Whether you’re a fan or a reporter, it’s rare to see a car up close and personal that won a major race like the Daytona 500, the Monaco Grand Prix or the Indianapolis 500. It’s even more unusual for a civilian to lay hands on a champion’s set of wheels .
It’s damn near impossible to get an opportunity to drive such a legendary car. So, when I was offered a chance to drive the very vehicle that won the 2014 running of the legendary Dakar Rally, I cleared my schedule for just a few minutes behind the wheel of the All4 Racing – a very special machine in the shell of a MINI Cooper Countryman.
The Dakar has been the ultimate test in endurance racing since its inception in 1978. When originally conceived, the rally ran from Paris, France to Dakar, Senegal in western Africa. But, the violence inherent to much of Africa in recent years forced the race to relocate.
Since the Dakar was originally created as a desert raid that would test the limits of racers and their machines, the minds behind the race wanted similar terrain for its continuation. So, the rally settled in South America, and it’s been run across the barren desert landscapes of Argentina, Chile and Peru since 2009.
The race is unique in the world for several reasons. First, the race is open to cars, trucks, motorcycles and quads along the same route. The Dakar also welcomes amateurs to compete alongside professionals as long as they can all afford the expenses of building a car and racing team. Traditionally, the car and truck entrants are two man teams with a driver at the wheel and a co-driver serving as navigator.
The route runs in multiple stages (averaging around 500 miles each) over dunes, foothills, rocks, washes and anything else arid nature can throw in the way of a car. The route for the next day’s stage is handed over to the teams only once the previous day’s stage ends.
Finally, the route is never contracted along the clearly discernible lines of a track or road course. The racing teams know where they have to go, and it’s up to them to decide how they want to get there. Whether they attack a hilltop or sandpits, they literally must get from point A to B. The racers receive those waypoints via GPS to follow during the race. The destination points are transmitted only once the racers close in on the markers — putting the pressure on the co-driver to call out a route while they’re at speed.
The winners of the 2014 Dakar Rally were the driver, co-driver team of Nani Roma and Michel Perin. They pushed their Monster Energy X-raid Racing Team Mini Cooper Countrymen from January 5 in Rosario, Argentina to the final finish line in Valparaiso, Chile on January 18.
To show off the winning ride, MINI brought a small handful journalists to Las Vegas for a once in a lifetime opportunity to drive a Dakar-champion car. The media crew hopped into a set of new Cooper Countrymen and drove deep into the California desert. The dunes of Death Valley would stand in for the South American sands.
Champions Roma and Perin were on hand to prep the humble auto writers on what to expect while driving a desert racing vehicle. The Cooper Countryman in question is only a MINI on the outside. Underneath that Cooper shell are twin turbochargers, a reenforced racing frame, multiple radiators, a heavy 307 horsepower diesel engine and a straight sport shift transmission.
While Perin would sit in his co-driver seat and guide the amateur rallies from the press, Roma was on hand to give the reporters a proper run in the Countryman at genuine racing speeds. While the auto writers would stick to a more modest, though challenging runs up dunes and around boulders, Roma put his toe down and simply drove over them at maximum revs.
When my time came to run my desert laps in that famous MINI, I was struck at startup by the angry, clattering exhaust note and jet-toned whine of those twin turbos. The heavy racing clutch only needs to be engaged when entering or exiting first gear, with the other five gears reachable by quick shifts up or done through the racing gearbox.
I quickly discovered that a hard surge of diesel fuel is needed through the engine when that clutch engages to get the heavy rally car rolling. Once in motion, the raw torque chews up desert sand easily — spewing it in waves behind the car. The Dakar Countryman rides on springs and shocks heavy enough to keep the Earth on its axis, and that’s a lucky thing when you feel the violence of forging a road out of a desert.
With my heart pumping and my eyes dinner plate wide with joy, I used a little bit of the rally training I picked up thanks to the Dirtfish School. With enough throttle, stab of the brake and a twist of the wheel, I could rotate the Countryman into tighter turns, letting the powerful backend fish out a bit with oversteer.
After the first of my three laps through the dunes, I was confident to run through all of the gears, gain gin enough speed on includes to catch just a moment or two of air. I giggled like a school boy every time I could get all four wheels off the ground.
We weren’t timed on our laps, and I couldn’t care less. The three laps went by so quickly, I had to pull myself from the car with a minor tantrum deep down inside me. Simply put, I could’ve run that MINI through the desert all day — every day. But, that was the one day I had the honor.
I know my run was child’s play for co-driver Perin, but I hope he enjoyed watching a wannabe racer revel in his car as irresponsibly as I did.
For a closer look at my day behind the wheel of a legend, enjoy these additional images: