15 November 2010

Abingdon 4x4 Festival 2010

The last weekend of September saw the annual Abingdon 4x4 Festival take place at Dalton Barracks in Oxfordshire. This is an annual event and raises money for local charities. This year, owing to the Cadwell Track Day being the Thursday and Friday immediately before, I arrived at lunchtime on Saturday direct from Cadwell.

The first challenge on arrival was finding my friends who were already there: Bobby with his Defender 90 and Robin with his Discovery. Before I'd even parked I'd found Bobby's 90, but it was parked and unattended. I was at this point I realised that I didn't have mobile phone numbers for either Bobby or Robin - memo to self: plan further ahead next time!

With the power of my iPhone, Facebook and e-mails we were soon in contact and, after pitching my tent, met up for my first lap of the course. First impressions were that it was a more technical course than in previous years - "technical" is a wonderful euphemism meaning bloody hard!

Before you're allowed on the course you have to have your vehicle scrutineered to make sure everything in it is secure and not going to fly around the cabin - this includes the battery in the engine bay. This is why tent-pitching came first!

Dalton Barrack's off road course is used by the army for driver training and has a range of features for the festival's Clerk of the Course to choose from. As in previous years there were "easy" and "hard" routes in many places, although the distinction wasn't always obvious with some of the "hard" bits being fairly easy - so much so I happily went that way in the Freelander - but the truly "hard" bits were just that, and there's no way I'd risk damaging the Freelander by attempting them.

The centre-piece of the course is the Mud Run, which is a deep, muddy water-filled channel much too deep for the Freelander, but that's not to say the Freelander didn't get the chance to have a swim. The course drops down in to a large pond, before the hard route splits off towards the Mud Run. The water level in it varied over the course of the weekend, with it being topped up periodically by water bowser.

© Abingdon 4x4 Festival

With the recent rain, parts of the course were very slippery and on some of the steeper climbs lots of people struggled to get to the top, including some seriously modified 4x4s which demonstrated it's as much about driver technique as vehicle specification. I'm pleased to report that in most cases the Freelander made it to the top - to the surprise of some of the marshals!

As Bobby was only at the show on the Saturday, I left the Freelander and climbed aboard his 90. For the first lap we went the easy route again, and the difference between the two cars was very noticeable, especially in terms of the ride with the Defender making even the smoother sections of the course feel much more dramatic. The limited turning circle of the 90 meant taking a couple of shunts at some of the tighter parts of the course, as did most people - the Clerk of the Course drives a Freelander 2: I'll say no more!

On the tallest, steepest and, that weekend, the most slippery climb we ground to a halt and rolled back. And again. And again. So we were directed around it - and we weren't the only ones by a long-shot as it continued to defeat 4x4s of all kinds.

For a second lap, Robin joined us in the forward-facing passenger seat in the back and this time Bobby decided to raise the stakes and opted for some of the harder sections. All went well until we branched off towards the Mud Run. Having got the hang of a using a heavier foot to get up the slopes, on particularly short, sharp climb over a ridge, Bobby forgot to lift-off at the top and we hurtled down the other side a bit too fast (understatement!). Fortunately no harm done, although how Robin had avoided going head first through the roof I don't know!

From there to the Mud Run, and after some advice from the marshal we took the plunge. The advice was spot on and we made it through where many had failed. Although in keeping with Land Rover tradition in such things, we did have wet feet. By now Bobby was on a roll, and even the highest, steepest mound couldn't stop us this time!

And that was the end of Saturday. Robin and I finished setting up camp and prepared some food as the temperature fell. Sitting out on a cold, clear night was not unpleasant but a warm caravan would have been nicer. It kept the beer (milk and orange juice) cold at least. Turning in for the night I checked the weather app on the iPhone for Didcot and it said 8°C: Brrr!

As the night went on it got colder and colder and I can tell you that my sleeping bag is a bit snug when you're wearing several layers, including a coat, inside a fleece liner. And I was still chilly...

After breakfast Robin and I made plans: a solo lap each in our respective Land Rovers, then we'd have a lift around in the other's Land Rover, then swap and drive each other's. That went well until half-way round the first lap when one of Robin's Discovery's rear shock absorbers broke, allowing the spring to pop-out and foul the rear wheel - it was the smell of burning rubber that gave it away. We discovered later that the mounting for the rear anti-roll bad had also sheared. Thanks to our neighbours in the camp site Robin was able to drive home that evening, very carefully.

So that left us with the Freelander, but the Freelander's time was nigh too and while following a Nissan Pathfinder around the course a lingering smell of diesel pervaded - we hoped from the Nissan, which had beached itself on a couple of humps. Sadly it wasn't, as subsequent investigations showed a burst fuel line where it runs under the suspension in the front wheel arch.

I didn't know about the fuel leak until after I got home, so we carried on lapping the course, being slightly more adventurous with the hard sections (although on one lap I was prevented from attempting the highest, steepest mound by the marshals, despite having already cleared on previous laps!). The video from this year's show on the official web site shows one of the climbs and a number of vehicles trying several times, and in some cases failing, to get over it. My Freelander features in the video, with it going straight over in one shot - very satisfying. [Link]

Right at the end of the course, Beds, Herts & Cambs Land Rover Club were manning a see-saw. In return for a £1 donation you could have a go at driving over it. Last year I'd made a right meal of it and was wary of it this year. On my first attempt I went straight over - gently up the slope to the balance point, stopping, tipping and rolling gently off. On the second attempt I didn't make as good a job of it when I stopped too soon, and in trying to start up the slope again the unmistakable smell of a burning clutch was all too apparent. After that, I decided to give the see-saw a miss to let the clutch recover.

On the Sunday I decided to try something a bit different and entered the twist-off challenge. I lined up in the area with a couple of purpose-built challenge trucks, a Series II, a SEAT Ibiza (yes, really) and a few other vehicles including a mobility scooter. When it was my turn, the commentator noted that my Freelander was modified, and sitting higher than standard - I was impressed because he hadn't been briefed. For those that don't know, a twist-off is a competition to find the vehicle with the greatest amount of suspension articulation. You drive up a single wheel-width ramp until you lose traction - diff locks etc. must not be engaged. Going forwards I didn't do all that well, but going backwards I did rather better - so much so I didn't realise that my rear wheel was dangling in mid-air. Unfortunately that's considered cheating... And probably not entirely safe either.

© Abingdon 4x4 Festival

I'm looking forward to next year's show already, but which Land Rover will I take...?

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