RISING
TO THE CHALLENGE

Having discussed the idea for the limited-edition Mini John Cooper Works Challenge last month, now it’s time to put the theory to the test.

by dan prosser
PHOTOGRAPHY by aston parrott

Five guys stand in a pit garage at Oulton Park circuit. They discuss the relative merits of 25 damper clicks on the rear axle versus 20, agreeing that the firmer setting is an improvement. ‘It helps the front end into the apex,’ offers one, and the others nod along.

The garage will have witnessed this exact exchange a thousand times before, but probably only in relation to purpose-built competition cars. In the context of a small, factory-built, road-going hot hatch? I’ll bet this is a first.  
Let me fill you in on the Mini John Cooper Works Challenge project. There’s a nucleus of die-hard driving enthusiasts at the Mini Plant Oxford – guys who spend their weekends racing cars – for whom the limited-edition Challenge is an extra-curricular activity. Between them they wanted to find the trackday car within Mini’s cutesy little hatchback and set it free.

With the standard Mini John Cooper Works as their starting point they took inspiration (and the name) from the Mini Challenge single-make race series and approached the same companies that supply components for the racing cars; Quaife for the limited-slip differential, Nitron for the dampers, Mintex for the brake pads and Team Dynamics for the wheels.

Then they approached EVO. They would be drawing on our familiarity with every significant hot hatch and trackday car of the last two decades and we’d get a rare opportunity to peer over the fence and get an insight into the development work that a big manufacturer undertakes before releasing a new model. In this age of precisely stage-managed product launches, being party to a new model long before it’s announced to the wider motoring press was a novelty in itself.

We all met at Mini Plant Oxford in February to discuss the car (Radar, evo 222) – which will be built in very limited numbers and launched at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in June – in minute detail. The engineers listened to what we had to say and told us everything we wanted to know about the chassis upgrades, the styling tweaks and the pricing (somewhere around the £32,000 mark), but, strangely, on the subject of tyres they were very coy indeed. Before going our separate ways we set a date for the all-important development driving session.

A month later, five guys stand in a pit garage at Oulton Park circuit. Representing Mini are Nicolas Griebner, head of product, Mini UK; James Loukes, Mini John Cooper Works Challenge project leader and Chris Fryer, Driving Dynamics Test Engineer – between them they form the aforementioned nucleus.  Contributing editor Jethro Bovingdon and I fly the evo flag.

Naturally, the development of any new model, be it a trackday car or motorway hack, is a lengthy, iterative process. James and Chris first ran the John Cooper Works Challenge on its expensive Nitron suspension at an under-the-radar test session during a public trackday at the Bedford Autodrome one Saturday in February, then conducted two further track test sessions ahead of our day at Oulton Park. They’ve also been using a pair of development cars as their daily rides for the past few months, giving them ample opportunity to thoroughly test various settings and components.

The Challenge will be the first Mini to run fully adjustable suspension, meaning bump and rebound, ride height and camber settings will all be adjustable. In order that the buyer isn’t left stranded in a disorienting world of damper clicks and C-spanners, the factory will specify recommended road and track settings as a starting point, leaving owners plenty of freedom to adjust the various parameters to suit their own tastes. The job for today is to work towards defining those road and track settings. We’re also testing two tyre options, each of them selected from a longer list of candidates during the earlier tests, with a view to reaching a conclusive decision as to which will be the original equipment.

It isn’t until Jethro and I arrive at Oulton Park and see the development cars tucked away in the pit garages that we learn which tyres are being assessed for the Challenge. Neither James nor Chris had wanted to give too much away during our initial discussions. I’m sure they had good reason. I just hoped it would be something quite sporty, such as Pirelli’s P Zero or a Michelin’s Pilot Super Sport. The sort of rubber you’d find on a bigger, more powerful hot hatch or a mid-range sports car.

‘The team is determined for the Challenge to be a serious, fully equipped trackday machine’

I definitely didn’t expect to see the stacks of 17-inch Team Dynamics wheels wrapped in Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s and Dunlop Direzzas. Even the more road-biased Cup 2 would probably be the most aggressive tyre ever fitted to a small hot hatch. For all the encouraging noises made during that meeting at the Mini Plant Oxford, learning of those two tyre options for the first time is the clearest indication yet that Nicholas, James and Chris are determined for the Challenge to be a serious, fully equipped trackday machine, and not merely an approximation of one. Time to get down to work.

Before donning our crash helmets and tackling the undulating Oulton Park, though, we venture out onto a road route. The Challenge has to work both on track and as a day-to-day road car – indeed that’s the very reason why the development team arrived at an adjustable suspension configuration – so we start by peeling out of the paddock and onto Cheshire’s craggy back roads.

The yellow car wears the Cup 2s, the green car the Direzzas, Jethro and I swapping each time we complete the 20-mile loop. We start with five damper clicks on the front axle and ten on the rear – one being the softest setting, 25 the firmest – on both cars. Whatever the tyres, the Challenge instantly feels a world apart from the standard John Cooper Works, with a tauter ride, much tighter body control and immediate, precise steering responses. Both tyre options serve up enormous grip levels, but the Dunlops claw so much purchase out of the road surface that I wonder if the Challenge needs a middle pedal at all.

We pull into the pitlane, switch to the proposed track settings – 15 clicks on the front and 20 on the rear – and return to the circuit. It actually takes a few laps and a handful of really committed corners to identify the improvements, but they are there. Whereas the road setup made the car feel slightly aloof and vague right when you needed to know exactly where it was, the track setting keeps it resolutely tied down. No longer does the body trip slightly out of phase with the wheels at the top of the fourth-gear crest, and no longer do you have to wait a fraction on turn-in for the tyres to dig into the track surface as the weight transfers. The real benefit, though, is that my faith in the car goes through the roof. We feed back to James and Chris in the pit garage, who write detailed notes on their diligently prepared assessment forms.

‘It’s much better in the track setting,’ reckons Jethro. ‘I think you could make the Cup 2s feel more like the Direzzas by turning up the suspension settings. I’d also like a little more oversteer dialled in so you can turn-in early, lift off and allow the car to steer itself in towards the apex.’

So that’s how Jethro and I arrive at our preferred track setup: 15 clicks on the front with 25 clicks on the rear to give agility and a slight oversteer balance at corner entry. We’ve both discounted the Dunlops now, agreeing that they’re simply too noisy on the road for a car that must be useable day-to-day.

They also howl like a wounded animal, though. It’s an odd wailing noise, one that rises in volume and pitch as your speed increases. On top of that, the super-stiff sidewalls give a slightly more unsettled ride than the Cup 2s, but not to the point of ruin.

‘The Dunlops give the car amazing turn-in and they’re really stable when you lean on them hard,’ says Jethro when we return to the track. ‘They also back up the natural agility in the chassis with genuine grip, which the Pirelli Cinturato tyres on the standard JCW don’t do. But they’re so noisy! The Michelins give most of the performance of the Dunlops, with much better refinement.’

With five clicks on the front and ten on the rear, both cars feel pointy and agile in that trademark Mini way – the rear dampers being stiffer than the fronts edges the chassis balance towards oversteer – but with grip, steering response and body control elevated well beyond any other third-generation Mini. Chris reckons the Dunlops’ stiffer sidewalls are worth around five damper clicks over the Michelins, so Jethro and I agree that the Cup 2s with ten clicks on the front and 15 on the rear strikes a neat balance between handling, ride quality and refinement on the road. Owners will still be able to soften things from there if they choose to, we reason.

We start on circuit in the original road settings to give us a baseline from which to work. Both cars feel vastly better controlled and much more composed on track than a standard John Cooper Works would do, even in the road setup, but over Oulton Park’s quick crests and at its high-speed turn-in points there is a degree of floatiness just when you want to feel that the car is locked into the track surface. It’s less prominent on the Direzzas and the more aggressive rubber allows you to carry more speed, too. In fact, while chasing Jethro – him in the Dunlop car and me on the Michelins – I run out of track on consecutive laps at the final right-hander, Lodge Corner, demonstrating in mildly alarming fashion just how much grippier the Direzzas are than the Cup 2s, which themselves are really quite impressive to drive on.

‘We feed back to James and Chris in the pits, who write detailed notes on their assessment forms’

I feel a bit conflicted about that. I suppose I approached this exercise believing I should push for the most aggressive chassis settings and the grippiest tyres on test out of some sort of duty to this magazine and all that it stands for. In fact, that is more-or-less what Jethro and I have done in terms of chassis settings, but on the subject of the Direzzas we had to make a sensible call.

Our recommendations are made and dutifully noted. Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres; 10 clicks on the front and 15 on the rear for the road; 15 on the front and 25 on the rear for the track. At the end of the day, somebody points to the Michelins on the rear of one of the cars, which have worn in a pleasingly  consistent way, suggesting we’ve arrived at a pretty smart chassis balance for the Challenge.

Nicholas, James and Chris will do with our input what they will. The Mini John Cooper Works Challenge is a tremendously promising car, though. Next month a third member of the evo team will test the finished product, complete with Challenge-specific paintjob and body styling, to see how well that promise has been fulfilled.

'Our recommendations are made and dutifully noted.'

RISING
TO THE CHALLENGE

Having discussed the idea for the limited-edition Mini John Cooper Works Challenge last month, now it’s time to put the theory to the test.

by dan prosser
PHOTOGRAPHY by aston parrott