before.’
‘It’s interesting, he continues, ‘I’m getting the hang of it now; it’s completely different to your normal stage rally car and you’re a little bit higher up and a bit insulated from it, but it performs amazingly well. You think it’s not going to get round a corner but it grips and throws you round. It’s fun to drive as you get to master it.’
And he’s not the only one to suffer with tyre problems, Despite using tough BFGoodrich All Terrains, Defender after Defender is coming in with a flat tyre.
‘We stopped to change one,’ says John Tomley, ‘and that cost us a lot of time.’
Like the others, Mark Higgins has been getting progressively quicker, recording the quickest times, but a miscalculation sees him out of the event, with the Defender rolling to a halt within sight of the finish line. With no live recovery, he has to display the OK board and wait out for the course to be closed until he can get the Defender back to the pits.
Frazer Williams has had a better day and has already loaded his Defender onto his trailer before some crews have completed four of their seven laps. ‘It’s my son’s 13th birthday,’ he laughs, ‘I’ve got to get home to see him!’
‘I’ve been off-road rallying for something like 25 years,’ he tells me. ‘I started with a QT88, back with Dave Marsh – who now works for Bowler – many years ago. I kept that a number of years, went into powerboat racing, bought a Suzuki Jimny did the Portuguese Baja and other Iberian events and also competed in Iceland. We saw this in Iceland and thought ‘time for an upgrade’ And it handles lovely. Really please with today’s performance we’ll see where we come.’
Another person who’s been having a good day is Jamie Thwaites in Talos Vehicles Defender. ‘At the moment I’m first and this is my first ever rally event; I’ve come from circuit racing, so I’m shocked and very pleased. We’re just waiting for the guy who is currently in second and we’ll see if we stay there.’
The car is mega, I drive one on the road and you don’t think a few little tweaks can make so much of a difference. Some of the things you’re driving through out there are proper naughty and they’re doing them with ease – in what is ostensibly a road car – it’s impressive.’
And when the other vehicle does finish, Jamie, and co-driver Chris Cuming, have won – by a margin of just two seconds. Second place is Dave Beecroft and Fraser Parish, and Miles Williams and Paul Chambers take third.
It’s been a great event. ‘It’s the most professional thing I’ve been to and I’ve been rallying since I was 17 – I’ve done the Network Q a couple of times, etc – It’s almost like a proper works team,’ says Gary Bulley. ‘The commitment from everybody involved has to be commended, particularly Bowler’s view on it and the way they’ve supported us all in it, and the organisers and marshals that made the event it was today.’
The next round of the Tata Elxsi Bowler Defender Challenge is at the Wkd Trained Dogs Rally North Wales on 26 March 2022.