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Top Gear drives the Dakar-winning Mini

  1. “The weakest link in the car? That’s easy. It’s the spacer we have to put in between the steering wheel and the seat.” The driver. For the purposes of today that’s me. I should feel fortunate, but I’ve experienced stuff like this before. Last year, I did the Baja 1000 desert race. Some days, I wonder if my internal organs will ever wire themselves back up properly.

    Because, make no mistake, this is not a Mini you’re looking at. It’s a wheeled torture chamber. I know you’re thinking that, with BMW’s coffers to call on, this must be one of the best designed, plushest off-road racers in the world. You just steer and watch Morocco waft by, wave at a camel, try not to crash into an oasis.

    Pictures: Howard Simms

    This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine

  2. You’re not alone. But for several reasons (not least that this isn’t a BMW factory team), you’re not right. In fact, you’re a very long way from right. And a very long way from anywhere, too. A four-hour, 200-mile drive from Ouarzazate (pronounced Wa-za-zat), if that helps. Probably not. I could do the whole story on the drive here. The last 20 miles have been particularly surreal, chiefly thanks to the presence of cops every, ooh, 250 metres. Not just in towns, but in the desert, too. Turns out the king has a palace in Erfoud, so he’s dropped in for a bit of R&R.

    We arrive at a compound in the middle of the desert. I’m sure there was one like it in the Star Wars films. Wind buffets sand against the camel-coloured perimeter walls, it’s bleak and hostile with thick gates. But in the castle’s keep… it’s a different world. There’s a tub of Haribo on the side, the familiar clatter of wheel guns, dodgy rock music, the tapping of laptops and - blessed relief - air-conditioning. Apparently, there’s even a small swimming pool around the side. It’s motorsport nirvana in the depths of the Sahara.

  3. This is the testing base for X-Raid, a privately owned off-road racing outfit. They’ve won the Dakar for the past two years running, both victories taken by a legend named Stéphane Peterhansel. He’s won Dakar eleven times, six on a bike and five in a car. In my book, that makes him just about the toughest racing driver to have ever lived. He’s here, looking grizzled and dusty-eyed, just back from a 38km test ‘lap’. That, apparently, was the short lap. The long one’s 200km.

    He’s 95 per cent happy with where the car is now, but less per cent happy that I’m being allowed to drive it. I find out later, from a friendly chap called Sven, that Stéphane is very particular about his car, “It must be like this [steady hands]. Not a little to the side, no way. The problem is he drives a little way, he knows if anything isn’t right, and this is a big pressure because every night the car must be 100 per cent.” So no, I’m not allowed to move his seat. I am allowed to tighten the seatbelts.

  4. Almost before I realise it, I’m in the car. I’d have liked the opportunity to talk to some bods first, to find out what I’m letting myself in for, but they seem keen for me to drive first, ask questions later. The reasons for this will become clear later.

    What I can work out is that this isn’t a Mini, just Mini-shaped. Inside, the doorhandle looks familiar, but nothing else does. Well, I can recognise a seat and steering wheel when I see one, the throttle pedal seems to be from an X5, and I’m guessing that the two towering levers are the gearlever and handbrake. I clamber up and in, past thin, flimsy carbon doors and a network of thick, reassuring steel beams. The seat is tremendous, the view out is OK, wires and cables stream back and forth, and there are more knobs and twizzles than in Lewis Hamilton’s recording studio.

  5. But one thing I’ve learned from racing cars is that they’re very simple to drive: touch nothing but the three pedals, the gearlever and the ignition, and you’re basically fine. “Let me show you the basics,” says Stéphane’s crew chief. Ten minutes later, I come up for air. There was something about the built-in car jacks and needing to switch off the aircon to route power, something about a satellite phone, first aid and emergency supplies. There may also have been something about a red switch I must press, and two I absolutely mustn’t. Or was it blue?

    At least I have a co-driver. Not Stéphane’s own, Jean-Paul Cottret, whom I suspect is hiding in a distant toilet right now, but a poor sap - sorry, friendly Portuguese gentleman - named Filipe Palmeiro. He seems remarkably relaxed. Leads are plugged into helmets, belts given an extra yank, thumbs are upped and doors slammed. I flick two ignition switches and thumb the starter.

  6. I appear to be piloting a Chieftain tank. The piercing turbo whistle blended with unsilenced diesel is a sound straight from the battlefield. And I’m off to do war with the North African desert. I am Field Marshal Montgomery. In Nomex.

    I find myself saluting our desert guardians from my lofty perch. I’m away before they can reach for anything more threatening than a quizzical look, gunning the diesel, nose rearing up, out onto the only tarmac road in these parts. The steering, I quickly realise, has all the accuracy of a Kalashnikov (sorry, must stop the military theme), at least on tarmac. The engine’s strong, but the car itself feels heavy, so the performance is Cayenne-esque, 0-62mph in under six, I reckon. Just use a short sprint of torque in each gear, and then you get to tug the mighty white-topped lever. Just tug ‘n’ bash it about, like a proper rally driver. Ace.

  7. I feel at ease after a mile, humming along at 60mph, all noise distant through the helmet and intercom. A rasp of static, and Filipe tells me to turn right into the desert by a masted van they reckon is here to jam phone signals. “This’ll be like Baja,” I tell myself. “Just relax, let the car find its own path, be smooth and gentle, let it do the work.”

    I was wrong. The Dakar Mini doesn’t ride with the lazy stretch of a Baja buggy; it feels jittery and sharp. We hit a bare rocky section, uneven and sand scoured, and suddenly I know why there’s a big pad in the middle of the steering wheel - my neck surely won’t stretch… turns out it does. We’re being thrown around like watermelons in a cement mixer.

  8. This is a surprise. I’d assumed comfort and stability would be the order of the day for a car - and occupants - tasked with tackling stages several hundred miles long, but this thing appears to be spooked by every rock and furrow. It jitters and slides, I can’t hold the sensitive throttle steady, and it has a rear end so waggly and mobile you could pop it in a bikini and call it bootylicious. It never stays still. In fact, it’s not often in contact with the ground, kicking into the air like a mule.

    “It gets better the faster you go,” Filipe informs me. He looks calm, so I press on, believing I’m getting more of a feel for this. “In testing, we come through here at 180kmh”, Filipe informs me. I chance a glance. 110kmh. Going in pursuit of the missing 70kmh would not be sensible. Particularly given what happens next.

  9. Filipe is no longer calm. I’ve left the track. I was in midair at the time, so didn’t have much say in the matter. I took off an innocuous lump a bit skew-whiff, the rear jacked up, leaving the front suspension to catch a considerable nosedive into hard-baked earth. Filipe and I have a ‘chat’. It’s not all bad - apparently I know what I’m doing - but I don’t know the car: “You have to be the boss,” he tells me, “actually drive it, don’t let it drive you”.

    We (OK, he) decide to leave the faster tracks for a while to go in search of dunes and tighter, rockier stuff. And now, when I man up to the Mini, start jabbing at the steering and pedals, let the tail swing wide, use the fabulous brakes, keep my right foot in constant contact with the throttle, punch the gear changes and really focus, it all starts to come together. Still feels tall, and terrain feedback is jarring my neck, but right now, physical degradation is taking a back seat to thrills.

  10. We yomp through some dunes, get lost in our own sandstorm, tow a cloud of dust that’s still hanging there when we turn round and head back a few minutes later, and, across it all, it feels like you could point the Mini at any point of the compass in this barren brown emptiness, and get there by the shortest route possible. It feels unburstable. I, on the other hand, am the weakest link.

    When I get back, I think through sheer relief, Stéphane volunteers to take me out. I won’t bother describing the pain, but he manages in 20 minutes to dish out what took me 12 hours of Baja to acquire. The car blatantly doesn’t get smoother the faster you go. But it felt so much better when he drove it - it skipped across the surface like a pondskater, flew level off jumps and held a lovely neutral four-wheel drift through fast corners.

  11. So naturally does Peterhansel drive, with such economy of movement, you get the sense he’s as familiar with it as with his own wife and kids. Familiar with its foibles and characteristics if nothing else, because if I take anything away from this experience, it’s how - much to my surprise - the Mini behaves more like a WRC car than an endurance racer. So why does it need to be such hard work. Why does it have to be so bruising?

    Turns out there’s an easy answer: regulations. Oddly to my mind, the Dakar organisers come down hard on 4WD cars. They have to use smaller engine restrictors (100bhp down), smaller fuel tanks (400 litres vs 700 litres), shorter wheelbases, smaller tyres, they have a minimum weight some half a tonne heavier and - here’s the killer - they’re only allowed 25cm of wheel travel. A WRC car has more. Hell, some road cars have more. And when I tell you that the minimum weight of an X-Raid Mini is 1,925kg, plus drivers, plus fuel, you’re looking at two and a half tonnes landing from several metres in the air onto just 25cm of absorb and control. That’s not just unfair, that’s inhuman.

  12. The Reiger dampers are something else - there are two on each wheel and not only do they have external reservoirs, but their own cooling fans. They’re unbelievably trick with centrifugal valves, but there’s no active suspension permitted or active diffs or paddleshift transmissions. Cooling, in races where the ambient temperature can be over 50°C, is the biggest issue for the car.

    Strip off the carbon panels (1.75 per cent bigger than a standard Countryman, but otherwise exactly the same proportions), and you’ll find a bare space frame. At the back, it’s all cooling packs, sand ladders and fuel tank, a pair of spare wheels are tucked neatly away in sill pockets and under the bonnet, if you look a long way down and a long way back, you’ll spot the engine. It’s a 3.0-litre straight-six twin-turbo diesel, and if you think that layout sounds familiar, you’d be right. The block is from BMW’s M550d tri-turbo engine, the turbos themselves from the 535d. So, if this is a privateer team, why the Mini branding and BMW engines?

  13. Let me reintroduce Sven. His surname is Quandt. Yes, that Quandt family, the one that owns a significant proportion of BMW. Later, he’ll roll down a sand dune, just for the hell of it. You might imagine that a man whose family is allegedly worth €20 billion has more important things to do than roll down sand dunes and run a rally team. Seemingly no. Sven is tall with a headmasterly air, knowledgeable and interesting on a wide range of subjects, and for the last 20 years, this is what he’s done: run rally teams. Before that, he competed himself. X-Raid’s €12 million annual turnover must be small change, but this is something he’s built up himself, something he can be personally proud of.

    I ask him what the secret is to winning the Dakar. “Reliability is number one, then suspension and power and drivetrain, and that’s equally shared. You can’t win with one and not the other. And then you need always 20 per cent luck.” But you make your own luck, surely, I counter. “No, you need luck on top.” And the drivers? What makes a good one? “Experience, above all. You know, no one under 30 has ever won the Dakar? It’s not an old man’s game, but you have to be tough and you have to learn, and learning takes time.

    You must also like the desert and you must not be afraid, and that is a big challenge - you learn a lot about yourself when you do the Dakar. And you,” he says, “did you enjoy it?” I tell him I did, but was surprised how physically brutal it was. “I know, that’s because God doesn’t make humans as tough as we make cars.” Too right, Sven, too right.

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