First drive: Mini GP JCW

23 May, 2013 | by Paul Horrell

This was an insanely tantalising drive. Just five laps of a super-tight circuit, no road driving, no way to see how it went at big straight-line speeds or how it felt in bumps. But, most of all, not enough quick third-gear corners. There was just one of them each lap, and it felt ridiculously good. Ah well. We’ll be back for more.

But, for the moment, Mini’s people aren’t letting these precious cars out of their sight. There will only ever be 2,000 of them, and they were all sold before anyone outside Mini had driven it, even at around *R400k

Big price, big name. Mini John Cooper Works GP. You might remember there was something like this before, a last hurrah to the supercharged R50 Mini. This is the final encore for the R56 Mini, because next year there will be an all-new hatchback on the Mini/BMW UKL platform. The old s’charged car is now a collectors’ item. But then it was bespoke, and final assembly was at Bertone.

The new one isn’t quite so out of the ordinary, but it’s more effective. The engine, for instance, is hopped up to 162kW, barely more than a standard JCW. So that’s not the main story. The car is lightened, too, though again, not vastly. Main evidence of the diet, the absence of any kind of rear seat, is probably largely symbolic.

The big deal is in aerodynamics and chassis tuning. The roof spoiler and rear diffuser actually do work, and they’re as close to the ones on the Challenge one-make race car as legislation allows. They not only reduce lift, they also act together with the snowplough front spoiler and an undertray so that there’s lower overall drag too.

The chassis starts with different geometry: a bit more camber at the front to cut initial understeer, and less toe-in to improve agility. Conversely, at the rear there’s less camber, for better on-limit balance. The front dampers are fancy (read: costly) racing units and are mounted upside down to reduce their lateral bending. Under-bonnet and boot strut braces add rigidity to the shell.

Finally, the whole suspension is adjustable for height. All of which means it can take advantage of smooth tracks, and especially get the most from its specially developed sticky tyres. Though if it’s wet or cold, you can use normal Cooper S tyres, too.

You can switch out the traction control but leave the inside-wheel braking function active. The old GP had a mechanical limited-slip diff, which I remember tugged at the wheel. This one feels more pure, despite the fact it’s done by microchip. There are race-derived brakes too, with six-piston front calipers, so it shouldn’t wilt on a track. Oh, and don’t forget those madly OTT graphics, all red lipstick and earrings, roof stripery and the rest. Inside, there are new seats, different clock graphics and red gearknob and seatbelts.

Red seatbelts, as we all know, are worth a couple of seconds a lap. But Mini says this car is 18 seconds a lap faster around the Nürburgring Nordschleife than that old GP, which also had 162kW but was actually 40kg lighter than this one. So all that chassis and aero work has paid off. That said, the new car’s 8min 23sec won’t give the hottest RenaultSport hatches any trouble.

Our frustratingly curtailed drive also bears out what they’re saying. The engine is sharp and bappy on the exhaust and revs out more keenly than any other Cooper S. But the main action is the traction and cornering.

Even at the point where the regular Cooper S spins its inner tyre helplessly, out of an uphill cresting hairpin, the new GP isn’t greatly upset. You just aim the thing, and the combination
of ideal wheel location, gummy tyres and clever electronics just sees you right. Then it’s a pretty serious cannoning off down the straight to the next corner.

The brakes are terrific, firm and easy to work even while you’re busily heel-and-toeing your way through the gearbox. Meanwhile, the back end stays true and stable as you do it. So you’re down at the next hairpin, just chucking the thing in. It’s nimble and terrier-like.

But it’s the fast corner when things really gel. There’s a subtlety to it, a communication with the playfulness and the precision. Every little lift on the throttle trims the line. It’s precise and neutral by default, leaving you to rearrange it as you want. And the communication through the seat is terrific, even if the electric steering isn’t the most talkative. Oh sure, it’s not as slideable as a 86, but if you were brought up on front-drive, you might think the Toyota’s a bit of a handful with the electronics switched off. This is just the antidote: playful but contained.

I took a deliberate excursion over some lumpy concrete near the pits, but a test of the ride on anything like British backroads must await another day. Even so, it’s obvious that the the ride is less pattery and brittle than the rest of the JCW range. Thank the extra rigidity from the strut braces, and the expensively fluent dampers.

On the face of it, you’ve got to really like Minis to pay this money for this car. But Mini’s boss Kay Segler – who once ran BMW M and therefore knows a bit about selling superheated versions of everyday cars – claims they could have asked quite a lot more and still sold out. Or asked the same but sold a lot more than the 2,000 run. They didn’t, he says, because the GP is allocated to Mini’s best customers, people who have several Minis in their household. People they don’t want to cheese off by undermining the GP’s exclusivity.

Paul Horrell

The numbers
1598cc, 4cyl, FWD, 162kW, 280Nm, 165 g/km CO2, 0-100kph in 6.3secs, 241kph, 1235kg

The verdict
Expensive, but, if you like the feeling of Minis, this one is exquisite through a set of twisty, smooth corners

*Estimate price


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