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

Motor Sport News - - Test: Mn Does Rallycross -

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.”

Mini Cooper S RX racer is near-stan­dard in spec Ridge got Mini side­ways a lot

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