On paper its competitive credentials aren’t obvious, but the Mini All4 Dakar Racing is perfectly tailored to the world’s toughest endurance rallies – and has a track record to prove it
Writer Andrew Frankel
What would you do if you wanted to make a useless competition car? Job one, clearly, would be to build it heavy enough to make any self-respecting race car designer choke on his cornflakes. A couple of tonnes ought to do it. What next? Well, you’ve got to make sure the centre of gravity is nowhere near mother earth, so you’re going to jack it up high enough to make its occupants feel more like watchtower guards than motor sport competitors. Finally it needs an engine with less power than you’d get in a top-of-the-range Ford Focus and, of course, run it on diesel. And while you’re there, why not price it at a million euros?
You’d think a car fitting such a description would scarcely be able to get out of its own way, let alone win one of the most famous motor sport competitions on earth four times on the trot, but such is the strange parallel universe into which you venture when you try to understand the weird and unpredictably wonderful world of the Dakar Mini or, as it’s officially known, the Mini All4 Dakar Racing.
Whisper it, but it’s not really a Mini. The only parts it shares with the Mini Countryman, whose shape it apes, are the door handles and the windscreen. But because the car is nine per cent larger than a Countryman, it needs a specially thickened A-pillar on the co-driver’s side just to make it fit.
It’s related to the Mini only insofar as X-Raid, the company that designs and assembles it, is owned by different members of the same Quandt family that owns BMW, which writes the cheques and also owns Mini.
Actually it’s far more interesting than anything based on a mere road car could possibly be. But before we delve into that, how on earth did a car with such an unprepossessing specification become the most successful rally-raider of recent years?
It’s mainly due to the rules of the Dakar Rally and other FIA events for which it is eligible. There are many different regs and sliding scales aimed to balance the performance of the top cars in this form of motor sport, but if you want to use a four-wheel-drive turbodiesel it is not allowed to start a stage with a kerb weight of less than 1952.5kgs. The height is determined by the maximum amount of suspension travel it’s allowed to run (250mm compared to more than 450mm if the car were two-wheel drive) and the power of the engine governed by a restrictor. As for the price, well, a quick look at the specification and suddenly a million euros doesn’t look so expensive after all.
For a start, this is a hand-built prototype competition car. X-Raid has been building them for five years yet has only just completed its 17th Mini. The chassis is a bespoke spaceframe with a double wishbone suspension unit at each corner. The dampers are supplied by Reider and, despite being entirely passive, adjust more ways than I thought possible. Each one costs €3500 and there are two at each corner. So that’s €28,000 just in shock absorbers. If that sounds expensive, consider that on the Dakar the Mini will get through three sets even if none is damaged, so that’s an €84,000 bill there and then. If you want to rent a Mini from X-Raid on an all-inclusive Dakar package, the price is precisely 10 times that amount.
The transmission is unique and features front, centre and rear Xtrac differentials that receive power from a Sadev six-speed sequential gearbox. The engine is comparatively homespun – Mini is allowed to use motors from within the group, which is why it has a 3-litre, six-cylinder diesel motor from a BMW 330d, albeit with sequential twin turbos. The block, crank, pistons, rods and most of the head is road car standard, though tuning enables its output to reach 330bhp despite the restrictor with, significantly, almost 600lb ft of torque.
But the real cost lies not in this hardware, but their support systems and those for the people on board. The cooling arrangements alone beggar belief. In addition to those for the engine, additional systems using oil, water, air and sometimes combinations thereof are used to cool all three differentials, the gearbox, each shock absorber, each brake, the steering box and, yes, even the fuel. The drivers have a massively powerful air-conditioning unit but try not to use it because it costs four horsepower to run, leading to cockpit temperatures that have been measured at 65deg C in northern Argentina.
The cockpit is probably the most complicated I have encountered, a bewildering splat of dials, screens, switches, knobs, levers and fuses. Many turn on various coolers, but there’s also a telescopic on-board system with jacks almost a metre long that use the power steering hydraulics to raise either side of the car. There’s a programmable speed limiter so you make sure you don’t go too fast in villages (the penalties for which are punitive), and while the driver has a conventional LCD dash providing essential information (as well as a gearshift light and gear indicator), the navigator has a display featuring page after page of data, most of which meant nothing whatever to me. Honestly, I’d not be surprised if a chunk of the car’s massive weight didn’t come from the army of sensors monitoring every facet of the car’s function in the smallest detail.
Despite the vastness of the craft, there’s no room in the cockpit at all. ‘My’ car’s usual driver is Dakar newcomer Harry Hunt, who’s a good four inches shorter than me and, in the way of such people, is built like a racing snake. But even he is quite cramped inside. The driving position places you a similar distance from the ground as a Range Rover, which is not at all what I’m used to from competition machinery. But the visibility is good to the front and side (though largely absent to the rear) and, once the engine is running and warm, actually getting the thing to move is as simple as it is in the Mini it’s pretending to be, albeit with a gearlever that shudders into first with a satisfying clonk.
While the car may weigh almost two tonnes in base form, once you’ve added fuel (280kg for 80 gallons – yes, that’s gallons), 160kg worth of driver and co-driver, 102kg of (three) spare wheels and tyres, 2kg of navigation equipment (to allow the organisers to know where you are as the occupants aren’t allowed so much as a smartphone on board) and 10kg of emergency water supplies, it will actually burble up to the start line weighing more than 2500kg (so a Range Rover is lighter).
What then? Engage stage mode, activate the anti-lag, arm launch control and go? No, no, thrice no. You’re not allowed any of it: this state-of-the-art machine doesn’t even have ABS, let alone traction control, stability control or any more blackly magic electronic trickery.
You can set the diffs up how you like in advance (but these are purely mechanical devices) and lock one, two or all three if you get stuck, but once underway responsibility for continued progress lies solely in the feet and hands of the driver.
For some reason that’s never clearly explained – other than Hunt’s suggestion that “it’s fun” – we find the Dakar Mini in the frozen north of Finland, some distance the chilly side of the Arctic Circle. They’re not testing here, there’s no ice rally approaching but it seems everyone is curious to see how the Mini performs on a surface about as different to that of the Atacama Desert as you’re likely to find. The car looks odd on thin Michelins brandishing long sharp studs like some medieval weapon of war. A navigator in the form of Xavier Panseri hops in next to me, connects our comms system and starts giving directions. The plan is to travel to a frozen lake, get a feel for it on the way and then thrash around a track Mini has thoughtfully hacked out of the ice.
First, second and third it is the ride you notice. The car doesn’t actually feel super-soft as I’d expected, but the damping is such that the smooth road I feel through the seat and steering appears to be one other than the cruelly rutted track spooling out in front of the Mini. It feels strange, the driving position and suspension contriving to make this more akin to a simulation than an experience.
The car wanders slightly on its studs and that is encouraging, for it makes the Mini feel as if it will actually change direction reasonably well. The brakes on this sub-zero surface of compacted snow are other-worldly.
We drive straight onto the lake and, without ceremony, Xavier simply says: “Push now.” There’s a pleasant roar of approval from the engine and the car charges forward far more urgently than its great weight and modest power output suggest. It’s the torque we’re feeling: gear up, revs down is clearly the way to go. A tight hairpin approaches and as I turn the wheel all my hopes about the car’s agility evaporate. It doesn’t want to turn in at all. Just as I think I’m about to bury the Mini in a snow bank before even negotiating the very first corner I have attempted, Xavier thoughtfully leans over and yanks on the handbrake. Instantly the Mini abandons its headlong charge into oblivion and meekly tucks into the apex. Power on, it oversteers so readily I want to broadside it in triumph and discover only just in time just how little lock the Mini has. It would be incredibly easy to spin having been in complete control right up to the moment the steering wheel turned no further.
Now I’m learning all the time. You can forget trying to avoid the potholes, deep grooves and lumps in the ice – the car scarcely notices them. It holds slow corners in such contempt you have no choice but to goad it with the handbrake to dissuade it from such obstinacy. Later, when Hunt takes me along a forest special stage, I note he’s using it regularly even in medium-speed curves, just to keep the car in trim. It’s the high-speed stuff at which it excels. There’s a sequence of virtually flat left and right kinks, one after the other, and here you can actually use the mass of the car to your advantage to make it pendulum gently from apex to apex, as you power through marvelling at how accommodating this vast machine feels, how completely on your side it seems.
The reason for its mulish nature in slower turns is provided, somewhat implausibly, by Rauno Aaltonen, who pops up at some stage in the proceedings to explain the car retains a Dakar set-up that includes a very tight centre diff. “It makes the car easier to control at 200kph,” he says with a smile, “and there aren’t many hairpins on the Dakar…”
Make no mistake, this is an extraordinary car, a fascinating confection of technologies both state of the art and ark, a beast as highly evolved for its chosen discipline as any circuit racer. Ultimately it is the way it is because its first priority is not to win the Dakar but to protect the frail, vulnerable humans it carries within as they try to traverse some of the most hostile environments on the planet.
It is a 120mph survival capsule that must run not for a few short stages over a three-day weekend, but for more than 9000km over a fortnight. See it in that context and it suddenly makes perfect sense. The Dakar Mini might look odd, it might not even be that fast, but out there for day after day in the vast expanses of roasting hot nothingness, there’s not a thing on earth I’d rather be driving.