It was the worst kept secret in rallying. Would Mini, a brand steeped in history – Paddy Hopkirk, anyone? – and rejuvenated by BMW, return to the world stage? After three days pounding around Sardinia it’s clear that Mini is most definitely back.
It wasn’t the smoothest of experiences for the team but, as any watcher of motorsport will tell you, rallying is not a forgiving sport. Still, stages were completed, impressions made and the seeds of an even bigger Mini adventure have been sown.
With Mini, or rather BMW, having teamed up with Prodrive – a company forever linked with Colin McRae, the Subaru Impreza and success – the key ingredients are present. Overseen by team principle David Richards, the immaculately presented workshop areas in the service park and the predictably lifestyle-themed hospitality unit, bear the hallmarks of a significant financial commitment.
There’s no sign of money being spent recklessly, though. The car – what else but a Countryman – has thousands of miles of testing under its belt. Expectations were high ahead of its Sardinian debut, however only six of the 2011 championship’s 13 rounds will be contested. The team is focused more on 2012 and 2013, and targeting event and championship-wining pace respectively.
No pressure on the drivers, then. Brit Kris Meeke will be a name familiar to anyone who followed Peugeot’s fortunes in the Intercontinental Rally Challenge (IRC), while Dani Sordo was most recently number two at Citroen alongside world champion Sebastian Loeb.
That’s the team sorted, the car sorted, and the drivers sorted. So, what about the rally? Like football it was a game of two halves; Dani finished and Kris didn’t – not for the want of trying, though. Despite the testing, throttle problems curtailed Meeke’s run early on day one. As per the rules, he restated on the Saturday but more problems forced him out and it was decided on Sunday not to run but concentrate on preserving the car and fixing the issues for the next out outing
That’s the harsh reality of rallying. All things considered, Meeke remained in good spirits even if the time spent behind the wheel was minimal. He proved that the car was quick, something Prodrive has been quietly confident about since the start.
From posting seventh fastest time on the event’s first stage, Meeke went third fastest on the second test. His grasp of overall fourth place was brief, as mechanical issues halted his progress. It was a similar story on day two, but Meeke’s efforts have surprised and encouraged in equal measure.
Sordo netted sixth place, which is an impressive achievement, and secured the team’s first finish of the season. His measured approach ensured success; while Citroen’s Petter Solberg and Ford’s Mikko Hirvonen were flat out battling for second place, he got the job done.
Reflecting after the event, Meeke commented: “We said before the rally we wanted to see the speed of the car and we showed we have entered at a very good level in terms of speed. I have had a minor technical glitch and it appeared on both days and we didn’t want to take the risk running again today. Everyone is very positive so we just have to take it from here and go forward.”
It’s early days; nobody was expecting event-winning pace out of the box, yet the cars have proven fast enough to challenge for top positions. It’s a view shared by team principal David Richards: “I think we have shown the performance of the car. We have proved what we can do and I think it has set the mark and set the standard. I wish Kris could have carried on the way he was in the early stages.
“If he had carried on like that I think we would have been in a very strong position, but that is life, this is testing and we are learning as we go along. All signs are really encouraging and we have no real reliability problems at all that we are concerned about. We have to take a lot of positives from the event.”
Loeb might have won in Sardinia, his 64th career win, but as Mini continues to improve Citroen and Ford can expect to work harder for those podium positions. And with Volkswagen announcing entering in 2013 with the Polo, the championship is shaping up to deliver excitement and drama in spades.
2011 Rally Italia Sardinia results – top 6
1. S. Loeb, Citroen
2. M. Hirvonen, Ford
3. P. Solberg, Citroen
4. S. Ogier, Citroen
5. M. Ostberg, Ford
6. D. Sordo, Mini
Next event for Mini: Rally Finland, 28-30 July.