11 teams lined up on Saturday morning anxiously awaiting the start of the final fixture of the 2015 season. The Borders rally is reputed as the toughest round of the challenge due to the mix of extreme conditions and the skill and determination required to conquer it. Combining the speed of stage rallies, roughness of hill rallies, extreme conditions of a Scottish winter and set over two days, the challenge is one of endurance as much as skill, and to top it off, one of the most gruelling of the 13 stages is set at night. It is a mammoth battle of man against nature and the weapon of choice, the humble Land Rover Defender.
The daunting 100.1 stage miles was set over 13 stages, eight on day one and five on day two and taking in lochs, dams, quarries and forest stretched over imposing hills and deep valleys below, an apt backdrop for the drama that ensued as the Challengers took to the field to secure their championship places.
The opening three stages delivered little surprises in the running order with Sturgess Land Rover’s Edd Cobley and John Tomley establishing a lead above Lookers Land Rover’s Gareth Carruthers and is co-driver and Lookers Land Rover’s incentive winner Fraser Ward. With The Defenderists in 5th position, the fight for the final place on the podium was on between team Palmer and Northern Ireland Racing who were tied in 3rd.
After a repeat of the first three stages and a second service, the crisp winter daylight made way to a wet dusk and stage seven lay ahead with Northern Ireland establishing a nine second lead on Palmer. A short but brutal stage, with fast quarry sections and steep climbs, the so-called ‘moonscape’ of stage seven looked set to be the toughest challenge yet but by the end of it, Defender after Defender returned to the bivouac remarkably unscathed. However, the drivers and co-drivers were starting to flag and after a short break they readied themselves for stage eight, the final challenge of the day, a long, dark slog twice the average of the previous seven stages.
Pushing the boundaries of fatigue and running on pure adrenaline, the teams headed out for the final stage. In varying shades of excitement and trepidation the 11 Defender 90s took their places at the start line. With engines revving high and ready, one by one the teams headed out into the pitch-black night led by Sturgess and then Lookers and with limited visibility of the track ahead. After a cornering manoeuvre went wrong, Northern Ireland Racing’s Defender lay on its roof in a ditch putting a halt to proceedings whilst a the recovery mission ensued.
Whilst Palmer and Hayward pushed ahead, organisers decided to cancel the stage due to the delay in recovering Northern Ireland Racing and the rest of the Challengers returned to the bivouac disappointed not to have been able to compete. Into the night the Bowler team worked to make repairs to the damaged Northern Ireland Racing Defender replacing broken glass and repairing damaged bodywork, determined that the vehicle would be on its wheels the following day for the final outing of the season.
Day two opened to cold but clear conditions and word at the bivouac was that the stages were even more rough after the previous day’s exploits. Those teams unable to compete in stage eight were each awarded a 20 minutes 10 second notional timing and the leaderboard stood with Sturgess’ Cobley and Tomley one minute and nine seconds ahead of Looker’s Carruthers and Ward.
The battle for bronze looked all but lost for Northern Ireland Racing who had slipped to the bottom of the table leaving Palmer and The Defenderists to go head to head for third place. Northern Ireland Racing’s David Johnston however was pleased to still race his Defender on the final day of the season having failed to complete the Borders event on two occasions previously. Resolute to finish the rally, and with the Defender mechanically sound and scrutineered, they joined the rest of the pack in the final five stages.
After the 12.30 miles of stage nine, Cobley and Tomley for Sturgess retained their lead over Looker’s Carruthers and Ward and Palmer’s bid for third was threatened by The Defenderists who had managed to close the gap to just 55 seconds.
After the penultimate service of the day only 32 seconds separated Sturgess and Lookers for first and second place and The Defenderists had climbed to third achieving a 50 second lead on Palmer.
Heading into the last stages of the last round, final places in the championship looked certain with prizes for the top three drivers of the year, top three co-drivers of the year and, the most revered of all, the Defender Challenge 2015 Championship title to be awarded.
Concluding the day, the round and the season, Sturgess Land Rover were really keen to bring The Defenderists home in one piece today. It’s been a real team effort and the skill and commitment of the mechanics working on the car between and during events has been invaluable.”
In closing the season, Jon Chester, Brand Director, Bowler Motorsport said: “The Defender Challenge 2015 has been everything we hoped it would be, it’s brought drama, excitement, and some challenges but always with a lot of fun. This season has reinforced everything we knew about Defender, it’s massively versatile and robust, and in the right hands, is an incredibly capable performer and remarkably reliable, we’ve not had to change a clutch all season, not replace a drive shaft or a diff, it’s remarkable. Furthermore, it’s staggering that may of the competitors drive their Defender to each event, rally for a full weekend and then drive home! It’s given us a lot of insight into the development of our next year’s ‘Class Two’ V6 Defender 110 and the next generation of vehicles beyond that.”
Note: Press release courtesy of Land Rover.