My Mini marvel

It might have been an underdog, but a Mini 1275GT still humbled a few giants at the 76th Goodwood Members’ Meeting

Of all the races held at the Goodwood Members’ Meeting, the Gerry Marshall Trophy has quickly established itself as one of the highlights. Dedicated to tin-tops from the Group 1 era that ran from 1970 to 1982, it is a firm favourite amongst competitors and spectators thanks to its two-driver, two-race format (one of which ran into the darkness this year), impressive entry and wonderful variety of machinery.

It’s appropriate that a race named after one of British motor racing’s most colourful characters should attract such a vibrant grid of great-looking saloons. There’s something so evocative about the shapes, sizes, sounds and liveries that characterise the era featured on the Gerry Marshall grid, with everything from big-banger Camaros and Mustangs to home-grown V8 Rovers, howling V6 Capris, the odd BMW and Volvo, a handful of hard-as-nails Escort RS2000s, unlikely Fiesta and Metro hatchbacks and even a few bluff-nosed Mini 1275GTs.

I’ve cast envious glances at those with drives in the Gerry Marshall for the last few years, so I was thrilled when the opportunity to join them arose this year thanks to the Goodwood Competitions Department and Mark Burnett, who owns the rather wonderful ex-Jon Mowatt Mini 1275GT. A first-timer at Goodwood, Burnett kindly asked if I’d like to be his wingman for the two-driver feature race on Saturday.

I’ve always been into Minis. Weaned on my dad’s tales of youthful derring-do from the mid ’60s, followed by happy childhood memories of journeys in my parents‘ maroon Clubman in the late ’70s and, eventually, my own reckless youth spent tearing through the early ’90s at breakneck speed in my souped-up 1380cc Mini, they are a formative strand of my motoring DNA.

HOWEVER, APART FROM a couple of races in the Mighty Mini Championship in the mid-to-late ’90s I’ve never raced a ‘proper‘ Mini. By which I mean a historic car prepared by acknowledged master Swiftune. Thanks to Burnett this was about to change.

His car is a cracker. Originally campaigned in the British Saloon Car Championship by quick privateer, Jon Mowatt, the white, black and red 1275GT raced against the more famous Richard Longman Minis. Mowatt frequently placed well, even against the big team entries, bagging several podiums and even a class win at Mallory Park in 1980, which trivia hounds amongst you will know as the race Stirling Moss made his return to competitive driving in an Audi 80.

The Swiftune connection can be traced right back to these heady days, for Mowatt owned a rolling road on the A127 in North Benfleet, handily just up the road from Swiftune’s base. He and Swiftune founder, the late Glyn Swift, were friends. So, when Mowatt decided to sell the car in 1994 he enlisted the help of Glyn’s son, Nick, who found a buyer in Fernand Lelong, a Luxembourg-based Mini racer. Lelong successfully campaigned the car in Europe, eventually selling it on to German Helmut Kulhavy. As is so often the case with old racing cars, the 1275GT eventually found its way home, being offered back to Swiftune in 2013 - inevitably modified beyond recognition, but well worth saving.

Burnett enters the frame the following year, when he brings his Appendix K Mk1 Cooper S race car to Swiftune for some work. Glyn Swift shows him the sorry-looking 1275GT and explains it has been invited to race at the 2015 Goodwood Members‘ Meeting. The car is completely stripped and rebuilt to period Group 1 specification, then tested at Brands Hatch in early 2015. Mowatt is invited to see the car and can’t believe the accuracy of the build: high praise indeed and the best possible endorsement of Swiftune’s work.

The 76th Members‘ Meeting is the fourth consecutive Gerry Marshall outing for the Mowatt Mini, having been raced by Glyn Swift and Jason Plato in 2015 then with Glyn or Nick Swift at the wheel in 2016 and 2017. After Glyn Swift sadly passed away in 2017, Nick suggested to Burnett that the 1275GT might be for sale. Thanks to Burnett’s extremely understanding wife, funds set aside for a kitchen extension are liberated for far better use. The deal is done...

While he’s an experienced racer of Minis (starting in the Mighty Mini series and progressing to his FIA Mk1 Cooper S), Burnett has never competed in the 1275GT. Nor has he raced at Goodwood. I’ve got a few Revival and Members’ Meeting notches on my HANS device, but with zero experience of the Group 1 Mini and limited front-wheel-drive racing experience I’m relieved Burnett has some testing booked at Goodwood.

Unfortunately that test slot is missed thanks to the so-called ‘Beast from the East’ and its sudden dump of snow, so the test is rescheduled for March 9, just a week before the Members’ Meeting. Normally I’m chomping at the bit to get to Goodwood, but as I’m getting my race kit ready the previous evening, news filters through that Henry Hope-Frost has been killed in a road traffic accident while heading home from the circuit.

It’s shocking, heartbreaking news, for not only is Henry a friend and colleague, but his irrepressible enthusiasm and unrivalled knowledge deservedly earned him the nickname ‘The Voice of Goodwood’. I can’t imagine the place without him. To be honest I’m in two minds whether I can even face driving to Goodwood, let alone get my head in the right place to test a racing car, but after a fitful night’s sleep and a 4am alarm I decide I have to go. Not least because HH-F would be livid at me if I didn’t.

I won’t lie, it’s a tough day, but the Mini is everything I hoped it would be. Cute as a button, beautifully prepared, fast, fierce and surprisingly faithful, even in horribly slick conditions after some sporadic rainfall coats the circuit. I don’t have the resolve to stay for the afternoon, but I’ve learned enough to know the Mini will be an absolute hoot to race.

QUALIFYING FOR THE Gerry Marshall Trophy kicks-off bright and breezy on Saturday morning. Thankfully its before the snow hits, so we get to enjoy a dry, if stone cold, track. Motor racing really boils down to getting stuck in when it matters - to find a way of harnessing your nervous energy and focusing it to positive effect. Dry conditions don’t favour Minis, especially when there are V8-powered Camaros, Mustangs and Rovers in the same race, but by the end of the session Burnett and I are 17th on the 30-car grid, our best time just 0.7sec and three places shy of 2013 BTCC champion Andrew Jordan and Nick Swift’s efforts in the latter’s Longman replica 1275GT.

Race one is also on Saturday - the last of the day with a start time of 5.20pm. It’s only right that Mark – the owner – starts, so I have a cold and edgy 25min to spend pacing around the pits before my time comes.

Minis tend to get mugged off the line and the cars with straight-line stonk can prevail in the early stages, bullying their way by on the straights and getting in the way through the corners. Clearly undaunted, Burnett is in the thick of it and clearly having a fantastic time. The Mini looks and sounds wonderful.

Goodwood is a confidence circuit and the Mini is a confidence car. In expert hands a Mini can be a truly formidable machine. This much we know from Swift and Jordan’s achievements. Burnett and I are on the nursery slopes of a very steep learning curve, but it’s fantastic to see Mark have the boxy white Mini stuffed right up the chuff of three-time Le Mans class-winner Darren Turner and his UFO-liveried 5-series BMW. It’s sights such as this that ensure everyone loves a Mini.

MY TURN COMES as darkness begins to envelop the circuit. A layer of ice has formed across the wooden pit counters and snow is beginning to scour the circuit. In the heat of a driver change none of this matters. All you want to do is get belted and get out of the pits as fast as you can.

It’s funny getting back into a Mini after more than 20 years. The driving position is a little better than I recall from my own road car, but there’s still the same bus-like quality to the steering wheel angle that forces you to drive with your legs concertinaed into the pedal box so that you can comfortably reach the top of the wheel. It’s not ideal, but it’s a timeless part of Mini driving.

In every other respect the 1275GT is like no other Mini I’ve driven. Boasting a full Swiftune-built 1293cc motor (a modest overbore is permitted), the Mini has the best part of 140bhp on tap. With a minimum weight of 715kg including the driver this makes for a power-to-weight ratio of almost 200bhp-per-ton.

Running what are effectively cut slicks, the Group 1 Mini has immense cornering ability. It’s grippy and ultra- responsive, so you only need nudge it into a corner to get the nose hunting the apex. There’s tons of traction, even out of the chicane, but when you’re really on it and you push deep into the throttle’s travel the nose just begins to push wide of the mark.

Thanks to a surprisingly foursquare stance the tail rarely wags, which helps you learn to trust in its abilities. The brakes are brilliant, but the trick is to use them as sparingly as possible, for its easy to over-brake and waste vital cornering speed. You quickly get sucked into the experience, scrunching-up your courage to unlearn braking points and drive right into the heart of the corners with as much pace as possible. In a Mini, ambush is always the key to overtaking.

THAT'S NOT TO say it’s short of straight-line speed. Out of the chicane it’ll live with most cars until you slot fourth gear, at which point the brick-shaped aerodynamics, short gearing and relative lack of stonk see the bigger cars inexorably pull away. The shift light blinks at a little over 8000rpm, but it’ll pull beyond 8500rpm in clean air on the approach to No Name and Woodcote corners. If you find yourself in the tow of a Rover make that a wince-inducing 9000rpm, but it never misses a beat. Further evidence that no one knows the venerable A-series engine like Swiftune.

Charging through the darkness with a snowstorm whipping across the open expanse of airfield, it’s hard to concentrate on driving. I simply can’t believe the snow isn’t going to make the once-dry track surface slick with moisture, but the spindrift never seems to settle, so you’re left stealing yourself to carry every ounce of speed through the corners, despite the nagging doubt that this is the lap when grip finally cedes to slip.

I catch one or two cars and pass them for position, but the most memorable moment is being passed by Mark Blundell and Mike Jordan as they battle for the lead in their Escort and Capri. It’s a fabulous sight – a flare of headlights quickly followed by a flash of white, then red as the two Fords hammer by as one on the approach to Fordwater. It’s been a while since I’ve raced in the dark, but this is a reminder of just how evocative it can be.

The final lap somewhat takes me by surprise as the race is flagged a few minutes early. We finish 13th, one place ahead of Tiff Needell’s Rover V8 (much to his annoyance!) and four places up from our starting position. Swift and Jordan’s sixth overall shows the full potential of a 1275GT in dry conditions (in full wet conditions a Mini could be a contender for an outright win), but both Burnett and I are buzzing after a brilliantly enjoyable race.

And the Mini?

Well, it still feels as fresh and feisty as it did at the start. Driving an underdog is never less than hard work, but there’s nothing like sticking it to bigger and more powerful machinery in a plucky little car with tremendous period history and highly addictive qualities. There’s simply nothing quite like it. The original 1275GT advertising slogan said ‘You Don’t Need A Big One To Be Happy’. For once I concur.