From this point on, nostalgia counts for nothing. When this car, the Countryman WRC, takes the Mini name back to the World Rally Championship circus in 2011, ahead of a full campaign in 2012, it does so with a clean slate. Plucky Paddy Hopkirk being chucked out of the Monte Carlo Rally in 1966? Giant-killing from Timo Makinen? Might as well be nothing had ever happened.
It's a bit of an odd project, the Countryman, because it wasn't really Mini who started it. Instead, the credit (or blame, depending on results) lies with a select team of Prodrive engineers who were suddenly left with a lot of spare time on their hands when Subaru made a snap decision to pull the plug on its WRC involvement at the end of 2008.
Headed by David Lapworth (the man responsible for all of Prodrive's Subarus since the first Legacy), this bunch elected to use their time to work out the “core performance” factors that defined whether or not a car was quick; length, height, wheelbase and center of gravity were among the parameters considered.
In essence, they were trying to get their heads around rallying's new-for-2011 rules, which were still being defined at the time. They've since been finalized: 1.6-liter turbocharged engines with less power and torque than the outgoing 2.0-liter motors, four-wheel drive, simpler transmission systems and a slight reduction in weight. Cheaper too, with “soft” targets on costs and restrictions on expensive materials.
Having come up with a blueprint for what would make a quick car under these regs, Lapworth's crew took a selection of vehicles (even employees' own daily drives were hauled into the measuring bay) and tried to see which would fit the bill. And Mini was… precisely nowhere on the list. The R59, the latest three-door, failed on a number of counts.
Prodrive started talking to other brands but then a source within BMW hinted that a larger, five-door Mini was on the way. And the lobbying began. “I spoke with [BMW board member] Ian Robertson at Goodwood last summer and he really became a champion for the project,” says Prodrive chairman David Richards.
All the same, getting BMW to sign off a new motorsport program within a year of it ending its F1 campaign wasn't easy. Prodrive had access to early CAD drawings of the Countryman, but the final contract negotiations weren't concluded until July.
And so, having gone through this slightly bizarre route to existence, the Countryman WRC has now started testing. It's even leaped ahead of its two likely rivals because, while Ford's Fiesta WRC and the Citroen DS3 WRC were also revealed at the Paris Motor Show, their early miles have been conducted with detuned 2.0 motors. The Mini, by contrast, notched up its first week of testing in Portugal recently with Marcus Gronholm and Briton Kris Meeke at the wheel, using a 1.6 built, as all of its engines will be, by BMW Motorsport in Munich.
The about-face nature of the project doesn't end here, though. Because unlike the Ford and the Citroen, the Mini campaign has been designed from the outset to include customer cars.
Prodrive is selling a package to private teams that will include a warranty, and the presence of an engineer on events (it'll start at around $600,000, in case you're interested), and the car itself has been engineered to be, well, cheap to run. All of its suspension and much of its transmission is interchangeable, for example, avoiding the custom parts that cost vast sums on a World Rally Car.
Richards insists it couldn't happen any other way, “The days of going to a manufacturer and saying, ‘We'd like to do the WRC with one of your cars. Can we have a check please?' have long gone.” Indeed, private entries are so far up the list of priorities that Richards admits the competitive debut of the car (in “late April, maybe May”) could even come in the hands of an individual, not the factory team. He expects his company to build 100 Mini WRCs over the next four years.
The car shown in Paris late last month (TOP) was a mock-up with a standard engine and some wings and spoilers that won't make it on to the final version. But a poke around the real chassis 001 in Prodrive's workshops exposes a car that's refreshingly simple. Lapworth's team has stayed away from expensive complexity and focused on the basics – which can come for free if taken into account early on. For example, the team has certainly done its bit to get the crew into the center of the wheelbase; their heads will be somewhere behind the Countryman's B-pillar.
The Mini's huge circular speedometer remains – now in carbon fiber – even though the essential displays are either directly in front of the driver or on the floor beside the navigator. Prodrive admit that the circular display could be used to show information – revs, gear, speed – in a large enough format to be picked up by forward-facing, in-car cameras.
The project has certainly pepped up Richards, whose characteristic Cheshire Cat grin is once again in full evidence. “This is the most exciting, well-prepared motorsport program that we've ever been involved with,” he says.
It might well be. But there is a chance that the integration of a customer program in the plan, and the focus on building the car to a cost, could compromise the Mini more than, say, Citroen's DS3, used examples of which won't filter out of the factory team until the end of next season.
On the other hand, as Richards points out, “A rule change like this can be the perfect time for a new manufacturer to come in and be successful. Look at it this way: we have to be competitive from the outset.”
Big talk, but at least it's looking ahead. Anything else would be folly.