Big MINI, big hopes

The iconic MINI Cooper comes out of rally retirement this weekend. Courtesy MINI

Coming out of retirement is a risky move for anyone, especially after 50 years. And that is exactly what the MINI Cooper WRC rally team is doing after two years of preparation. Not only are they getting back out on the circuit, they aim to win it all by 2013.

The original Monte British Motor Car Mini is iconic for a reason. The Mini stormed the rally world in the '60s with four first place finishes at the Monte Carlo rally, and 153 wins in one year alone. That's probably why the rally world is buzzing again.

"The return of MINI to the WRC is probably one of the biggest stories in the history of the sport due mainly to the brand's rich heritage. I can't remember people getting this excited about a car and team before," said Scott Coursey, Editor-in-Chief at RallyBuzz.com and an avid rally watcher for more than 30 years.

Buzz aside, the new MINI is a different car than the original champion. Now owned by BMW, MINI has the heritage, but may lack the DNA. Purists take issue with the Countryman model. And you'd be forgiven for wondering whether BMW was really out to race seriously or just advertise, with winning as a pleasant afterthought.

Reviewing the production MINI Countryman, Dan Neil at The Wall Street Journal wrote, "At times, the Countryman behaves like one of those playground rocking horses mounted on a bendy old truck spring." Not exactly WRC material. Coursey also wonders about MINI's choice of the larger model.

Of course the race car will hardly resemble its crude untuned sibling. That's because in their corner, the MINI will have the expertise of Prodrive, the English engineering firm which helped Subaru win three manufacturer WRC championships. Their nearly 30 years of experience will undoubtedly be a big factor in how the MINI performs. The team cars will be double the weight of the original at 1200 kg, and engine capacity increases 25 percent to 1600 cc.

Still, even with Prodrive's help, some wonder if a car designed to compete with compact SUVs will be a real contender against a race-hardened Citroën team, the six-time champion within the last eight years.

Even a great car only conquers competition when the driver and partner are champions. MINI formed two driving teams: Kris Meeke with partner Paul Nagle, and Dani Sordo with partner Carlos Del Barrio. Team MINI will be going up against the winningest driver in WRC history. Team Citroen's Sebastian Loeb has seven consecutive championships. But Meeke, an engineer turned driver, might be MINI's x-factor. "With Kris Meeke and Dani Sordo, MINI has got the perfect blend of talent and experience," Coursey said. "In Meeke, MINI have one of the fastest and most intelligent drivers in rallying today."

New technical regulations governing the cars may help the MINI's cause. "They wanted to create closer competition and encourage new manufacturers to join," said Coursey. "Prodrive engineers have been working, with new regulations in mind, for nearly two years on building the perfect car. That knowledge can only suggest they will have a very competitive car in the MINI."

When the original MINI came on the rally scene, it was a scrappy little David toeing up with some rally Goliaths. MINI prevailed, but its reign came to an abrupt end with the rise of Ford's entries. Today, the MINI seems to be a preening debutante trying to step into a ring with heavyweights like Citroen and Ford in the ring. Their first testing ground -- in Sardinia, Italy, this Thursday through Sunday -- will be closely watched. At the very least, with its gritty, sand-blasted roads, it will be a nice photo op. But the MINI loyalists dream that a coming out of retirement party may be remembered as a return of the champion, heavier but still champ.