Thursday 23 January 2014

First drive: racing Land Rover Defender - BBC Top Gear

First drive: racing Land Rover Defender - BBC Top Gear:

TG gets an exclusive thrash in Bowler’s rally-prep edition of LR’s farm donkey. Greatest race car ever?

That looks very much like a racing version of the Land RoverDefender. Which would be ridiculous. So what is it?

It's a racing version of the Land Rover Defender. Specifically, it's a racing version of the Land Rover Defender prepped by Bowler Offroad - the firm behind Hammond's favourite Wildcat - and set to compete against 14 identical clones in this year's inaugural one-make ‘Defender Challenge' series.

Sounds amazing. 15 Defenders charging round Silverstone, three abreast into the first corner, tilting merrily, swapping paint...

Sadly not. The Defender Challenge is a British mud'n'gravel rally raid series designed to get inexperienced drivers and navigators on the first rung of the rally raid ladder. Essentially it's a feeder for the Dakar.

So is this the LR equivalent of X-Raid's Mini Countryman? A spaceframe, silhouette racer bearing no relation to the production car?

Very much not. This is a genuine Defender 90 (yeah, the short-wheelbase one) inside and out, right down to the Sixties-spec stubby switchgear, welly-boot-optimised pedals and bare-metal doors. It has, however, been adorned with much race jewellery: full buckets with five-point harnesses, a pair of fire extinguishers (in case one of the extinguishers catches on fire?), intercom, kill switches and an FIA-approved roll cage.

And race-grade sequential gearbox, surely?

Surely not. Though this Defender boasts a giant new aluminium gearstick, its agricultural six-speed manual ‘box and bombproof four-wheel drive remain unchanged.

At least the grumbly diesel has been switched for a big V8, right?

Wrong. The Defender Challenge racers retain the road (or perhaps field) car's 2.2-litre four-cylinder diesel, though with an ECU flash upping power to 175bhp and 331l bft of torque. This car, however, boasts Bowler's ‘Stage 2' tune, which adds a new turbo, intercooler, induction kit and exhaust for an output of 180bhp and 413 torques.

So what's it like as a race car?

It's a Defender. What do you think it's going to be like? It leans, it slews, it bellows like a bull elephant with a gammy knee.

Terrible, then?

No, brilliant. See, the problem with proper hardcore race cars is that - unless you're blessed with Stig-spec reactions - by the time you've spotted that you've exceeded the limit and have attempted to apply some sort of correction, you're already spinning at terrifying speed across a gravel trap or plunging down a mud bank. This Defender lets you know, very early and very graphically, that you're getting out of shape.

I assume this happens a lot.

Yes it does. On soft terrain, the Defender's not-so-racing height and weight means turning in too quickly results in massive understeer and no change of direction. Which means you have to apply proper racing technique: trail-brake into the corner, get the weight onto the Defender's big square nose, allow the big Kumho tyres up front to dig their teeth into the dirt. It's My First Lesson in race-car dynamics, one that happens at nice, manageable speeds and with caricatured response. It's my sort of racer.

Yeah, but can it jump?

Can it ever. With its massive axle articulation, the Defender absorbs three-foot high berms with barely a shimmer, and land mighty leaps with immaculate damping. Mr Vettel's 2014 F1 car cannot do this.

And that's rather the point in the Defender. It's not a serious, brow-furrowing sports car. It's flawed, furry-edged and, most importantly, fun. It is impossible, literally impossible to pilot the Defender at pace over a couple of miles of bumps and ramps and mud without whooping into your race helmet. The old donkey ain't slow, either: get the 2.2 diesel around its 3000rpm sweet spot and it shoves the big ‘Fender along with impressive gusto.

I want to play. How do I join in?

Better get a wriggle on. Most of the 15 Defender Challenge cars are already spoken for, but a couple of spaces remain available. £50k will buy your rally-prep Defender, while a further £10,000 secures entry into this year's seven-race championship. Bowler reckons even total novices should be ready for the Dakar after a couple of years. And don't forget it's road-legal, so once you're done bashing lumps out of Welsh forests, you can give Porsche Cayman drivers a bit of a scare on muddy back-roads...