The Dakar rally is themost spectacular and gruelling race in the world, ever. Some serious machinery has pounded the dunes over the years including Porsches and Mitsubishi specials. The cars are amazing, designed for the harshest environments, to ford rivers, scramble over rocks, wade through mud, jump metres in the air and race at high speed on the dunes, flat out for days on end.
Remarkably one of the most successful car manufacturers is based in a sleepy village in Derbyshire, I am of course talking about the fantastic Bowler Off Road team who design and manufacture the Nemesis, based very loosely on the Range Rover Sport, but with added warp drive.
Today I find myself let loose with the beast amidst sand and rocks, with the sun shining and a beautiful big blue sky, I could be somewhere exotic like the dunes of Morocco or Arabia, but actually I am in a disused quarry somewhere near Corby.
Standing next to the car I am immediately aware of its racing pedigree, it exudes ‘fast’
like a saddled race horse. This particular example has completed a number of events this year already and the TwinTex composite is scuffed where gravel and rocks have assaulted it withhours of high speed torture. The door is so light that opening it is like turning the page of a Sunday newspaper, I have to step over the high side protection bar and then I manage to slide into the deep racing bucket seat with all the grace of a greased octopus falling down a drain, but once installed I feel very comfortable indeed, if rather snug ( I am over 6 foot tall so the fact I fit at all is a pleasant surprise), and everything I need falls easily to hand or foot. The switches are laid out in three touch pads with ally shield plates, looking like a cross between a cash machine and the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise. The composite dash is styled to look similar to the Land Rover part, but it has an instrument binnacle with a large LCD display on both sides, the driver gets a big rev counter and a small digital speed readout plus a few other basics, the
co-pilot gets all the critical data to worry about leaving the driver to concentrate on winning the race.
Before the fun starts, the car shows its party trick of standing on one leg. The substantial sump guard doubles as a quick jack, two hydraulic rams drop it down and the car is raised clear off the ground, perfectly balanced for very rapid wheel changes.
Starting the 4.4 litre Jaguar V8 lets loose a savage bark from the race exhaust, which echoes round the old quarry walls like some sort of primeval beast letting the world know who’s boss. The stiff race spec engine mounts transmit a tingling thrill of vibration through the car, heightening the sense of anticipation. And all this fun before I have even put it in gear!
Driving the Nemesis in its native environment is more fun than mere words can convey, it thrusts forward with indecent speed, throwing the horizon into my face and then battering me about the head with it, soaking up severe bumps and ruts as charges over the moon-like terrain in a near deafening crescendo of mechanical aggression. It takes an off camber jump with ease, firing the car seemingly straight up on a path to the stars before landing hard yet gracefully on one corner, the competition long travel suspension
compressing with optimal control and allowing the power to be put down as soon as the car is on the ground again.
Turning hard into a corner the front is set to understeer, the technique is to power out hard and then flick the back end out, steering on the accelerator pedal – this is a specialist tool for a very special job, not for the faint hearted.
As it tackles the scenery with overwhelming capability, the drive is optimised by the very trick differentials with visco limited slip plus switchable air locking which let the wheels dig deep into very tight bends as I stab the loud pedal to slingshot onto the straight. The suspension is amazing, supple yet always in full control allowing me to pick the exact line I want between the rocks.
The car’s immense capability is a testament to the team’s high standards of engineering, honed over decades of working in the harsh world of competition vehicles. Indeed it’s been noticed by some of the world’s big movers and shakers, and a military version is on the cards with a machine-gun mount on top.
But my battle is over, finally I park up and ponder what a superb, pure bred, race machine this is. Then it occurs to me that Land Rovers great selling point is its every day practicality, and as this car shares about 40% of its DNA with a Range Rover Sport, I start to wonder how usable it is as an every day car. I bet no one else thinks like me.
So, I convince the chaps from Bowler that I need to take it on a run to the shops; I suspect this is a first for them. So we head out of the quarry onto some nice twisty B roads then into Corby town centre. On the road the car still feels absolutely wonderful, but in a different way, the Kumho race tyres are designed for grabbing lumps of the planet and throwing them rearwards and tarmac is not their preferred terrain, but they cope surprisingly well. In fact the car handles much like a sports car, the 60/40 torque split gives it a rear wheel drive like feel when powering out of roundabouts. There is less roll than I was expecting too, probably to do with the fairly low centre of gravity and the anti-roll bars helping the massive double wishbones. On mini roundabouts I can really feel the clever diffs working and on full steering lock the car shudders ever so slightly, though it might be just shuddering at the horror of driving slowly up a high street rather than enjoying itself racing at full tilt through the dunes. The only tricky bits are the brakes, which are very powerful and at low speeds leading to some accidental emergency stops, and the racing clutch which combined with the lightweight flywheel make it very easy to stall when trying to pull away gently in the queue to get into the Asda car park. Well, that’s my excuse anyway.
It turns out that driving a full-on Dakar race car into a local supermarket gets quite a lot of attention, I am not sure if it was the mud, the bright race paintwork or the exhaust sounding like the outbreak of war, but I have my suspicions.
Parking up is straightforward enough, although reversing is made a little tricky by the total absence of rear visibility, I have just the two door mirrors to work with, which are covered in mud.
People are looking at me as I open the door, twist the release buckle on the race harness and grapple my way out of the car. Now the next problem hits me; it’s a race car so it has no door locks, in fact it has no keys at all. But after a moment’s thought I realise that the alien world inside the cabin would stop any casual thief. That and the fact that the chaps from Bowler have parked up next to it, so I nip into the shops to get a few essentials.
On my return to the car I ponder where to put my bags. There is a parcel shelf, which normally houses the crew’s crash helmets and other race kit. The doors are hollow and normally used for storing documents, maps, drinks and nibbles that are essential on desert rally stages which can last for hours. But for getting the whole weekly shop in the car I turn to the rear storage lockers, their normal contents include sand ladders, emergency tools and rescue equipment.
So all in all it still manages a remarkable degree of practicality, its lots of fun to drive and is awesomely capable. Could it be the ultimate sports car? All it would need to be a perfect road car is an easier clutch and brakes, maybe an easier way of getting in and out, and probably some door locks would be a wise investment.
Which nicely brings me to the good news that Mr Bowler has decided to make a road car version, the EXR, with more refinement and comfy seats, an auto box option, air conditioning and something called ‘infotainment’, but as I hold a race licence I have no idea what that means. The result, currently at prototype stage, looks very tempting indeed and will give the sport minded Sheik most of the stunning ability of the race car in an accessible, easy to use package, ideal for weekend dune bashing or cruising the south of France.
I for one am really, really looking forward to that one.
The heart of the beast is the Jaguar V8 in 4.4 NA or the 450 bhp 4.2 supercharged form, Jag diesels are also an option and gaining popularity, and now the fantastic Jaguar 5.0 V8 engines are available with over 500bhp on tap. Gearboxes are 6 speeders, either the synchro H gate or sequential. The differential options are open, LSD or the top class Ricardo visco LSD with air locking too.
The space frame is immensely strong and can withstand the huge forces of racing and the unfortunately inevitable crashes, the overall stiffness is far greater than road cars and is essential for good suspension control.
Bodywork is made from a mixture of alloy plating and the composite ‘Twintex’ which is more durable than carbon fibre; the whole thing is very light but the car in competition is ballasted up to meet the minimum weight regulations.
Up to three FIA compliant safety fuel tanks allow a maximum of 406 litres, needed for the extremely long desert rally stages.
The Eibach duel rate springs are tuned precisely for this car, and the massive race dampers use remote oil reservoirs to cope with the heat generated in severe use. The double wishbones all round allow up to 300mm of travel.
The brakes have 360mm front discs with Brembo callipers and 350mm rear discs with Land Rover callipers, a brake bias valve allows the front/rear bias to be adjusted to suit the race conditions.
A range of wheels and tyres are available but this car has Kumho 275/65-18 race tyres on Compomotive 18” race alloys.