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Red and White Mini’s Return to Rallying

Submitted by on July 28, 2010

Well it had to happen, I suppose: the words ‘Mini’ and ‘rally’ are to come into close contact for the first time since Monte Carlo in 1968, when the teeny tearaway’s reign of terror in the Alpes Maritimes was officially ended after Rauno Aaltonen, winner the previous year, could do no better than third overall.

After hitting its winning streak in 1964, the combination of Alec Issigonis’s deft little car, the creative genius of team manager Stuart Turner squeezing every possible advantage from the rules and drivers of the calibre of Aaltonen, Paddy Hopkirk and Timo Makinen had trounced all comers.  Only the combination of Vic Elford and a Porsche 911 finally put paid to all that… although the Mini would keep rolling on until the dawn of the next century.

From the day when BMW reinvented the original as that must-have motoring accessory the MINI, we’ve all had one eye on whether or not it would be coaxed out onto the modern rally stage.  Although the Monte-winning heritage was part of the new car’s launch – including a suitably-attired Cooper being driven by Paddy Hopkirk – Stuart Turner quite rightly cautioned against such a move, stating that it could never live up to the myth.

Back in 2001 the sport was full of big-name drivers in big-name cars but ten years on from the launch of the MINI, however, the World Rally Championship is a vastly different place to be.  With small being beautiful, BMW has elected to take the plunge in a new era of 1.6-litre turbo rallying, with a car prepared by Prodrive and reputedly to be driven by double world champion Marcus Grönholm.

The cutesy retro machine will go head-to-head with its swish modernist rival, the Citroën DS3, as well as the more plebeian Ford Fiestas and Škoda Fabias.  A rematch with Citroën will doubtless gladden the hearts of those Mini fans who still feel robbed of victory in the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally, when Makinen’s winning car was excluded for using the same illegal headlights as Citroën and thus salving much-battered French pride on the event.

Whether or not the car itself offers the same charm remains to be seen.  Modern crash test requirements have inflated the MINI, like all small cars, to the size of a Sherman tank and the model to be campaigned is the all-new Countryman – a MINI-shaped soft-roader that looks like the result of a head-on collision between one of its illustrious forebears and a Range Rover.

Will it work?  Almost definitely.  I was one of the millions of young drivers who defied all logic to invest in a small, rusty British icon on the strength of its Monte Carlo-winning prowess.  Perhaps fewer MINIs will be sold as a result of this young pretender, but it’s a fair bet that their owners won’t have to watch their pride and joy oxidising before their very eyes, or treat the electrics like an elderly maiden aunt, as a result.

Nick Garton

View the Prodrive press release here

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