It is amazing what can start from what feels like one of those casual, off the cuff conversations at Solihull.
‘Can your guys use a Defender Challenge car, and entry – put it to good use?’
“Hell yes” was the immediate answer.
Looks clean, doesn't it? Didn't last long
The Royal Foundation's Endeavour Fund lent into supporting the team, the livery guys needed a challenge, and so the stripy suit was born - Eaton blazer, Wimbledon program, test card whatever - it looked very smart on a test run out at Yarwell Quarry with expert coach and reigning champion Edd Cobley
Are you sure you know how deep this is? Webbers, supremely confident or unimaginative, we still aren't sure which
A team was put together to run the car with the first rally taking on stages of Wales Rally GB. The sand of Yarwell was fun "but it would be best to stay out of the lake" First in the seat was due to be Corporal James Webley - who was keen to test the aquatic capabilities of the Bowler from the outset. What could possibly go wrong?
Wheel changing practice. Ralph explaining that there isn't a pitlane, and that the jack will just disappear into the sand...
Russ, tutor and off road guru Ralph, Webbers, Mike, Jimbo, Mike #2, Richard (we didn't give him a jacket)
Round 1 was due to be a stunner, the opening round of the British rally Championships, so the team was off to Wales to meet the man who wrote the Rally licence test, Phil Price
Phil is an absolute legend of rallying, and a ridiculously accomplished instructor. Helps to have your own Welsh hillside for your own rally stage, too. Russ, Mike, Matt and James all did their BARS test with Phil, a man more comfortable in his own skin you are unlikely to find
This... is Phil's back yard. Paradise. He admits that occasionally it rains, and the wind gets up a bit mind you
The Phil Price stages are varied, from woods and technical corners to long, flat out sections. Get it wrong, and it is a sudden stop embedded into the hillside, or it is a long way down.
The Bowler Defender Challenge car is a 2.2 Puma engined Land Rover 90 - stage one remap and remote reservoir Bilsteins.
...so it is bloody quick. Lively handling too, as the relatively short wheelbase and wider track means it is keen to rotate
They pass the test. Something feels different about this particular Landy, though. Every serviceman since the 1950s has spent hard time in a Land Rover. It is as inevitable as being told to hurry up... and wait. The Bowler though, feels like something else. The cage gives it a feeling of absolute rigidity, and when we test it on the roads around MMHQ it is apparent that the thing can surprise a boy racer off the lights. That gave us an idea...
Lightweight, British, dancing through the chicane at Goodwood. Or it would if there wasn't a tractor in the way
Hang on, this thing really handles! "Now, 300, 3 right, tightens, don't cut, Spitfire"
First round, and the stage names are familiar to anyone who follows the WRC. Webbers is in the driver's seat, with Cpl Russ Anderson on the pacenotes. No nerves at sign on, honest. I'm lying. This is terrifying.
Now then, you lads look like you know what you are doing. Erm.... no...
Bowler bring the big Dakar trucks, line up all the Defenders in a 'bivouac' like a rally raid. Sort of. We are in a Welsh light industrial estate, but if you really squint you can feel the spirit of the desert. No? Oh well, us neither, but it does look very professional.
There was a memo about using the official Bowler livery, that we pretended that we didn't receive.
We've a fancy new Facom toolbox, which is looking suspiciously like we've all the gear, and no idea. Russ has gone for his eighth nervous piss. Webbers is nowhere to be seen.
Right, this service are is only for tools and people working, okay? No admin or litter, work only.
Mike turns his back for 5 minutes, and what happens? Bloody sandwich table. Typical.
The first stages are into the dark. No pressure lads, that'll be a nice gentle induction to rallying. Before we know it, the car is back, steaming, and the service team swarm over the car
Back, and still Land Rover shaped. Huge sigh of relief
Tyres pressures, torque the wheels, check times. We aren't last, by any means, the car is competitive
Quick service then the car is in 'park ferme' overnight. Early start tomorrow.
Next day and the stages are longer, including the legendary Hafren and 'Pikes Peak' over the top of the mountains. There's snow on the ground and the tracks are lethally slippy.
Wales in 'Not actually raining' shock.
"Right, Webbers, brake hard and steer violently as we cross the cattle grid - there's a photographer"
Back into service and the car is turned around for 3 further stages. Timings are critical, if you overrun or are late for a control the penalties will soon drop the team out of contention. Sergeant Mike Burton, team manager is starting to relax - things are going well.
Nothing has fallen off yet. Yet.
Screens cleaned and then the service crew pile into the Disco to chase the rally
Service completed, the team mechanics jump in the Discovery and head for the hills to find the stages and intercept the Defender. We get held up on the main road by some grey coloured box van, then head into the hills.
I thought that it was stripy? Don't know why we bothered. Bloody livery team, always being taken for granted etc etc
JLR's Ed Tilston released into the wild, summiting a terribly difficult peak, looking for rally cars
He makes it. Still picking thorns out, days later!
In the car the lads are very busy! lethal conditions, a couple of big moments, but Webbers is keeping it on the island and Russ is doing a good job on the notes.
Knocking on - the best part of two tonnes of live axle Land Rover in a drift.
Glad we logo'd the roof, that and the bonnet are the only bits that aren't coated in Welshness
We end up perched above the final corner. The wait is nerve wracking. Will they appear?
Final stage, and the lads have done it. Elated, the MM team has beaten some far more experienced outfits, and done really well in the first rally of the year.
Is that an apex over there? Maybe. Lets forgive him, it is the last corner. They've made it.
Job done. Happy. How did Russ keep his suit that white?
Doddle. How hard can the rest of the season be? Tune in and find out. Clue? Hard. Really, really hard.
Too easily done. That couldn't happen to us, could it?