Stood on the infield at the final round of the MSA British Rallycross Championship at Croft in October, photographing and taking notes of the finals at the season finale for Fancy a go yourself? Here’s how to do it
I Motorsport News.
In the single-make BMW Mini category, experienced rallycross racer Martin Hawkes took the lead at the first corner of the final and held on to claim victory ahead of some of the division’s fastest drivers.
I was pleased that Hawkes survived the final unscathed for a number of reasons, but I must admit, I also had mixed feelings about the result.
Hawkes is a solid rallycross driver, who has returned to the sport in recent years after a spell away and invested a lot in his own and his children’s racing. Winning his first BMW Mini final at his home round was a deserved reward for his efforts. Selfishly, I was also pleased that the car finished the final undamaged because I was due to test it just two days later, and race it a couple of weeks down the line at the same circuit, for the final round of the BTRDA Clubmans Rallycross Championship. But, Hawkes’ win meant there would be no excuses about the car at least…
It’s quite some time since I competed regularly in rallycross. Aside from a one-off outing in the Latvian Lada Cup last summer, a couple of test features for MN have been the sum total of my time at the wheel of late, and I was keen to sample the supercharged Mini Cooper S before racing it in the BTRDA showdown.
Fortunately, Martin and I have similar preference of driving position, so we didn’t even have to adjust the seat for the test, arranged at Teesside Autodrome. My first impression of the Mini Cooper S, having never driven a competition car with a supercharger before, was that the power delivery is very linear, almost like a normally aspirated car. It was a far cry from the turbocharged cars I have driven in the past where you had to make sure you are on boost or my own Super1600 Renault Clio, which you had to rev hard to ensure you stayed on cam and in the correct rev range for maximum power.
The Mini’s engine was also very responsive from almost anywhere in the rev-range, and felt very forgiving on the tight and twisty Teesside circuit. It was happy being held in a gear too high in the six-speed ’box if required, when other cars may have needed to change down a cog. The handling was also surprisingly good for being near-standard, with the power steering light, but at the same time precise. On corner entry it felt very stable, and under braking it inspired confidence.
Also present at the test was Tony Bell, former a European Rallycross driver who builds and runs BMW Minis in the category. Bell asked how I found the car and its tail-happy nature. I was somewhat perplexed that despite trying everything I could to throw the car sideways even in the fast corners at the test venue, if anything I just experienced understeer. Food for thought going into the event, perhaps I wasn’t trying hard enough?
I was much more comfortable heading to Croft for race day having driven the car, even if it had only been on Tarmac, but was aware that the last time I raced at the circuit was in 2009, and the last proper rallycross race I had competed in was in early 2012. Another concern was the early morning slippery conditions that the Croft circuit is renowned for, and I was keen not to end up in the gravel trap at Clervaux in practice (I’ve had prior experience of that…)
However, any concerns of a greasy circuit in practice were dashed by consistent overnight rain, making me incredibly glad of Hawkes’ EX-BTCC race truck and its awning large enough to fit four Minis.
I had been one of four drivers making their maiden BMW Mini appearance at Croft, the class running as part of the 25-car Supermodified field. That would bring its own challenge, racing against a range of more developed and more powerful machinery in a category that is as open as regulations get these days in motorsport. Pretty much the only major restrictions are that the engine must remain in its original location with the same number of cylinders as standard, and must be two-wheel drive. Taking the others on, in the wet, in the pretty standard BMW Mini on dry tyres would be a challenge.
I managed to sneak in three practice runs in the hour-long session, by virtue of the Mini’s standard fuel tank (with a protective guard) allowing me to go straight back to the pre-grid after finishing a session. The circuit was very wet and slippery, I was being overly cautious in the first corner initially, but my confidence grew on the loose and the Tarmac quickly and the puddle on the apex of turn one was lessening slightly, despite the continued rain.
While happily sideways on the loose, the car still wasn’t the oversteering tail-happy beast on the Tarmac that those more experienced than I were claiming it to be. One of those people, David Bell, the 2015 British RX Mini champion was also now competing, filling the seat in his regular car left vacant by another planned driver, which also applied some pressure.
Bell is a champion and race winner, and I didn’t want to be made to look silly. Trying to beat other newcomers was one thing, but racing against the established order was something else altogether.
I was treated to new front tyres for Q1. With the standing water on the Tarmac and the loose surface now turned into a sticky, slimy substance, the deeper treads in the control Yokohama tyres would find more grip. While the rest of the Supermodified field could use wet tyres, or even gravel rally rubber, the BMW Mini division was running to its own rules, and thus we had to run on what were effectively slicks in comparison.
If there’s one thing I was reasonable at when I was competing regularly it was getting away from the start, and thankfully in the Mini that trend seemed to continue. I’d asked advice from David and Martin about the best way to get off the line, but both of their styles differed. It’s the most unnatural feeling to come back out of the throttle once the car is moving, but it does seem to work.
Starting from the middle of the back row, I climbed to second by turn two, and for the first time got totally sideways. Staying hard on the throttle brought the front end back around and I continued on my way, assuming the moment was down to my enthusiasm of going around the outside of other cars. But, heading into the first corner on lap two, the Mini was broad sideways before I even got to the apex: cue a huge tank-slapper that involved an excursion onto the grass, losing two places. The same happened on the third lap, although I was more prepared this time and at the next corner, I passed Bell, who was having a moment of his own, making me feel rather better about mine. I finished Q1
The BMW Mini rallycross category has evolved since its inception in 2011. Originally for the R50 normally aspirated model (which is still eligible), the cars of choice now are the R53 Cooper S, produced from 2001 to 2006.
Any part with a BMW or JCW part number can be used in the class.
The bodyshell is standard, aside from the addition of the safety features (six-point roll cage, competition seat, harness, fire extinguisher and electrical cut-off) in the stripped-out interior. Most body panels can be replaced with composite equivalents, and polycarbonate windows are also required.
With a controlled set of regulations, the engines and superchargers remain standard, with the optional addition of a limited slip differential, competition clutch and solid flywheel as part of the otherwise standard transmission.
A range of items can be upgraded, from the suspension to exhaust and competition brake pads, but not all are required to win. The Hudson brothers, who run at the front of the category (Kris and Keifer), run standard BMW suspension on their cars.
The removal of heavy unnecessary parts from the interior and elsewhere brings the cars down from 1350kg to around 1000kg, while the optional upgrades to exhaust, inlet, supercharger pulley and ECU map take the power from around 165bhp to just over 200bhp.
“Most parts for the cars can be bought second hand from BMW breakers or from popular auction websites,” says Tony Bell. “Typically a bare engine is £750-£1000 and a gearbox is £200-£300. There are some things you have to buy, like the roll cage at £1100, and others which are optional (limited slip differential and associated parts £1100).
“I reckon, if you’re willing to do the labour, you can build a car yourself for between £5000 and £6000. A complete set of composite body panels is only necessary if you buy an accident-damaged car or want to get the weight down as low as possible. We think that realistically, running your own car, including entry fees and transport etc, with no major damage is in around £1000 a meeting – that would easily cover it. That’s pretty cheap, especially when you see what the cars could compete with when running in Supermodified at Croft.”