How could the experience of driving the current reigning Dakar Rally winner be anything other than five stars? It's an astounding piece of kit and to experience it first hand in a desert environment from behind the wheel, and then from the passenger seat while a pro shows us how it's done, was truly special. These guys are nothing short of heroic racers and their steed isn't too shabby either.
In the Metal:
It's not pretty, the ALL4 Racing, but it's certainly purposeful and very very imposing in the metal. Our first glimpse of the vehicle was, rather incongruously, parked up among normal cars in a hotel car park. It towers over them and though the wheels are only 16-inch items the 80-section Michelin all-terrain tyres give them real prominence, working with the double spring/damper suspension layout to give generous ground clearance. Only the lights, door handles and front windscreen are carried over from the showroom-ready Countryman, though the race car's stylists have included a fake rear door on either side to make it look more like the donor model. The roof slopes more towards the rear though, and it features a vent to help cool the cabin.
Speaking of which, there is 'cosy' seating for the driver and co-driver inside a steel roll cage. They're held in place by six-point harnesses. We didn't spot a single familiar button or switch from the road car - and there are a lot of buttons and switches. The steering wheel is a simple circular affair, which isn't all that small. There are three pedals in the driver's foot-well and the gear lever is positioned close to him. The on-board diagnostics allows the co-driver access to a wealth of information on the move and it looks like he gets to use as much of the switchgear as the driver. There's no rear window and behind the cockpit is storage for the spare wheels - up to three at a time.
At press events such as this one it's quite normal for the journalists to get an opportunity to learn the circuit in a more normal car before being let loose in the serious machinery. But few normal cars could have tackled the track that was chosen in the middle of the Dubai desert for the test so we were thrown in at the deep end from the off. 'Deep' being the operative word here, certainly in terms of the soft sand that covers the area. It's quite tiring to walk in a straight line on the stuff, never mind try to drive a powerful four-wheel drive racer over it.
But of course the MINI shrugged off anything we threw at it and after 30 minutes at the wheel we were only just beginning to scratch the surface of its abilities. The first part of the course was a relatively easy rutted track that wound gently towards the sand dunes. My instinct was to correct the steering at every movement off course, but I soon realised that you let the car follow the contours and just keep the power down. Speaking of which, though the BMW-based 3.0-litre turbodiesel engine produces only 307hp (the BMW 535d has 313 hp at its disposal), it also has a massive 700Nm of torque available, at just 2,100rpm. Although peak power isn't produced until 3,250rpm it's still best to change up at about 2,500rpm. Twin sequential turbochargers ensure there's no lag and the MINI is remarkably tractable. This was emphasised in a hairpin turn covered in soft and deep sand, when it felt like the car was going to bog down and stall. Instead the turbos spooled up from idle and shoved it out of the corner.
The natural stance for the MINI exiting tighter bends is oversteer and it's surprisingly easy to drift even at quite high speeds. The quick steering and responsive engine help in that regard. Sadev provides the six-speed sequential gearbox and it's highly intuitive to use. Only taking off and coming to a stop is the clutch pedal needed. On the move, the high lever is pulled back to change up a gear and pushed forward to change down. It does take a determined shove, but it's not difficult. The brake pedal felt wooden to me, but then again the huge discs and race-spec pads were hardly warmed up in my stint. The car stopped and slowed as I needed. Revealing how much they have to work in a race environment, the rear discs are water cooled.
I must admit that I expected the high-riding suspension to be more compliant, absorbing minor bumps while cushioning large jumps and undulations. Turns out I was wrong on all that! Despite pronounced body roll in the turns (it's a high vehicle after all with a 1,900kg kerb weight) it's incredibly firm at all times. You feel every ripple and rut in the sand and those dramatic jumps and sand dune ridges you see in the pictures cause huge jolts through the cabin. The flip-side is iron-fisted control of unwanted wheel or body movements (the car's body...). This became patently clear when Nani himself (Joan 'Nani' Roma, the usual driver of this car and no less than the winner of the 2014 Dakar Rally) took the wheel and attacked the same course at significantly higher speeds. He was excruciatingly committed to bumps and jumps and corners, trusting the car's suspension and tyres to restrict movement so that he could keep the power down as often as possible. Nonetheless, even in the right hands, the experience was nothing short of violent. How do these guys do it for days on end?
What you get for your Money:
MINI will sell you an ALL4 Racing if you ask (the price was not disclosed), but it's really not a game for amateurs or those on a tight budget. To take part in the Dakar Rally as part of the MINI operation as a customer team would cost about €1 million per car. And there is no prize money. Bloody thing doesn't even have air conditioning.
During the race, away from the specified service times and areas, no team assistance is allowed to the competitors. However, as racers are authorised to help each other (it has always been in the spirit of the Dakar race), the larger outfits enter race trucks they refer to as 'Fast Assistance'. They are ostensibly competing in their own class, but their primary purpose is to support the main competitors in the case of an accident or technical issue. They carry spare parts and tools. Other than that the drivers and co-drivers regularly take part in technical courses so that they may make running repairs if needs be. While driving they are not allowed to call their team for assistance. They may do so using a satellite telephone when at a standstill to talk through analysing and solving any problems with the team mechanics and technicians.
It's hard not to be blown away by the opportunity to drive something like the ALL4 Racing. Not only is it a current race winner, it's remarkably easy to drive quickly in conditions you'd never tackle in a road car. In expert hands it's deeply impressive. We have even more respect for (plus a tinge of envy of) drivers like Nani and co-drivers like Michel Périn than we did before.