A loud thud resounds in the clearing. One of the riders just had a very hard landing after a jump, and the protective cover did what it was designed to do; to protect the motor from trauma on that sort of thing. I’m on turn 1 of the Tata Elxsi Bowler Defender Challenge 2022 and crews begin to familiarize themselves with their new Land Rovers.
All twelve Land Rovers have been brought to identical rally specification and today is the first time the crews have seen their vehicles – and it will be the first time they have driven them, but first it takes a little setup. .
We are at the fabulous motorsport venue Walters Arena and this round of the challenge is a bowlers only event, allowing crews to get used to the vehicles, first with a road outing and then a day of practice before the race. Sunday timed event. .
It’s quickly clear that the crews aren’t going to take it easy despite the times that don’t matter on the practice day as they begin to push the P300 Defenders, and themselves, to the limit on the twisty course. of 7 miles.
Race director Jon Aston has done a great job on the track, including as much variety as possible to allow the crews to have the best experience, and they enjoy being in their own vehicles, rather than Bowler’s demonstrator .
Gareth Bent and Paul Hulston raise some dust ©NO/LRO
“I preferred it,” smiled Gareth Bent of GP Racing. “I felt quite nervous driving the Bowler car, but driving something that belongs to me – it’s our problem if we push it, I’m a little more comfortable with that.”
And things don’t quite go as planned on the day of testing: “We had a break in the middle of the afternoon, which shortened our testing. I think we were very lucky; we descended a steep bank and the trees prevented us from rolling down the bank, but we got stuck in a ditch at the bottom. It probably took us about 3 hours to get it out,” says Gareth.
Others return with light damage to their vehicles, showing they’re pushing it, and lap times quicken as the day progresses, and everyone is ready for race day.
After the dirt from the practice day is washed away and the crews ranked in speed order, they are kicked out at one-minute intervals. Manx rally driver Mark Higgins was seeded first, so he sets off and sets the time to beat, the gravel track still wet after a cold night. All crews circle and line up for the second run. But disaster strikes.
Christina Dobloug and Anette Fjeld in the first round ©NO/LRO
The all-female Norwegian ACE-Racing the team had an off. “We got into the ruts and got a little rutted,” Christina says, “we slipped in, the rear came out and we rocketed sideways, did a 360° turn in the air , we landed on the roof, then did a somersault and landed on the wheels.
“It could have been worse,” continues Christina Dobloug, “no engine or transmission problems; mainly body panels.
“And we’re both fine,” adds co-driver Anette Fjeld, relief evident in her voice, “but we need 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
Gary Bulley and Chris French are seasoned off-road competitors ©NO/LRO
As the rounds are completed, the conditions change. “It’s a bit dry but there are a lot more punctures now; we just came up with a, ‘Gary Bulley in the Dartmore 4×4 The defender tells me. “It was a bit of a disaster because we were fourth, but we’ve come back to sixth now.”
Gary came to the show with a wealth of experience. ‘I’ve done comp safaris and stuff in the past, got a wild bowler I race with Land Rover Club of Cornwall and Devon and also the All-Wheel Drive Clubso I competed here before.
“It’s interesting, he continues, I understand now; it’s completely different from your normal stage rally car and you’re a bit higher and a bit isolated from it, but it works amazingly well. You think he’s not going to turn the corner, but he grabs you and throws you. It’s fun to drive as you get to grips with it.
Mark Higgins and Claire Williams set the best times, but were forced to retire ©NO/LRO
And he’s not the only one with tire problems. Despite using tough BFGoodrich All Terrains, Defender after Defender arrives with a flat tire.
“We stopped to change one,” says John Tomley, “and it cost us a lot of time.”
Like the others, Mark Higgins is getting faster and faster, recording the fastest times, but a miscalculation knocks him out of the event, with the Defender stopping in sight of the finish line. Without a live recovery, he must display the OK sign and wait for the course to close until he can bring the Defender back to the pits.
Frazer Williams and Mark Acher blast the dirt ©NO/LRO
Frazer Williams had a better day and already loaded his Defender onto his trailer before some crews had completed four of their seven laps. “It’s my son’s 13th birthday,” he laughs, “I have to go home to see him!”
“I’ve been off-road rallying for about 25 years,” he tells me. “I started out with a QT88, back with Dave Marsh – who now works for Bowler – many years ago. I kept that for several years, I got into motorboat racing, I bought a Suzuki Jimny, I participated in the Portuguese Baja and other Iberian events and I also competed in Iceland. We saw this in Iceland and thought it was time for an upgrade. I’m really pleased with the performance today, we’ll see where we come from.
Another person who had a good day is Jamie Thwaites in Talos Vehicles Defender. “At the moment, I’m first and it’s my very first rally; I come from circuit racing, so I’m shocked and very happy. We’re just waiting for the guy who’s currently second and we’ll see if we stick with it.
The car is mega, I drive one on the road and you wouldn’t think a few small tweaks can make such a big difference. Some of the things you drive there are really naughty and they do them with ease – in what is ostensibly a road car – it’s impressive.
Dave Beecroft and Fraser Parish ©NO/LRO
And when the other vehicle finishes, Jamie and his co-driver Chris Cuming have won – by a margin of just two seconds. Second place is Dave Beecroft and Fraser Parish, and Miles Chambers and Paul Williams take third place.
It was a big event. “It’s the most professional thing I’ve been in and I’ve been rallying since I was 17 – I’ve done the Network Q a few times etc – It’s almost like a real team work,” says Gary Bulley. “The commitment of everyone involved is to be commended, especially Bowler’s perspective on this and the way they have supported all of us, and the organizers and marshals who have made the event what it is. it was today.”
The next round of the Tata Elxsi Bowler Defender Challenge is at Wkd North Wales Trained Dog Rally on March 26, 2022.
Syd Phillimore and Lee Caroline make a tight turn ©NO/LRO