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Going racing in a Land Rover Defender

  1. If you were to pick the least appropriate modern vehicle upon which to base a race car, could you top the Land Rover Defender? All those assets prized by race engineers – wieldiness, low centre of gravity, responsive feedback, a modicum of pace – are exactly those shunned by the veteran Defender in favour of swamp-crushing plod and the ability to survive a direct hit from the Death Star’s superlaser. Turning a Defender into a racer is like entering a dromedary into the Grand National.

    But here it is, Champion the Wondercamel, parked up in a muddy quarry, gently bemused TG employee in its driver’s seat gazing over an oxymoronic blend of Defender and race track. The architecture of Land Rover’s no-frills 4x4 is clear – Sixties-spec stubby switchgear, welly-optimised pedals, bare-metal doors – but adorned with proper race-spec accoutrements. Full buckets with five-point harnesses, a pair of fire extinguishers, intercom, a bevy of kill switches, and, where the scrawny farm collie and bale of hay normally lurk behind the front seat, a spare tyre instead. Oh, and a rather intimidating FIA-approved roll cage. 

    Pictures: Rowan Horncastle 

  2. Sequential paddle-shift gearbox? Forget it. Though this Defender boasts a new aluminium gearstick, its agricultural six-speed manual and bombproof four-wheel drive remain unchanged: a transmission and drivetrain few have ever sampled and thought: “This’d be great in a race car…” “Exactly! There are no tricks,” grins the affable northerner sitting in the passenger’s – sorry, navigator’s – seat beside me. “Nothing that’ll make a bad driver look good.”

    The affable northerner is Drew Bowler, boss of Derbyshire-based outfit Bowler Offroad and the man behind the Wildcat that, many years back, caused Hammond’s infamous “I am a driving god!” ejaculation. Since then, Bowler has been busy cooking yet more extreme Dakar-ready rally-raid vehicles around Land Rover underpinnings. That’s where the racing Defender comes in. “We had guys turning up on the start line of the Dakar who had never driven rally raid before,” says Drew. “We realised there was nowhere for them to get experience, no feeder series.”

  3. So this Defender, and some 14 Bowler-prepped clones, will spend this year charging along Britain’s mud tracks, green lanes and gravel paths in the inaugural one-make Defender Challenge series designed to help novice drivers and navigators onto the first rung of the rally-raid ladder.

    Inexperienced driver? Happy to help, Drew. Fire the standard turnkey ignition, and the Defender grumbles to life, not with the bark of a race-spec V8 but a very familiar diesel chunter. The race Defender retains the road car’s 2.2-litre 4cyl diesel, a venerable block that can trace its origins back to the old Transit van. Thankfully, Bowler 
has augmented the Defender’s standard 120bhp output, an ECU flash upping power to 170bhp and 331lb ft of torque. This car, however, boasts the Stage 2 tune, which adds a new turbo, intercooler, induction kit and exhaust for an output of 180bhp and – significantly – a grunting 413lb ft.

  4. So to what does this strange blend of straw-chewing and race-tuning add up? Curiously, a car that’s pure Defender but, at the same time, an object lesson in the dynamics of racing.Sounds strange, I know. But with proper hardcore race cars, by the time you’ve spotted that you’ve exceeded the limit and have managed to transmit the message from your brain to arms to apply some sort of relevant correction, you’re already spinning at terrifying speed across a gravel trap or plunging down a mud bank. No margin for error. I know this because I have spent many hours spinning at terrifying speeds across gravel traps or plunging down mud banks. This Defender lets you know, very early and very graphically, that you’re getting out of shape.


  5. Come in a bit shallow into the first bend, and you’re still dealing with the consequences three corners later, as the tall, short-wheelbase Defender tilts and scrabbles and struggles to settle on its springs. It’s a car that, by magnifying your errors to electron-microscope levels, encourages proper racing technique, too. “It’s got a high centre of gravity,” coaches Drew. “So use that to your advantage, to set you up into the corners.” 

  6. The Defender’s sheer height and weight, combined with this soft, sandy terrain, means that turning in too quickly results in massive understeer and no change of direction. This, Drew demonstrates, can be corrected by trail-braking into the corner, getting the weight onto the Defender’s big square nose and allowing the big Kumho tyres up front to dig their teeth into the dirt. It also responds spectacularly well – too well, perhaps – to a showboating Scandinavian flick. My first attempt to subtly unbalance the Defender into a turn sees me depart at least 80 metres from the race line, encountering a small lake and a brood of bewildered ducks en route. “The guys who drive smoothest will go quickest,” laughs Drew, a man unphased by impromptu aquatic detours. “It’s about optimum speed, not always about going flat-out. You need to anticipate what the car’s going to do.”

  7. And once I begin to anticipate at least a little of what the car’s going to do, the Defender reveals itself to be a weirdly competent off-road racer. With its massive axle articulation, it’ll absorb three-foot-high berms with barely a shimmer, and land mighty leaps with immaculate damping. I never thought I’d describe a Defender as ‘cat-like’, but, honestly, this thing returns to Earth from head-high jumps with the delicate poise of a jaguar. (Not a Jaguar. Fire an XJ off one of these ramps, and it’d land crashily and in many pieces.)

  8. It really isn’t slow, either. OK, the 2.2 diesel doesn’t quite rival a top-fuel dragster for off-the-start-line kick, but get it around its 3,000rpm sweet spot, and it shoves the big ’Fender along with impressive gusto. At least, it seems quick, but then ploughing through a landscape of close-hewn trees, giant puddles and off-camber rollers is always guaranteed to feel at least four times faster than whistling down an empty airfield straight.

  9. Most of all, this car is fun. So much motorsport is tackled with furrowed brows and serious discussion of caster and camber. But it is impossible, literally impossible, to pilot the Defender at pace over a couple of miles of bumps and ramps and mud without whooping goofily into your race helmet. I can’t think of a race series in which I’d rather compete. Yes, the Defender makes an utterly inappropriate racer, but that’s exactly why it’s so great. A tenner each way on the camel, please…  

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