Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Prodrive Surprise

Hi guys, it's been a little quiet these days on the blog.  I have been very busy with work and there is a also another good reason:  I was recently invited by Prodrive to drive the Mini WRC.  Luckily I was able to put work on hold and fly up to Banbury.

I can already hear some of you asking: how the heck did that happen?

Pretty simple:

Thanks to my blog, I got a message from a gentleman, who understood 100% of my story.  So we got to talking and next thing I knew I got an email saying Prodrive is inviting me to try the Mini WRC and discuss about things. 

I said: "Ok I'm there!"

Once up there, the potential connection between my being German and the involvment of BMW was discussed.  Prodrive and I both agreed that it was worth trying to make something out of it.  I was welcoming Prodrive's enthousiasm. 

The test was organised on Prodrive's Warwick test track, which is basically an old reconverted Royal Air Force airport, on which they have built a small track which resembles those made for karting. When I was first told about the test, that we were running on gravel suspension and gravel tires, Prodrive was making an effort to explain that I should not worry. 

I said: "It's ok guys, I love driving on karting tracks with a rally car and especially on gravel tires."

Here is why:

So it slides like hell and you can drive like a maniac, that's why!

In the video, you can hear me joke about Terry the test driver knocking some cones over.  Well that's because when I was driving he told me to make sure not to knock them down... cause it's a pain to go and put them back every time.  Then when he drives, guess what?

He knocks them over! 

I drove the 1st test car ever made.  You know, the one that was yellow in the beginning. 

They said: "Ah, it's all beaten up and battered.  Please don't be worried, the mechanical parts are good."

Again I said: "Guys, don't worry!  Take it easy!"

I then heard they had just changed the gearbox because it broke, ok.

But then they said : "Yeah, it broke after 3.000kms of testing.  We were just leaving it in there until it brakes.  We were wondering when it might happen.  Now a tooth on 2nd gear just broke."

Wow, that put my perspective back in it's place.  Impressive reliability for that X-Trac sequential gear box, considering there is no hydraulic clutch anymore, just an ignition cut to help with changes.

So after driving the Mini my first thought was about how quickly I got comfortable in it.  The Mini is driver friendly, in a big way.  With a very linear engine that is making the throttle giving predictable and smooth.   Despite the relative softness from the Ohlin gravel suspension, steering the car with precision and brushing the cones was easy.  I was amazed and quickly confident with the braking potential and it was hard not to overdo the late braking...  Transiting from hard braking to steering into corners was accompanied by understeering, a bit.  So I had to use handbrake all the time for tighter corners, which means anything up to 3rd gear.  This is totally normal on this sort of track with a gravel suspension.  The car balance was healthy and flicking the car from a left slide to a right slide as you throttle up through the gears was a charm, very responsive and agile chassis. 

The experience was short, but effective.

After that enlightening drive, I had a meeting back at Prodrive where we agreed on the idea to do a promotional drive somewhere and invite some German journalists, see if we can wake Germany up a little.  Lets face it, it's the first time since the Audi Quattro days that a German manufacturer steps into WRC.  Not only one but two: VW and BMW!   Who knows what this might kick start.  Things are starting to happen in a good way for the sport. 

PS. Check out the Mini page for more pics!

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