I am behind the wheel of a Mini, but from where I’m sitting, it feels nothing like one. I’m tearing through desert dunes in Dubai with a six-cylinder diesel motor barking and whistling under what looks like a Countryman hood. Let me introduce you to the Mini All4 Racing, which has dominated the brutal Dakar rally for the last three years.
It may look like a beefed-up Mini Countryman, but except for the headlights and windscreen, there are no parts in common between the two. The All4 Racing has a steel tubular trellis frame on which a carbonfibre body sits. The body panels are larger than those on the standard car and it has two shock absorbers per wheel to endure the punishment it takes for the 15-day, 9,375km Dakar challenge. Now 307bhp carrying nearly two tonnes of weight may not be the recipe for outrageous performance, but some of the other numbers are truly astonishing – a 420-litre endurance fuel tank, Michelin Latitude tyres that with their alloys weigh 27kg apiece, three spare tyres, and 250mm of suspension travel (restricted by regulations).
Buckled up in the pilot seat with a professional navigator as my ally, I set out into what seems like an infinite desert. The All4, as its name suggests, sends power to all four wheels via a six-speed sequential gearbox. I pull back the gearlever, build up some revs and let go of the heavy clutch, the Michelins grip the sand like it’s tarmac, and the Mini lunges forward with surprising gusto. The engine is extremely rev happy, but as soon as it does run out of revs, one pull on the sequential lever and the motor reloads for another blast of adrenaline.
I build speed as I go deeper into the dunes, but once a blind crest appears just ahead, I start slowing down. “Flat! Flat! You won’t break the car,” yells my navigator. I’m scared, but I oblige. I go flat over the crest, and then, voila, we’re flying. I mumble 100 prayers in two seconds, waiting for that large thump to rattle my spine as soon as we hit the ground. But shockingly, there’s none. The car lands back on the sand as if it never left it.
As I glide further through tight hairpins and fast-flowing sections in the sand, I realise the Dakar Mini is not that intimidating to drive. The massive traction from all four Michelins and a fast steering, coupled with the fantastic gearbox, make for a drive that I gradually start to enjoy. I feel on top of the world as I blast through the desert, leaving a thick trail of flying sand in my wake. But, much too soon, I’m slammed back to earth as I hand over the wheel to Nani Roma (this year’s Dakar winner), and hop in beside him.
It doesn’t take too long for my smug smile to turn meek. That section where I thought I was going spectacularly flat-out? Nani takes it at almost twice the speed I did, even as we’re chatting and laughing! If you think Formula 1 g-forces are lethal, you can’t even begin to imagine what sitting in this machine for 15 days must be like. In the five-minute taxi ride with Nani, the battering my body receives is insane. But this is the most fun I’ve had in a passenger seat and the memory still makes me grin.
It’s when I get to drive something this lethal, which most people won’t even get to see, that I realise how lucky I am. The Mini All4 Racing is a bespoke machine which, even for a novice driver like me, is not that demanding. It is just mind-numbing that Mini has managed to make a car that feels tougher than a battle tank and still goes like a missile on any kind of surface.