SH57 starts off like any back road in Maharashtra – oblivious locals on two-wheelers, overloaded Jeeps imitating the leaning tower of Pisa and the odd villager who thinks he’s invincible. As an introduction to what is eventually a hoot of a drive, this first bit is the mother of all wet blankets. But keep your temper in check, don’t spare the car’s horn and you will soon be rewarded with 40-odd kilometres of fresh tarmac snaking its way through dense green foliage to the township of Lavasa.
Don’t drive there on weekends; Saturday and Sunday are when this stretch is at its most populated, and the throngs of waterfall enthusiasts are out in full strength and high spirits.
On a weekday, though, this stretch is empty, allowing you to fully exploit a road that climbs, drops, twists, pulls the handbrake on itself and makes for the perfect rally hill stage. And what better car to take on a hill stage than a Mini Cooper S. Google ‘Mini Cooper Monte Carlo’ if you haven’t heardof the legend.
Unlike the Monte, there’s no snow here, but there’s plenty of rain and it’s coming down in sheets as we demolish the distance to our destination. There are streams running across the road, there’s the occasional cloud to drive through, and the tarmac is glistening like the back of an angry king cobra. One wrong move and…
Well, it’s hard to make a wrong move in the Mini – it’s light, tight and pivots around a point somewhere between the front seats. And with 181bhp nestled between its front wheels, it’s an absolute terrier when you really start pushing it.
The fun starts as soon as you pass the town of Pirangut. Up ahead is the Mutha ghat – a series of fast corners linked by third-gear straights. The Mini’s slowly revealing a side that makes every one of its 28.6 lakh rupees worthwhile. Its chassis is so revealing and predictable, it’s almost like you’re plugged into it – you know how much the front wheels are going to slide, you know what each wheel is doing at any given point in time and you know exactly how much corrective action to take once you’ve overcooked it.
There’s a reason the Mini is so apt for these roads and it has everything to do with its basic design. The upright pillars give you great visibility and, on tight roads like these, this little detail is extremely helpful. It means you can actually see exactly where you’re going and this helps you push it even harder than you would a 600bhp supercar. That the wheels are pushed out to the four corners of the car also help in placing it accurately on these roads.
And so, aided by the Mini’s compactness, we blast through the cool mountain air, the growling exhaust note angering the few stray dogs that are out enjoying the downpour. You have to watch out for speedbreakers on this road – some are unmarked, and they designate the beginning and end of the tiny settlements that line this road. And because it’s raining so hard, the villagers have sensibly elected to stay inside their homes, leaving the road almost entirely in the possession of a red Mini Coopers S with racing stripes. Haha!
And then it gets better. The rain lets up briefly as we make the 90-degree, second-gear left at the tiny village of Lavarde. Already pristine tarmac becomes even grippier, is well marked and becomes the definitive two-lane hill road. It climbs sharply through a series of hairpin bends and Rajeev, our photographer, is mouthing expletives at the stunning scenery and demanding we stop for pictures at every turn. But I’m not listening. The Mini is feeling absolutely ballistic – it’s gripping incredibly well through the ever tightening corners and the turbo motor seems to have found its second wind in the cool mountain air. So we drive up 10 kilometres and all the way back down again, and then, when Rajeev’s face has turned a pale shade of green, I drop him off so he can get a few pictures in before it starts pouring again.
He’s thrilled because the place is so picturesque, it makes his job easier. He keeps asking for numerous runs past the camera and I’m only happy to oblige. The Mini is happy to oblige too. In fact, I’ve become so familiar with it, I do the one thing I would never do in a say, a Lamborghini, in these conditions. With the traction control switched, off the Mini becomes even better. Like in any front-wheel-drive car, it’s best to line up before the corner, kiss the apex, get the wheels straight as early as possible and get on the power quickly. In most other cars, turning off the electronic nannies could get nasty, but the Mini is so predictable, the steering so communicative, you know exactly what the car is doing and you can tell instinctively what to do to stay on your intended line. This car is proof that light weight, adequate power and a taut chassis are all you need to have all the fun you want.
The weather gods decide we’ve had enough fun and open the taps again, with a little fog thrown into the mix. We drive carefully to the top of the hill, the Mini’s fog lamps cutting a path through the dense whiteout. It’s quite surreal driving in these conditions – it feels like we’re driving a modern-day version of the Monte. It’s hair-raisingly exciting and that has nothing to do with the drop in temperature.
The fog is so thick we almost drive into the security cabin at the gates of Lavasa. After a quick stop to pacify the startled security guard, we then continue on a road that drops down below the clouds and into the valley.
Again, it’s sweeping corners lined with mini-waterfalls and a shade of green so bright, it’s almost blinding. The Mini is ballet dancing from apex to apex, the tail stepping out ever so briefly over mid-corner bumps. On roads like these, you really appreciate how stiff the car is.
I know it’s rather far-fetched, but I now understand how Paddy Hopkirk beat more sophisticated and powerful cars on the Monte Carlo rally. The Mini encourages you to get in and push it as hard as it will go; you really don’t have to hold back as you would in a bigger car on a tight stage. The Mini is so tiny (even this relatively bloated Mk2 version), even the narrowest roads have more than enough space for shenanigans. You end up averaging much higher speeds as you can keep on the throttle for longer, and you don’t have to worry about managing the weight of the car through lethal switchbacks or under hard braking. This nimbleness and instant willingness to change direction is the essence of the Mini driving experience. It’s the trait that shines through on a road like this.
We’ve built up quite an appetite by now and stop for lunch at Lavasa’s Ekaant retreat. It’s then that I realise what makes this road great. To get home, you have to do it all over again. Brilliant!