crankandpiston takes MINI’s ALL4 Racing Dakar Rally car for a spin with a two-time Dakar winner.We cannot display this gallery
I’m a little shell-shocked as I remove my helmet. Members of the MINI X-Raid PR team are actually concerned as I struggle to form coherent sentences. Though I knew that this would be a once in a lifetime opportunity, I never expected it would have this kind of impact on me. Standing to my right is the Monster Energy X-Raid MINI ALL4 Racing endurance rally car that competed in this year’s Dakar Rally. And I’ve just driven it.
Rewind a couple of hours. crankandpiston.com is one of only a few publications worldwide to have been invited to this drive event, and given both MINI and X-Raid Team’s endurance racing records, it’s an invite worth having. In 2003, Germany’s X-Raid Team became the first outfit to enter a diesel-powered vehicle for the Dakar with the BMW X5, a trend still followed today. In 2011, X-Raid joined forces with MINI, winning the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge on its debut and successfully defending Leonid Novitskiy’s FIA World Cup title in its rookie campaign. In 2012, the X-Raid MINI took a one-two on its Dakar Rally debut, a feat it repeated the following season. In 2014, the X-Raid MINIs took the hat trick with a decisive podium lockout ahead of stellar opposition from Hummer and Toyota. The team’s current driver line-up boasts former Dakar winners Joan ‘Nani’ Roma and Nasser Al-Attiyah as well as the most successful of them all, 11-time winner Stephane Peterhansel. And the team has invited me – a local lad from the North of England – to drive its Dakar winner in the desert. Nerves and excitement go hand-in-hand today like never before.
Said nerves are put to rest slightly when – at base camp, a few clicks from Dubai’s Bab Al Shams desert resort – I’m introduced to X-Raid mechanical wizard, Miguel Moreira. He’s been with the team since the day it started, and packs enormous experience from both the World Rally Championship and national rallying in his native Portugal among other disciplines. Having worked on the ALL4 Racing from the ground up, there’s not a lot he doesn’t know about either test model here today: as he mentions, “I don’t need the book!”
The chassis comes from Heggemann Autosport in Germany and is five per cent larger than that on the production ready Countryman, whilst the lightweight bodywork has been manufactured in France. The Reiger Racing Suspension – THE key component for endurance rallying, Miguel explains – connects to regulation Michelin All-Terrain tyres, while the AP disc brakes use a combination of water and air-cooling to battle the ungodly desert heat. To ensure as much indestructability as possible, each 1900kg model – prepared across one month by four mechanics – conducts 15-20 days of pre-season testing in Morocco. Similar in physique the ALL4 Racing may be to the Countryman, but the MINI badges and headlights are all they have in common.
That also goes for the 3.0-litre TwinPower turbo diesel six-cylinder under the bonnet. It packs 307hp and can whip the ALL4 Racing to a top speed of 185kph on sand, but it’s the 516lb ft of torque (which can be upped to 664lb ft depending on the terrain) that Miguel sees as the crucial element. “For this kind of racing, horsepower is not that important” he explains. “The torque is much more vital: how else do you expect to climb the dunes and mountains?”
It’s an extraordinary package, one that – as you would expect – is sinfully expensive, coming in at a cool €1 million (around $1.4 million). That’s not all, since to compete on the Dakar itself, including spares, team personnel, and support trucks, investment in these machines ramps up another €860,000 ($1.2million), give or take. Plus, both ALL4 Racing MINIs will in just two days time land in Qatar for the Sealine Cross Country Rally, the fourth round of the prestigious FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies that X-Raid driver Vladimir Vashilyev currently heads. The message then is clear: I. Must. Not. Stack. It.
Fortunately, there’s little time for panic, since a race suit and helmet are soon being thrown in my direction.
The actual run will take place in the Monster Energy X-Raid MINI (chassis #10), getting into which – standing as I do at 6’ 2” – is a bit of a faff. Miguel – who, despite the 40-degree temperatures, still has a big smile on his face – tells me to hold onto the roll cage with my right hand, put my right leg into the driver’s side footwell, and plonk myself into the seat before dragging my left foot in afterwards. Several contortionist attempts later – aided by Miguel taking my left foot and twisting it in a way I didn’t think physically possible – I’m finally in the Recaro bucket, onto which the words ‘N Roma’ have been stitched. That would be 2014 Dakar winner Joan ‘Nani’ Roma. Once again, the realisation of what I’m about to do strikes me hard.
As Miguel connects the microphone in my helmet into the car’s radio system and begins locking my six-point race harness, I turn and shake hands with ’01 and ‘03 Dakar winner Andreas Schulz, my co-driver for the run. The amiable German is on his seventh run of the day and is clearly starting to feel the heat in the un-air-conditioned cabin through his flame retardant racesuit. It doesn’t appear to knock his enthusiasm though, flashing a smile at me as he shakes my hand and asks “English? Deutsch?” I’m clearly in good hands.
Speaking of which, a slim, almost farcically simple steering wheel is soon being placed between my gloves and slotted into place on the steering column in front of me. To my right is a six-speed sequential Sadev gearbox, in front of which on the dashboard is a small sticker – ‘Up is Down, Down is Up’ – is deference to the direction of the gear changes. There’s more switch boxes and analogue readouts on the dashboard than I could even attempt to know what to do with, including a housing in front of Andreas that controls the car’s GPS and race control radio communication. When competing for two weeks across 8500km of South America for more than 12 hours per day on an event that has claimed the lives of nearly 30 competitors (including Belgian biker Eric Palante on this year’s event), the X-Raid team and event organisers take absolutely no chances: even the blood types of the MINI’s occupants are written on the bonnet in case urgent medical attention is required.
A tap on my arm from Miguel tells me that I’m ready for the off, and I’m soon being told by Andreas through the earpiece in my helmet to depress the clutch, pull the gearlever down to select first, and pull slowly forward into the abyss before us.
Am I really about to do this?
STORY CONCLUDES ON PAGE 2