Never mind the physical contortions involved in climbing over that beefy rollcage, just getting your head around a Defender rally car requires some dexterity.
It’s pretty odd sitting up here, sawing at the wheel, diesel engine thrumming, rear end sliding across the grass and mud as your co-driver barks through the intercom. Fun, though; drive-it-until-you-run-out-fuel fun.
The Land Rover Defender Challenge is the result of an on-going partnership between Land Rover and Derbyshire’s Bowler Motorsport. A Defender built for motorsport is nothing new – off-road trials and hill rallies are part of Land Rover DNA – but the new Defender Challenge is significant: it’s been created to throw a ladder down from the world’s toughest rally-raid endurance events like the Dakar to everyday Joes who aspire to risk being bounced to death over distant sand dunes.
The Defender Challenge name doubles as both the moniker for this slightly unhinged off-roader and the one-make championship in which owners will compete.
You’ll pay from £10k to enter the seven UK-based events, all of which run off the back of existing meetings, including the Somerset Stages, Welsh Hill Rally and Scottish Hill Rally. There are also training days to develop you and your co-driver’s abilities. Some owners will drive to and from events and maintain their vehicles; Bowler also offers arrive-and-drive packages.
First, though, you’ll need to spend from £60k to get a Defender Challenge rally car. It’s based on the short-wheelbase 90 Hard Top, and Bowler has retained as much of the existing model as possible to reduce costs and complexity while achieving FIA compliance.
The 2.2-litre turbodiesel has been upgraded from 120bhp and 266lb ft to 175bhp and 332lb ft and the gearbox remains standard, though the gearstick has been replaced by a sturdy looking bit of Mecano for more precise shifts.
The suspension geometry and ride height is unchanged, but Bowler has upgraded the dampers with custom-valved Bilsteins and the springs and anti-roll bars have been tweaked too.
Lightweight wheels are fitted with Kumho tyres and the bare-bones interior is further stripped and fitted with bucket seats; the cage means the weight remains similar at around 1750kg.
We have two laps to get to grips with the Defender Challenge on a course that links part of Land Rover’s Gaydon test track with its ‘developing world’ off-road course. A few things are immediately striking: you feel perched up high, the firmer suspension retains an awful lot of body roll, the engine runs out of puff almost as soon as you change gear and the steering is more leisurely than a retirement village. Heading towards a fast sweeper lined with Armco in fifth gear, I’m inclined to back off. Instructor Ed Cobley pre-empts my reticence. ‘Flat,’ he says. ‘Flat!’ I pitch the Defender in and the suspension rolls and the off-road tyres start to scrub into oversteer. I feel like I wind on a full turn of lock to save it.
Initially disconcerting, the dynamics are actually very interesting. The roll and ride height obviously ensure a high degree of compliance and clearance for rugged terrain, but they also mean that weight transfer plays a huge role in everything this Defender does. When you’re going fast on tarmac, that means it’s constantly moving around and you’re constantly playing with it, adjusting its attitude, sometimes using the roll as much as the brakes and carrying the extra speed into corners because you know you’ll scrub it off.
That all amplifies off-road: every gearchange, every accelerator prod, every stab at the brakes, all of it has a pronounced effect on your cornering line. Get it slightly wrong and your entire corner is destroyed because you’ll go off line and lose momentum. Get it right and you’ll use the short wheelbase and the heavy body roll to swing from apex to apex. It’s car control blown up to comedy proportions so you get your head round roll and pitch and yaw and learn to work it to your benefit.
Alas, two laps aren’t enough to get near perfecting that. Dakar 2015? Mr Cobley knows I’m a long way from that