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TG’s slidey, sideways ride in Mini’s new WRC weapon

  1. Peer back over history, list your personal toppermost cars
    and I guarantee the Mini Cooper will be the daddy. Let’s see: Impreza, Delta,
    205 T16, Quattro, Stratos, Escort, Fiat 124 Abarth (sorry, that’s just me)…
    and Mini. In the mid-Sixties, the words ‘Mini Cooper’ and ‘Monte Carlo Rally’
    were magnetised together. Well, now they can be again. And if the return of
    Mini to top-line rallying isn’t enough, this is also the return of Prodrive,
    the team that made the Impreza into The Impreza. The World Rally Championship,
    under new rules for 2011, turns from a Citroen-Ford headlock into a more
    interesting three-way contest by bringing in Mini. Count us excited.

    Words: Paul Horrell

    This article was originally published in the December issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. Especially as I’ve just been strapped in for an exclusive
    ride in the sole prototype. It was a proper tyre-smoking perma-slidey ride too,
    turbo engine bouncing towards its redline, sequential ‘box banging through the
    gears, stripped-out bodyshell shouting the whole effort straight down my
    earholes. In 2011, the cars might have a fraction less power than before, but
    the Mini shows there will be more-than-ample compensation. We’ll have close
    competition between maxed-out versions of cars you recognise, going like stink,
    scattering the snow and gravel to the four winds, and making a whole lot of
    noise while they’re at it.

  3. For the sake of marketing, we’ve seen some odd rally cars… Peugeot 307CC anyone? And in the case of the Mini Countryman, there certainly are some major marketing vectors in play. It’s new! It’s got 4WD and a 1.6 turbo, you know, just like the new rally rules say! It’s a sporty car, honest, and in no way girlie! (I’m not making this last bit up - Ian Robertson, BMW’s marketing chief, said: “The World Rally Championship commitment reinforces the key values of the Mini brand, ‘excitement’ and ‘energy’, as well underlining the manly side of the brand.”)

  4. But the Mini WRC actually arose out of pure rally-winning
    motives. Nearly two years ago, Prodrive established a small team of its crack
    engineers to design and computer-model, via their own simulation software
    parameters, an ideal virtual rally car for the 2011 rules - the perfect length,
    weight, wheelbase, centre of gravity, suspension travel, engine position and
    aerodynamics. Their next stage was to analyse about a dozen road cars from
    different manufacturers to see which would mould best over the underpinnings of
    their theoretical package. About four seemed OK. Guess what: two were the
    Fiesta and DS3. Another was the barn-doored Mini Clubman. So Prodrive went to
    see Mini. And around that time they got wind of the Countryman. It was even
    more suitable than the Clubman.

    Mini was up for it, so BMW commissioned Prodrive to design
    the car and manage and run the works team, with six rallies for the bed-in year
    of 2011, and a full assault in 2012.

  5. Prodrive builds cars for customer teams too. Under the new
    rules, costs are supposed to have fallen by a third or so, but, even so, you’ll
    need £400k-odd. That includes spares and a Prodrive technician on hand though.
    Spend rather more, and you can have full Prodrive back-up and simply turn up
    and drive. Prodrive reckons to build 25 or so in the first year, running not
    just in World Rally but (in simpler form) in Super Production championships as
     well.

  6. It’s clear each of the WRC competitors will have their own rabid fanbase. A fast Ford, a pugnacious little Citroen with the greatest rally driver in history strapped aboard, and a Mini. They’re going to be sponsorship gold, obviously, so if you just happen to hold a senior position with a brand that would like to be associated with Mini, best you pick up the phone pronto. That’s why the car in these studio shots is generic red and chequers, and the action prototype is all squiggly disguise. Ignore the hacked-out wheelarches - the final body shape around the arches and spoilers is still being worked up between the Mini road-car design department and the Prodrive aero team.

  7. Prodrive has so far announced just the one driver signing, Kris
    Meeke, fresh from winning the IRC series in an S2000 Peugeot. He’s got an
    engineering degree and worked on rally car design before it became obvious how
    good he was at driving them. I ask David Lapworth, Prodrive’s technical
    director, whether Meeke is as quick as Sebastien Loeb in equal cars. “No. And
    I’d say that if he were standing here.” So why not sign Loeb? “You can’t
    imagine Loeb’s salary. Besides, it’s a French team. He’s the best driver the
    sport’s ever seen. He’s Citroen’s unfair advantage.” Ah well, he’s bound to
    retire eventually.

    TopGear has turned up to our meeting with the WRC Countryman
    in a showroom Countryman, a Cooper All4, the 1.6 turbo four-wheel-drive
    version. The one that’s theoretically close to the rally car.

  8. Except of course it isn’t. Oh, it’s a whole lot closer than,
    say, a Ferrari 458 is to a Ferrari F10 Grand Prix car, but, even so, no
    ordinary hatchback is going to be much like a car designed to win one of the
    premier motorsport championships. The road car uses 184bhp to propel 1,455kg,
    whereas rally car has 300-odd bhp (the regulations specify a 33mm air
    restrictor) and a rules-limited 1,200kg minimum. The road-car bodyshell is
    used, and it’s the same thickness of steel too, except around the engine bay
    where the rally car is beefed up.

  9. The engine block is the same as the one in the road car, though that’s really a matter of coincidence. The new rules say you have to use a 1.6 turbo, but it’s an FIA-approved motorsport package that can also be used for other events such as Super Touring. The rally car isn’t allowed the road car’s Valvetronic valve actuation so it sticks to conventional camshafts. The rally car has a six-speed sequential box, the same Xtrac unit that Ford uses. You need a clutch pedal as semi-auto is banned. The road car has an H-pattern synchro.

  10. The four-wheel-drive systems are chalk and cheese. The road
    car has an electronically controlled centre diff. That’s not allowed on the
    rally car. It actually has no centre diff at all: front and rear propshafts
    turn at the same rate. This has the advantage of giving stability when you’re
    aiming between lines of trees at three-figure speeds on gravelly mud - it keeps
    the car stable. But for tight tarmac corners, that tendency to run straight is
    the last thing you want. So there’s a linkage that simply disconnects drive to
    the rear, and it’s connected to the handbrake. This means every slow corner
    must begin with a handbrake flick. From a spectator’s point of view, what’s not
    to like?

  11. The suspension is completely different: none of the road
    car’s sophisticated multi-link rear setup, which after all is designed as much
    for ride comfort as handling. The rally car gets struts at all four corners,
    built for charging over rocks and gullies in forests, and providing immense
    grip on tarmac - where it runs 18-inch wheels instead of the 15s on gravel.

  12. So the WRC Mini’s mechanicals are broadly similar not to the
    road Mini but to the WRC Citroen DS3 and WRC Fiesta. But Lapworth says that
    because the Mini WRC was conceived all-of-a-piece to new regs and engineered in
    good time, rather than being put together between trying to compete, it’s got
    some very elegant simplified engineering. For instance, all four suspension
    uprights are the same, and the front and rear anti-roll bars too, plus there
    are several bigger-than-usual bolt-on assemblies. It all helps when you’re fixing
    a car against the clock in a muddy tent in the middle of nowhere at the dead of
     night.

  13. But, today, life is easier. We have a workshop to hand. And
    a test track. This is Prodrive’s very own former airbase near Warwick, and my
    chauffeurs for the day are Lapworth plus Damian Harty, Prodrive’s principal
    engineer of vehicle dynamics, who did a lot of that early computer modelling.
    There are two tarmac circuits, a fast one with some testing tightening corners
    and esses, and a smaller, bumpier ‘tarmac rally’ stage. The Mini’s really here
    just for an initial shakedown and hasn’t been set up for tarmac. From our point
    of view this is nothing but good news: gravel tyres on asphalt make for
    wonderful sideways action.

    It’s hungry for corners, and gobbles them greedily. But never at the
    angle you’d expect – especially since my view from the co-driver’s seat, set
    low and a long way back in the car to help the weight distribution, leaves me
    almost unable to see over the dash. 

  14. The car moves around as if the
    track is coated in treacle, gliding effortlessly from one extreme of opposite
    lock to the other. It’s soft and rolls more than a race car, yet it never
    lurches, and over the rally stage’s yumps and holes, the ride stays supple and
    level. It hauls itself out of the slow corners on a wave of ready torque, the
    revs saw-toothing as the gearbox gets the next ratio like a brutal switch.

    Motorsport people don’t often have much good to say of the
    rule makers, but Lapworth says that Jean Todt, FIA president, knows that people
    will watch rallying only if there are lots of decent entrants. And to do that,
    the costs have to be contained. But also that people will only keep watching if
    the cars are spectacular.

    As I climb out of the Mini, tyre smoke hanging in the air
    and a nauseous tide gently rising in my craw, it seems like mission
     accomplished.

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