Conquering the “Monte” with the New Mini Countryman

There is a link between cars and pop culture. In the booming sixties, cars were becoming less of a status symbol because they were being made more accessible to the crowds: they were becoming icons, that defined a generation. They were becoming symbols of cultural revolution, new lifestyle and freedom of movement. For the first time in history, the automobile was beginning to become associated with the youth and with new, fascinating forms of music and culture. The Fiat 500, the 2 CV, the Beetle and, obviously, the Mini were taking over the world thanks to their originality, practicality and economy of use: each one of them became an icon and a very personal way to express one’s self.
The Mini probably became the largest international hit: it was the car of the British Invasion: the UK was conquering the minds of people and the hearts of car enthusiast with a weapon that was more powerful than its whole, glorious Navy: the Morris Mini. Mind you, if the E-type of that time was equivalent of the main guns, the Mini was just like a diligent sailor: performing the hardest duties of carrying stuff around, being used and abused through the rigors of day-to-day life and being a loyal, reliable servant.
By putting the transmission underneath the engine, designer Alec Issigonis hit the nail on its head: he designed one of the most clever automobiles of its time, and, unwillingly, one of the most effective in international motor racing.
It’s curious and fascinating to discover how the Mini evolved from a cheap economy car to a bright star of motorsport’s firmament. It always had qualities that made it handle brilliantly and beat the competition. Of course, you can thank John Cooper, an unsung race-car builder who built racing cars for heroes like Stirling Moss and Jack Brabham, who allowed the cheap people mover to reach motorsport’s Olympus.
The signature go-kart feeling and the spacious interior made this little motor car the humble-yet-clever servant for generations and despite Issigonis didn’t conceive the original Mini to be a racing machine, it unexpectedly well-suited for being both a daily driver and a successful racer as well.
Mr. Issigonis unwillingly created an icon that was able to take down bigger and more powerful cars. Perhaps, the most famous achievement of the Mini was the 1964 victory at the Montecarlo rally, where Northern Irishman Paddy Hopkirk and his teammate Henry Lindon achieved a victory which gave birth to a legend.
The man who used to race the “Big Healey’s” at the Targa Florio, scored a win that was so significant at that time, that even the Beatles congratulated with him! The 1964 victory was the first of three at the Montecarlo rally, the last of which occurred in 1967, with Rauno Aaltonen, one of the original “flying Finns”, behind the wheel.
Rallying used to be an endurance competition. Crews of early rallying competitions were required to travel and endure time and speed trials for thousands of miles. The Rally of Montecarlo is one of the oldest competitions in the world: the first edition, created by Prince Albert I of Monaco, was held in 1911. It was created to steal the show from the newly created Carnival of Nice, and also to increment tourism in the region. Cars were required to depart from different towns, all distant the same amount of miles from Montecarlo and to arrive at the same time all together. It was a completely different formula and the competition would have gone on during the night and with any conditions: it wasn’t like today, where cars race in closed road sections and don’t do as many miles like they used to. It was more of a car rally, and the spirit was entirely different. The Rally Historique is pretty much a revival of the same old spirit: the cars departed from Oslo, Glasgow, Barcelone, Reims and Bad Homburg, all arriving at Montecarlo on Jan 27th.
You may wonder why we choose to attend the wonderful Rally de Montecarlo Historique with a brand new 2.0-liter diesel Mini Countryman All4. Well first, you don’t turn down an offer from Mini and second, the modern day racing Minis of the Paris-Dakar are based off the stock diesel Countryman.
For some readers, it may seem odd, but Mini has been dominating the Dakar and Baja rallies in the last 5 years thanks to diesel power and four-wheel drive. Purist will reject the idea of having such a car keeping the tradition alive, but for the sake of our love of motorsport, we are more than happy to have this brand new mega-mini for a whole weekend.
It’s the most appropriate way to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of Aaltonen’s win at Montecarlo: bringing the brand new street-version to the classic Monte Carlo rally is a great recipe for dwelling into the Brand’s past and a great Escape through the south of France.
The new Mini Countryman is great. It’s all new, it’s 20cm’s longer and it is not a car but an SAV, a Sports Activity Vehicle and we do not know how it differs from a crossover or a SUV. Please excuse us, but we’re still trying to understand the lexicon of anything that has not 2 seats, 9000 rpm redline and scrapes 1mm off its bodywork whenever it encounters uneven road surface. Jokes aside, the new Countryman is a clever car and it is full of all sort of electronic gadgetry that will make it look modern and rather useful: a working sat-nav, Bluetooth, HUD and there’s even a “Country Timer” which will automatically count the time you spend off road, giving you data regarding your off-track shenanigans. All instruments all clustered in front of you and all the infotainment systems are in the middle of the dash, right where the speedo used to be in the past generation.
It’s very important for a Mini to retain the signature “go-kart” feeling that made it so successful and the Countryman still feels like it. The calibration of the steering makes the car feel agile and coping well with its hefty weight figures. Taking advantage of BMW’s great experience in developing great car dynamics has made a car so different from the original Mini behave like one. We can thank BMW not to have over-stressed the instant reactions of the car by making it unnecessarily nervous, like the past generation: with a tall bodywork and with negative camber on the rear wheels it was very twitchy and unnerving to drive on the motorway.
It’s comfortable and it is capable of eating miles without making you feel tired and its interior resembles a fancy lounge room with nice quality leather and all kind of lights from the dash.
The Montecarlo rally has become one of motorsport’s most revered races: the constantly changing conditions of the Maritime Alps impose drivers a serious challenge. Throughout the history of this competition, accurate tire choice has always made a huge difference between losing or winning. Snow, ice, rain, dry, mud and everything in between is what you encounter on your path and you can’t predict it.
Such conditions were ideal for the new Countryman All4. It’s the perfect proving ground for such a car: was it all appearance or also substance? We began our journey at night, from Brescia: just like the original crews would have done in their Mini’s back in their day. Loaded with camera gear and enough luggage for 3 days of work, we set off to reach Saint André les Alpes, 140 km away from Monaco. After the relaxing cruise to Montecarlo, we pulled off the highway to make our way north-west, towards the Lac de Castillon in the heart of the National Park of the Prealps d’Azur. The weather wasn’t on our side and iced rain kept pouring down without a pause.
Upon our arrival at the first checkpoint of the day, there was already an enthusiastic crowd cheering the first cars which have arrived in the early morning. A 1973 Ford Escort MKII, a Lancia Fulvia 1600 HF and a 1976 Porsche 911 3.0 SC were already signing off the papers and getting ready to depart. The enthusiasm was palpable and as other cars approached, the excitement just grew. Each Country has its own heroes and in France, Jean Ragnotti is a legend: needless to say that when he arrived, leading a pack of 4 ex-works Renault R8 Gordini, everyone just went nuts. In a few seconds, it felt like it was 1978!
The variety of cars that composed the rally was incredible and at Saint André, they just kept pouring in: Lancia Stratos, Fiat 124’s, Renault 5’s and even a Mazda RX2!
Following events like these mean sharing tarmac with living legends, who are still performing well. It’s the ultimate rally-enthusiast’ escape. Despite being a regularity race nowadays, it can still provide the excitement of seeing old metal singing like it should.
Following the roads south it’s easy to get the spirit of rallying and since we had four wheel drive at our disposal, we decided to have a bit of an offroad ourselves. You might think that modern day SAV’s are not capable of handling rough surfaces and the fact that they have four-wheel drive is only for showing off. Not quite so, really. The Countryman IS capable offroad and to prove it we took it to steep, snowy roads all across the mountains: the first thing that surprised us is the precision and capability to crawl on low-traction grounds.
It’s able to get things done properly and you’ll be surprised how well it handles the rough surface. Ice, snow and even rocks don’t stand in the way of this Mini. BMW has advertised it as a car well suited for an adventure and we did just that: with the picnic bench out and a nice view on the road below with the cars passing, it was the best way a car fanatic could spend a weekend.
Although the ultimate sports experience by Mini comes from the petrol Cooper S and John Cooper Works models, a regular diesel can provide you with all the distinct qualities that make Minis so unique among other cars. Incredible agility, practicality, and loads of fun behind the wheel.
Driving the Countryman, you feel the experience that has been achieved during the Dakar races and in national rallying: it’s rock-solid, fast and incredibly capable of driving.
The Mini has come a long way around since its first 1964 victory with Paddy Hopkirk. It is now a fully grown up car and it is radically different: however, pretty much like the 911’s of today they are still easily related to their past, especially because of their aesthetic family feeling and dynamic qualities.
Diesel or not, driving the Countryman on these roads is great and is the best homage we can do to the achievements of the original Montecarlo rally drivers of the past.

Many thanks to Nanni Nember for the support

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