Wrong side of the track: Off-road driving entails climbing up vertical mud walls and sliding down 30ft drops into pools of water. Dolly Dhingra takes the wheel
Monday 27 December 1993
Brands Hatch boasts one of the most demanding and adventurous courses in the country; set among 80 acres of woodland, it has over four miles of complex routes complete with natural obstacles.
The vehicle best equipped to conquer all of this is the Suzuki Samurai - you know, the jeeps with the Rhino motif on the back commonly driven by Sloanes and Essex types. Very few city drivers can really know just what these machines are capable of. They come with three gear levels: normal, four-wheel drive that enables the driver to control the car in four gears at speeds below normal first gear.
Before any driving takes place it is important to know how the car works and what it looks like both above and below the bonnet. Only then are you ready to tackle nature's obstacles. The first task is to drive up the Giant Steps, a 1:1 hill climb with deep ruts (filled with water) and carved into a slope. The object is to accelerate as much as your confidence will allow in order to climb up the steps, slow down as you get over the bump, let the momentum of the car carry you down and just as you reach the bottom accelerate again.
To perform this smoothly requires the footwork of Fred Astaire. Common problems are stalling, failing to provide enough throttle so that the car continually rolls back to step one or, as in this case, the car fails to start after the third step.
Having successfully surmounted the steps, the next experience is the Jungle Run, 'a path steered through deep undergrowth', the instructor explains. Unclear as to where exactly this 'path' runs, I am constantly forced to ask the instructor which way to drive. At times so many trees block the route, it looks as though even a mini couldn't get through, but somehow the Samurai manages it.
The mud makes the car slip and slide to the point where the driver is clueless of the direction of the wheels . . . until somehow the steering wheel swings around violently, bringing the car back in line. The wheel is in fact the most dangerous aspect in this sport and many off-road drivers suffer from broken thumbs and fingers purely as a result of spinning steering wheels.
Fear has a lot to do with the unknown on this course. If you are unable to see what lies beyond the bonnet it is best to get out of the vehicle and look for yourself rather than soldier on blindly. The only way forward just might be a 30ft drop into a confined pool of water, the only way out of which is up the other side.
Off-road driving has very little to do with speed - the needle rarely touches 15 miles per hour. It is about getting to know and control a powerful vehicle, thinking ahead and remaining calm in situations that appear to be lethal. It is probably one of the only situations when you can drive a car into a number of trees without damaging it or yourself.
Brands Hatch 4 Wheel Drive, Brands Hatch Circuit, Fawkham, Dartford, Kent DA3 8NG (0474 872367); pounds 59 per hour
David Bowyer Off-Road Centre, East Foldhay, Zeal Monachorum, Crediton, Devon EX17 6DH (0363 82666)
North Yorkshire Off-Road Centre, Bayness Farm, Robin Hoods Bay, Whitby, North Yorkshire YO22 4JP (0947 880371)
Further information from Land Rover Owner Magazine (0379 890056)
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