15/02/2008 00:00

We drive the new racing Mini

Ian Dickson's biography

The last time I drove at Silverstone I spun a Bentley Speed 8 Le Mans car on the way into Abbey. Luckily for me, I was sitting on the sofa at the time playing Forza Motorsport on my Xbox, so this meeting of Armco and precious metal was quickly shrugged off with a quick restart. No harm done.

However, I'm back at Silverstone again, this time for real. We've been invited to try out the new John Cooper Works MINI Challenge Car, the 2008 racer with bucket seats, a roll cage and a fire extinguisher nestling incongruously in the footwell.

GALLERY: Mini Cooper S Works Challenge race car

Mini Cooper S Works Challenge car (© Image © Oliver Read/Performance PR)

I hope I don't have to use it. We're on the National circuit, sharing the short mile and a half stretch with a couple of Ferraris, a few tarted-up BMWs and the occasional Radical. The idea is not to race, of course; I'm here to try the car out on a few fast laps and tell you why this new Mini Cooper S Works makes a devastating track-day tool as well as a bona fida racer. They were due to race in a UK championship that would support the British round of the A1 GP championship and the infamous annual Mini festival, but at the last moment the organisers pulled the plug.

Stripped out and looking lean

Mini Cooper S Works Challenge car (© Image © Oliver Read/Performance PR)

The German series will continue to run, though, and all competitors will use the exact same cars; Mini Cooper Ss, with the Works kit bringing power up to 207bhp and stripped of an unnecessary 30kg - so the racing will be a test of skill rather than who has the fastest car. The Minis will support a range of high profile motorsport events, including the Nurburgring 24 Hours, The World Touring Car Championship and the German round of Formula One. But before being let loose at Silverstone I had to sign my life away, present my racing licence for inspection and attend a short briefing.

Mini Cooper S Works Challenge car (© Image © Oliver Read/Performance PR)

With all the boring stuff out of the way, it was down to the pits where I was strapped into the Mini, complete with adjustable rear spoiler, an aerodynamic kit and a front wing, all of which is designed to keep the car stable at speed. With a thick roll cage installed it is awkward to climb into. But once strapped into the six-point harness, it's surprisingly accommodating and very much like the standard Mini's interior. Start it up, and it awakens with a bark that settles into a staccato beat and indicates that some fettling has gone on with the exhaust system. The energy expended sends vibrations into your seat and the steering wheel. It feels like a proper racing car and I haven't even left the pits.

What a drive

Mini Cooper S Works Challenge car (© Image © Oliver Read/Performance PR)

Apply revs, move out to the track and the exhaust note settles down. I nail it in second and the turbocharged engine responds immediately, pulling the little Mini rapidly towards the first corner. Brake hard and late, which is easy as this Mini will go from 62mph to rest in only 3.1 seconds, and you can hardly feel the anti-lock assistance. Turn in and the steering lightly but skilfully points you accurately into the apex and you're ready to mash the throttle again. You soon get into a rhythm; get on the power too early and you can feel understeer, brake too late and the rear will unsettle. It is one of the most fluid and addictive cars I have ever had the pleasure of driving.

Mini Cooper S Works Challenge car (© Image © Oliver Read/Performance PR)

Helpfully, the organisers have placed cones to show us the entrance, apex and exit of each corner, and overtaking is restricted to straights only, so there is little to go wrong. Performance wise, it doesn't feel much quicker or different to the standard Works car, with 0-62mph in 6.1 seconds and a top speed of 149mph. It's turbocharged, too, like the new Cooper S, but I do miss the whine you got from the previous supercharged model. There is certainly no turbo lag though, just six long gears that are so flexible I only manage to get into fifth on the home straight.

Mini Cooper S Works Challenge car (© Image © Oliver Read/Performance PR)

After about 30mins of hard lapping, the sun starts to drop from the sky and it's time to return to the pits, though I could stay out here all night. As I said, the championship was due to run in the UK, where you could buy the car and qualify for every race for less than £50,000 - and I couldn't think of a better way to spend the money frankly. There is talk that the Mini Challenge could be back in the UK by 2009, and let's hope so because after this brief drive in the car I'm thinking of ways to raise the cash to take part myself - anyone for a kidney? Plus I made it home without spinning off the track, which is more than I can say when I visit Silverstone from the relative safety of my Xbox.

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