I suspect the intention was to prove that the Freelander cannot compete with other Land Rovers, so it was with a degree of apprehension that I headed off to Dunmow in Essex on a sunny Easter Saturday to join the Lea Valley Land Rover Owners’ Club for their Novice & Junior Trial.
A trial consists of a number of courses, eight in this case, laid out over rough terrain, each with ten gates, marked by pairs of poles, numbered from ten to one. The aim is to pass through all the gates in the correct sequence without touching them and without stopping. You score the number of the gate you either hit or do not reach: for example hit a pole at gate five and you score five points; clear gate five but get stuck before gate four and you score four – lowest score wins and a clear round scores zero.
The ground the courses were marked out on was mostly clay with a variety of humps, water-filled ditches and other features to challenge us. The clay in particular gave traction problems for all of the entrants and led to people running wide in places, or sliding downhill in to awkward corners (or gates!).
You are given the opportunity to walk the course before you drive it so that you can work out your strategy. In my case, never having done a trial before, I just tried to remember which way I was supposed to go, because stopping or losing forward motion ends your attempt.
Course one consisted of a series of axle-crossing humps, a water-splash, a couple of tight turns and finally a cross-camber climb over a mound. I was driver three, so at least I had the chance to watch a couple of people do it first. The humps were easy, the water-splash was very slippery but no problem for the Freelander, but the flat turn towards the final mound was also very slippery and I ran wide, clipping gate four.
In order to be fair to everyone, the sequence of drivers moves up two places for each course so that everyone gets to drive first as well as last. A fresh course is generally easier that one that has been chewed up by other competitors.
For the second course, that meant that driver three, me, was first to go and somehow I managed to miss everything until the last gate. There is a rule that as long as the hub of the front wheel is through the gate then that is enough to count as clearing it, and I stopped with my front wheel diagonally through gate one – unfortunately the clay came in to play and I slid forward just enough to touch one of the poles robbing me of a clear round. Bother!
By the end of the day I had a total score of twenty-three, which put me firmly in the middle of the rankings, earning me a Cadbury Crème Egg (well, it was Easter). James, a friend of mine who drives a Ford Ranger and gets even more grief than I do, was also driving my Freelander in the trial and he scored a lot less than me, putting him in the top five.
The other competitors in the Novice class were driving a mixture of Discovery, Series and Defender Land Rovers, and all the entrants in the Junior trial (for those under seventeen) drove the same Discovery. Being beaten hollow by boys and girls who have trouble seeing over the steering wheel and who are not yet old enough to hold a driving licence is rather humbling.
The talking point of the day though was how well the Freelander performed. Most people did not expect it to be able to complete the courses, but when it climbed effortlessly up a slope that had defeated a couple of other Land Rovers its off road ability was well and truly proven – although it did need rescuing at one point where a series of dips got a little too deep, leaving it beached on its sills. A slightly different line through them, as James later demonstrated, would have made all the difference.
This story has also appeared in the June 2010 issue of the Freelander Club magazine "Freelandering".