All4 one in the Dubai desert with the Dakar Rally-winning Mini

Shane O’ Donoghue goes playing in the sand dunes with the Dakar Rally-winning Mini All4 Racing.
The Mini All4 Racing is a larger, massively modified version of the road-going car. It’s designed to look like the Countryman, but the rear doors are fake and only the lights, door handles and windscreen are carried over. Courtesy BMW Group
The Mini All4 Racing is a larger, massively modified version of the road-going car. It’s designed to look like the Countryman, but the rear doors are fake and only the lights, door handles and windscreen are carried over. Courtesy BMW Group

Our morning starts like so many others in the Emirates, battling traffic to get onto Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Road, before settling into a cruise in whichever of the six lanes that the driver feels is appropriate. The sun is already hot and we’re heading for a piece of empty desert an hour away from Dubai, where it promises to be considerably warmer. But nobody in the bus is complaining. Indeed, there’s a quiet sense of anticipation. As we near our destination and the coach leaves the security of tarmac behind, our nervous excitement is enhanced in a blare of revs and a cloud of dust as a huge yellow-and-black monster overtakes the bus, sideways. And then proceeds to carry out a controlled, long-radius drift around our moving vehicle, accompanied by plumes of sand and the distinct roar of an engine bred for competition.

We all burst out laughing, the race driver gives us his thumbs up and a few minutes later we’re out of the bus into the heat to take a closer look. The driver in question is Joan “Nani” Roma, an effusive yet down-to-earth Spaniard, one of the works drivers competing for the X-Raid Cross Country Rally team, and none other than the winner of the gruelling 2014 Dakar Rally. That was no fluke; Nani has competed in every Dakar event since 1996, first on bikes and then, following his first victory on two wheels in 2004, in cars. He has been racing Minis at the Dakar since 2012 and took outright victory in the Mini All4 Racing in January this year, an event in which all 11 examples of the Mini that started the event also finished it. Mini locked out the podium and seven Minis were in the top 10. But Nani’s was the star.

That’s the yellow-and-black racer that you see pictured here. Despite the car’s historical significance, it’s not due for retirement any time soon, and, just a few days before it competes at the Sealine Cross Country Rally in Qatar, we’re being let loose in it. Not only that, but it turns out that we’ll be encouraged to hit its top speed and also tackle an off-road desert course littered with jumps and deep, soft sand. To call the opportunity a privilege is to massively understate the situation.

But back to the Mini. The All4 Racing is designed to look like the Countryman crossover, but it shares very little with the models visible in the windows of the AGMC showroom just off Emirates Road. Indeed, only the lights, door handles and windscreen are carried over. The body shell is made of carbon fibre and though close in appearance to the road-going car, the rear doors are fake and the overall size is a little larger. Underneath, it’s all change, with a bespoke steel roll cage and survival cell for the driver and co-driver, storage in the back for up to three huge spare wheels and a chassis developed to survive high-speed off-road driving for six hours at a time. It’s clear that we won’t be challenging its durability in our 30-minute stint in the ­desert.

And if the towering height of the car and the very serious-looking double-strut suspension are a little intimidating, just wait until the door opens to the cabin. You climb up and through the roll cage before snugly settling into the racing seat. Miguel Moreira, the chief ­mechanic, straps me in with a racing harness and the surprisingly large and simple steering wheel is slotted back into place ahead of me. I check that I can reach the pedals while the intercom wiring is plugged into my helmet. There’s a mind-boggling array of switches and controls scattered all around the cockpit – with as many in front of the co-driver as the driver – and, worryingly, very little looks familiar. There are settings for the various differentials, speed limiters, an incredibly detailed diagnostics computer and myriad navigation tools.

My hapless co-driver for the experience must have seen the disbelief on my face, as he reassures me that I only need to worry about the main driving controls. The most important thing is gear-changing. The Mini is fitted with a six-speed Saldev sequential transmission with a large lever extending to within easy grasp of the driver’s right hand. It’s tugged back to change up a gear, or tapped forward to change down. The clutch pedal is only used on taking off initially and coming to a stop. The brake pedal feels as solid as a block of wood and the steering is remarkably light. Then again, a little assistance is a good idea given how long the pros have to wrestle with this thing on any given day of the Dakar Rally.

The engine blares into life while I’m thinking about the distinct lack of air conditioning (the roof scoop that you can see on the outside is it). I realise afterwards that I never noticed the high temperature in the cabin while driving, such was the level of concentration required. Keen not to stall the racer in front of everyone, I give the throttle pedal a little too much of a shove and the engine roars, but it’s actually very easy to move away from a standstill. That’s because of the huge amount of torque produced.

Under the bonnet is a straight-six, 3.0L diesel engine with twin sequential turbocharging – not something that you’ll find in any regular Mini. It is, however, a BMW engine, based on that found in many a European example of the 5 Series sedan. Much is changed, though, in the pursuit of reliability and also to alter the characteristics of the engine to suit the type of rough all-terrain driving that these cars need to tackle. The wiring loom and control computer are completely new and developed specifically for this car. Maximum power is only 307hp, but it’s produced at an exceptionally low 3,250rpm, so there’s little incentive to rev the engine beyond that. Instead, this car feeds off its torque. There’s 700Nm of the stuff available at 2,100rpm.

While it’s difficult to comprehend what that means in reality, it’s clearly illustrated to me as we approach a tight hairpin at speed. I squeeze the brakes while punching the gear lever forward to get down in to second. Then I realise that the surface is deep, soft sand and it seems like the car is going to bog down right on the apex, but my co-driver tells me just to keep my foot planted. Sure enough, accompanied by massive turbocharger whoosh, the engine revs climb and the car dances away from the corner in a four-wheel drift and all too soon it’s time to change up again. This in a vehicle that weighs 1,900 kilograms.

You soon learn to trust the car and its chassis to deal with the terrain, but expectations of a smooth ride and loads of suspension travel are dashed the first time that we hit a sand-dune jump at speed. The car launches all four wheels into the air, but awkwardly lands and tunnels down into the sand before exploding back out the other side in a cloud of dust. It’s quite dramatic to watch, but it’s downright violent and uncomfortable inside the cabin. Your body takes a serious pummelling and the springs are so firm that the car jiggles about and jumps at the merest suggestion of a bump. Nevertheless, once you grow accustomed to the experience, it can carry huge speed. Indeed, we get a chance to touch its 185kph top speed on a flat, empty stretch, before doing a 180-degree drift and heading back to camp.

There, it’s time to reflect on the experience a little and talk with Michel Périn, Nani’s French co-driver, about the life of a cross-country-rally team. This chat is as eye-opening as the driving was invigorating, and convinces me that the co-driver is at least as important as the actual driver in a successful bid for Dakar victory. After a full day of competing, the driver eats and goes to sleep, but the co-driver still has to plan and prepare for the following day, as only then do they receive the route map. Périn reveals how in tune he is with his own ability, telling us that he often has to compromise on sleep and rest for being more prepared, yet that also means that he’s less competent when tired. He reckons that four-and-a-half hours of sleep is just right for the duration of the 9,000km, two-week Dakar ­extravaganza.

Before we leave the desert, we get a feel for what Périn has to put up with, as he talks us through the rudimentary notes given to him by the rally organisers before we get strapped into his seat in the Mini again and Nani himself shows us what the All4 Racing can really do. It’s frightening and brutal, basically. He seemingly is only ever on full throttle or hard on the brakes – no in between. He aggressively attacks smaller bumps, trusting the suspension to deal with the body and wheel movements, while getting into a strange rhythm over the bigger jumps. Even so, we get big air a few times and, in his expert hands, the landings are no softer. So much so that he turns to me and apologises after one particular rib-crushing landing. I’m bruised and battered after the experience and in awe of the driver and co-driver alike.

Despite the incredible fitness and stamina needed to compete at the top level of this sport, it’s not a young man’s game. Nani is merely a pup at 42, as he points out when I ask him how long he’ll do it for. One thing is clear: Nani loves what he’s doing and he’s rather good at it. Not many of us could relate to his typical working day.

weekend@thenational.ae

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Published: June 5, 2014 04:00 AM

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