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Taking Mini's Dakar-winning rally car for a dune-jumping ride

March 14, 2014

Who you calling cute?

Since its hugely successful revival by BMW, the Mini has rightly been known for its pint-sized urban charm. But there’s always been another side of the Mini: More macho than any Mustang, as invincible as a military off-roader.

The Mini’s rally-racing skills catapulted it to worldwide fame 50 years ago, when the British underdog won the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally. Led by Formula One race builder John Cooper, Mini’s win cemented its image as a cool, sporty machine — not merely a cheap, fuel-sipping economy car. Even the Beatles sent congratulations, and the Fab Four would soon drive their own Minis, including George’s psychedelic-painted version in 1967’s “Magical Mystery Tour.”

A half-century later, Mini again showed its spirit and endurance, with Germany’s X-Raid team sweeping the top three spots in January’s 2014 Dakar Rally. Their Mini All4 racers clocked 5,824 miles through Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, from the heights of the Andes to the Atacama desert: 13 days of brutal endurance driving, one day of rest. Originally running a route from Paris to Dakar, the race fled the African continent after 2008 due to political instability and threats of danger along the route.

Dakar remains perhaps the most monumental challenge in motorsports, a grueling two-week test of man and machine versus nature. And the coolest thing? I’m about to drive the Mini that bested all comers, a $1.2 million fantasy of carbon fiber, welded steel and diesel grunt.

X-Raid’s winning Mini sits in the sand at Dumont Dunes, at the edge of Death Valley in the Mojave Desert. (The car has been been air freighted direct from Santiago, Chile). This off-roading mecca — essentially a sandbox for grown-ups — ripples over 8,150 acres, ringed by desolate scrubland and low volcanic hills. And Dumont’s dramatically wind-carved dunes, including one that’s 1,200 feet tall — just 50 feet shy of the Empire State Building — are a perfect place to flaunt the Mini’s unstoppable nature. But first, a disclaimer: Like a Nascar stocker, this Mini has almost nothing in common with a showroom version, aside from a windshield and door handles. The body shell looks a lot like today’s Mini Countryman, but it’s made of lightweight carbon fiber. The rest is a purpose-built, weapons-grade brute, weighing just under two tons before 90 gallons of diesel fuel is pumped aboard. It’s powered by a burly 3.0-liter diesel engine developed by BMW Motorsport. It makes 310 hp and about 516 lb.-ft. of torque. A fixed AWD system and stiff-sidewall, Michelin off-road tires with less than five pounds of air pressure help the Mini blast up and over every imaginable terrain — including grabbing big air, X-Games style.

That Dakar terrain includes Andean mountain passes at over 11,000 feet, with drives between race stages as high as 16,000 feet. The same race can find drivers cooking in more ways than one: Hostile deserts turn the car into a baking dish for two, with cabin temperatures brushing 150 degrees.

The 11 Mini’s that took on Dakar all finished, a real achievement in a race in which more than half the 431 cars, trucks, quads and motorcycles failed before the end. But compared to some race cars I’ve tested, the X-raid crew isn’t the slightest bit worried that I might damage their $1.2 million baby. Damaging myself may be another story. But the lanky Spanish driver Joan Nani Roma and his intrepid co-pilot, Frenchman Michele Perin, welcome me aboard.

Suited up and inserted like a cork in the tight Recaro driver’s seat, I buckle my racing harness and fire up the BMW diesel, which chugs like a Peterbilt semi. The clutch pedal is only used to slip into first gear; the direct racing gearbox lets me bang the broomstick-shaped floor lever through six forward speeds.

With Perin at my side, we’re soon churning up the soft beige dunes, the Mini’s steering feeling surprisingly light for such a beefy machine. I’m mentally thanking previous instructors for lessons in left-foot braking and other rally techniques, which help me drift through turns without swapping ends. I balance the Mini on the perilous-looking spine of a steep dune: Not half bad, I think to myself. 

And then it happens. The Mini bucks and rattles, and Perin orders me to stop. “We have a punctured tire,” he says in French-accented English. Just like in a real rally, it’s time for side-of-road repairs, which drivers must perform with no assistance from support crews – only from a fellow competitor, should one be so lucky. The Mini’s built-in hydraulic jack proves a godsend, a thick pole emerging from the underbody to instantly hoist the car into the air. The Mini carries three spare tires, and X-raid drivers train to change them out – including strapping in and out of their seat harnesses – in two minutes or less using a battery-powered lug wrench. Mechanical issues may force a stop, but bathroom breaks, unfortunately, are another issue: Pilots wear adult diapers for those kind of emergencies.

Perin is jockey-sized, weighing perhaps 140 pounds, yet as I stand holding the lug nuts, he hoists the back-breaking wheel and tire into place. Drivers take a fearsome beating during races, and work to develop strength – including in neck muscles -- to absorb days or weeks of off-road punishment. Competitors train constantly, including high-altitude skiing or snowshoeing to acclimate to race conditions. Danger abounds: Perin and Roma have plunged off the course and into ravines, and medical helicopter airlifts are routine along isolated rally routes.

Today is a walk in the park in comparison. And after repairing the tire and returning to the Monster Energy trailers at our base, it’s time to ride shotgun with Roma. He’s  one of only three racers in history to win his Dakar class on both a car and motorcycle, following his Mini victory this year.

Roma points the Mini straight up the side of a soaring dune, grabs air over the top, then plunges like a roller coaster’s stomach-dropping fall. Surrounded by dunes, with virtually no perspective but blue sky above, it feels a bit like riding in a rolling fighter plane. A stormy ocean also comes to mind, as Roma expertly surfs the Mini along cresting waves and a shifting sea of sand. I’m expecting us to roll and tumble down the dunes at any moment, but Roma’s calm control – and my reflexive whoops and laughter – keep fear at bay. 

After charging back to base camp, I chug water, gather my senses and jump back into the Mini John Cooper Works GP that I drove from Las Vegas. It’s been an amazing day, but a question lingers: What does this desert warrior have to do with civilian-issue Minis?

Well, the all-new, 2014 Mini hardtop does go on sale this month. And with Mini now dominating Dakar like it dominated rallies in the mid-‘60s, Mini figured it was a good time to remind people of its heritage and its present: Not just a cutie-pie, but a formidable performance car andbrand.

But considering how often Mini expands its lineup, perhaps the X-Raid racers could inspire a genuine off-road model for showrooms. Perfect for real-life Walter Mittys who dream of taking on Dakar.