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Special feature

Driving the Fastest Minis in the World with a Le Mans winner

There are some seriously impressive Minis that compete in the annual Fastest Mini in the World Race, with everything from turbos to paddleshift gearboxes. Ahead of this year's event, due to be staged at the Brands Hatch Mini Festival on 6-7 August, Autosport roped in ex-Mini racer Nick Tandy to test them

Nick Tandy Mini track test Brands Hatch Gary Hawkins.JPG

There are few 60-year-old cars that evoke as much passion as the Mini does. Despite its age, hundreds of the pocket rockets are still raced up and down the country (and beyond), bringing joy to many.

But not all Minis are the same. Some are far removed from the humble hatchback Alec Issigonis penned in 1959. And some of the most extreme and bonkers versions – that are still front-wheel drive – can be found in the Fastest Mini in the World Race. Unsurprisingly, as its name suggests, this contest features highly developed Minis including those with spaceframe chassis, fibreglass bodies and, in some cases, immense V8 power.

“Some of the mastery behind each of these cars is brilliant,” says organiser Nigel Death, who first helped coordinate the contest in 2019. “It’s a testament to the drivers. Actually, not only are they drivers, they are engineers as well.

“The race itself has four classes – Class A is the spaceframe silhouette Minis where it’s kind of anything goes, and then you work your way through the different classes all the way down to D, where you see some classic Mini Cooper Ss.

“I’m delighted to be part of it and bring a spectacle to the circuit and for the spectators to enjoy. And that’s the main thing for us: making it fun for the spectators.”

At present, the competition features two 15-minute races at the Brands Hatch Mini Festival, which this year takes place on 6-7 August. But Death has ambitions to expand the contest in the future.

“The short-term was to get the grid up to good numbers, which we’ve done, and we’re looking for another bumper grid this year in August,” explains Death, who is full of praise for the race’s sponsors, which include Castrol Classic Oils and Mini Spares.

2015 Le Mans winner Tandy (centre) was on hand to test the quartet of special Minis

2015 Le Mans winner Tandy (centre) was on hand to test the quartet of special Minis

Photo by: Gary Hawkins

“Next year we’re looking to expand on that and maybe add a couple of races to other events or series, but the longer-term view is we would love to take a couple of cars overseas to maybe Asia or America, so watch this space!”

To get a flavour of what these Mini beasts are like to handle on the track, Autosport roped in 2015 Le Mans 24 Hours winner Nick Tandy – someone who knows a thing or two about Minis, having started his career in them, both on short ovals and in Mini Se7ens.

“The first 10 years of my racing life were in Minis, my first two road cars were Minis,” says Tandy. “I still follow the Mini 7 Club racing – I’ve got a couple of friends who still do that –and it’s obviously great to see the passion around what these people are doing, to build these cars and trying to take them to extremes.

“But the fact it’s based around a Mini shows what an enduring appeal this silly little box with four wheels has had for the last 60 years.”

Tandy tested four of the frontrunning Class A ‘boxes’ on a very wet Brands Hatch circuit, and it proved something of a surprise.

Spaceframe Mini-Vauxhall Clubman

Two-litre Vauxhall Astra VXR turbo engine powers Billingham's spaceframe chassis and carbonfibre bodyshell Mini

Two-litre Vauxhall Astra VXR turbo engine powers Billingham's spaceframe chassis and carbonfibre bodyshell Mini

Photo by: Gary Hawkins

Chassis: Full tubular Enville Motorsport spaceframe
Engine: Two-litre Vauxhall Astra VXR turbo
Power: 300bhp
Weight: 550kg
Gearbox: Five-speed manual with limited slip differential

Richard Billingham’s creation was the first Tandy sampled on the day, and it was an eye-opening experience.

“The first thing was, I came out the pitlane, I’m in third gear going up the hill, and I finally put my foot down and the thing just broke traction and wheelspun all the way up the hill – so from that point on I started to give it respect!” says Tandy. “One of the things that struck me is it feels so different – I’m used to sitting in these small cars, like the Mini, but the power is so far away from what you’re expecting.”

That incredible power comes from a two-litre turbocharged Vauxhall Astra VXR engine and is the latest upgrade Billingham has made, having built around 10 of these Minis.

“We used to run the Vauxhall ‘red top’ engine but now we’ve put the Astra VXR turbo in,” he says. “We tried it last year and it was totally different, a lovely car. The red top is getting a bit old, harder to find, so we wanted to put in something newer with a bit more easy power as well rather than spend loads of money.”

While the look and feel of the car – which made its debut in the Fastest Mini race last year – is very different to the traditional Mini, thanks to the spaceframe chassis and carbonfibre bodyshell, there are some more stereotypical parts on it.

“We still run Mini radius arms and Mini running gear at the front, the steering rack – as much as we can get Mini on, it’s still on there, we’ve not gone away from that,” explains Billingham. “A lot of people change everything, but I try to keep it a little bit Mini as much as I can.”

Billingham does almost all the work on the cars himself, having developed a love of the machines after getting one as his first car. “It’s just a bug that never goes away – I love Minis!” he says. And Tandy is certainly impressed by Billingham’s craftmanship.

Tandy praised the handling and in-car attention-to-detail on Billingham’s machine

Tandy praised the handling and in-car attention-to-detail on Billingham’s machine

Photo by: Gary Hawkins

“Ergonomically inside the car, it’s a beautiful piece of work,” he says. “It’s like it’s come out of Porsche Motorsport, there’s obviously been a lot of attention to detail.”

Tandy also praises its cornering ability, despite the incredibly wet conditions.

“In the corner, it feels really intuitive,” he adds. “The car has grip. Obviously it starts to understeer when you start to apply the power, as the front wheels start to spin up, but under braking there’s a good feeling. It’s just, in these conditions, you can barely ever get flat out.

“I’ve never had a car where through Clark Curve you have to feather the throttle because it’s just spinning up with steering input. I would say that was the only one I had to really heel-and-toe downshifting on, to avoid locking the front wheels.”

The addition of the turbo also means driving the car is an attack on all the senses.

“The engine sound is noisy but you hear the boost pressure coming as well – you hear it before you feel it,” Tandy says. “It’s like there’s all these senses happening. It was just unlike anything I’ve ever driven before!”

Austin Mini Super 850 Turbo

'Tiffany' is a prized possession of owner Jim Lyons, having owned it for over 25 years

'Tiffany' is a prized possession of owner Jim Lyons, having owned it for over 25 years

Photo by: Gary Hawkins

Chassis: Owens Motorsport Miglia-spec steel shell
Engine: 1.3-litre A-Series turbo
Power: 286bhp
Weight: 640kg
Gearbox: Swiftune four-speed dog box

Jim Lyons has a very personal connection to his special Mini creation as it was his first road car, bought for him when he was 15, more than 25 years ago.

“I wanted a Mk2 Escort but my dad’s friend was selling this, so he bought me it,” Lyons recalls. “Within two weeks, I had the Haynes manual and I ripped the whole thing to bits. It’s progressed a little bit over the years!”

‘Tiffany’ has certainly been on quite a journey since then. Lyons originally had no intention of racing her, instead wanting to make the Mini a faster road car. But, after doing some trackdays and drag racing, and becoming friends with Mini Miglia competitor Endaf Owens, the duo made some more modifications for the car to race on the circuits, all the time retaining the steel shell.

For example, it has been through a variety of engines – originally it was an 850cc motor – to the current 1.3-litre A-Series turbocharged engine with a BMW K1100 cylinder head. Handling was the next focus once the power was sorted.

“When you started upping the boost, the lap times actually got slower!” admits Lyons. “And it wasn’t down to my amateur driving – we put some proper drivers in and found it was quickest on its lowest boost. So we did quite a lot of work with aero on the car.”

And Lyons is far from finished.

“What’s coming next is I’ve started working with Ascaso on an ally-blocked A-Series engine with a five-bearing crank,” he says. “We’ve done some testing on the dyno and we’re almost there, and that will save a good 20 kilos of weight.”

Tandy described Lyons' creation as a

Tandy described Lyons' creation as a "boost monster"

Photo by: Gary Hawkins

The new engine is set to take power beyond 300bhp and allow it to rev up to 10,000rpm. But, before it arrives, Tandy enjoyed the familiarity of the car when he tested Tiffany in her current specification.

“It’s the most Mini-like because it’s the only one based on the original monocoque, it’s not a spaceframe with a fibreglass body,” explains Tandy. “It was the most familiar for me being as that was the drivers’ environment that reminded me most of what I was used to. But only a little bit!

“Because, for a start, I was seated way further backwards. They all do that for weight distribution to try and get the driver weight as far rearward as possible to counter the engine weight, which has always been a problem in Mini racing.

“And it had a lot more switches and gauges, mainly to control the power. Jim is running a full traction control system, full adjustability, there’s obviously lots of boost control, lots of engine mapping control and lots inside the cabin he can play with. Not that I was doing any of that!

“It was again like a boost monster! Immediately you leave the pitlane and think OK, it’s not too fiery and then you get down the hill and finally start to build some revs and all of a sudden the thing just goes mad! It was just unbelievable, honestly.

“In the rain, you come out of Druids in second and you struggle to put the power down. So, I think the only time I really managed to get it on song and get it pulling was down the front straight.”

Maguire Mini-Duratec Traveller

'Bessie' is now powered by a two-litre Duratec engine, but has appeared in various guises and with different powerplants down the years

'Bessie' is now powered by a two-litre Duratec engine, but has appeared in various guises and with different powerplants down the years

Photo by: Gary Hawkins

Chassis: Maguire-built spaceframe
Engine: Two-litre Duratec
Power: 230bhp
Weight: 500kg
Gearbox: SADEV five-speed

Out of the four cars, there is no disputing which has the most history. Bill Richards’s Mini Traveller ‘Bessie’ first started racing in the late 1970s when Richards was able to get a discounted special saloon made by the legendary John Maguire, and it’s one of the few Maguire machines still racing.

Richards has achieved success in the car across a variety of guises. Bessie started out as a more conventional Mini with an 850cc engine, then Richards adopted a Metro bodyshell – “which had a lower drag coefficient and was much more aerodynamic,” says Richards – before around five years ago he switched to the Traveller shape to satisfy sponsor Mini Spares. Conveniently, the Minivan has exactly the same dimensions as the Metro. And the developments keep coming.

“The Minivan is slightly less aerodynamic but we’ve made a wing and it’s adjustable,” explains Richards, who has raced Minis all over the world and also raises money for his local lifeboat station by doing hot laps in a Mini Saloon.

“That was great, making a wing. I’ve got a friend who gave me this massive air blower from a rolling road and I’ve got another friend who works for British Gas and they’ve got these smoke bombs for checking ventilation. So he got me a load of these smoke bombs and I put the blower on an adjustable trolley and I made a wing from cardboard.

“I tried it and took pictures, so eventually the wing made a vortex away from the car and not on top of the car. So I made an adjustable wing and it works, it gives us a couple of miles an hour down the straight.”

Despite her age, Bessie is still quick and Richards put the car on pole for last year’s Fastest Mini race.

Tandy praised the grip and feel of Richards' venerable 'Hot Rod-esque' Minivan

Tandy praised the grip and feel of Richards' venerable 'Hot Rod-esque' Minivan

Photo by: Gary Hawkins

“But we’ve had three failures in these races, all CV joint-related,” continues Richards. “What we’ve had to do this year to cure that, we’ve moved the whole engine back half an inch and it straightens the driveshafts.”
Tandy was certainly left impressed by the two-litre Duratec-engined car’s capabilities during the incredibly wet weather at Brands.

“It struck me as being just like a National Hot Rod,” he says. “The sound and how the car revved, how the power curve was, and even the driving experience and the seating position, reminded me of when I drove my Dad’s National Hot Rod. And that’s a great thing!

“Out of the four, I think a lot will be down to the actual condition of the wet tyres and how old they were on each car but, judging the basic balance and grip, that had the best front-end grip of the cars today.

“The steering is good, it’s direct and it was another thing that reminded me of the Hot Rod because you don’t do a lot of steering to get a lot of reaction. And then it’s got the naturally aspirated torque curve so, on a very damp Brands Hatch, it was by far the easiest and fastest to drive.

“It doesn’t have the electronic extras but it doesn’t really need it. It was really good fun – it was the only one I had enough confidence to push that I got it sideways at one point!”

Austin Mini Cooper S V8

Death's monster Mini is powered by a 2.6-litre Radical/Powertec V8

Death's monster Mini is powered by a 2.6-litre Radical/Powertec V8

Photo by: Gary Hawkins

Chassis: KAD modified by Rollcentre Racing
Engine: 2.6-litre Radical/Powertec V8
Power: 380bhp
Weight: 630kg
Gearbox: Xtrac six-speed sequential with paddleshift

“When I got in it, the first thing that struck me was it being like a Le Mans prototype because there’s such a small opening to get in and out,” says Tandy of Harvey Death’s V8-powered Mini.

“And you sit in the middle of the car, towards the back, on the floor with your legs out straight and feet up level with the rest of you, with this great big dash display in front of you. That was impressive, just sitting in it.”

It is perhaps no surprise Death’s car resembles a prototype, given much of the work was done by Martin Short’s Rollcentre Racing operation – the team having raced in LMP1. And it is a serious bit of kit, Death having won the past two Fastest Mini races.

PLUS: The Le Mans racer that turned an underdog's dream into reality

His connection with the brand originated through his father, who worked alongside Mini legend Peter Baldwin at the Marshall Group in Cambridge and Death travelled around watching Baldwin. He later competed in a Fastest Mini race at Mallory Park in the 1990s and wanted to build a special creation for the car’s 50th anniversary in 2009.

“I bought a KAD spaceframe Mini, which is the basis of this car,” explains Death. “I stripped it apart and tried to work out the most reliable 300bhp engine and drivetrain for the car. In my research, I worked out a Powertec Radical V8 would actually fit in the car. It had a bit more horsepower than initially I wanted with 380bhp, but I thought you can never have too much!

Extensively reworked Cooper S benefits from prototype expertise of Rollcentre Racing

Extensively reworked Cooper S benefits from prototype expertise of Rollcentre Racing

Photo by: Gary Hawkins

“And I worked out that an Xtrac World Touring Car gearbox would fit in the front. But it had to remain as front-wheel drive, so we did some work with Xtrac and they said we could run the gearbox upside down, which meant the differential was out the front, so it was easier to package the engine and everything and keep it within the Mini constraints. I started building the car and soon became aware it was going to be a tremendous engineering exercise, so my friend Martin Short said his guys would have a go.”

But Death was initially left feeling overwhelmed by the car: “The first time out it was scary and dangerous and, ever since then, we’ve been doing bits and pieces to make it more drivable.” Those changes include switching to a tuneable twin-wishbone suspension set-up at the rear and introducing a paddleshift gearbox.

“It is nice you can keep your hands on the steering wheel,” says Tandy.

However, Tandy was out on old wet rubber in the tricky conditions, making it difficult to gauge the car’s potential.

“I could not go flat out at any point,” he admits. “If I shifted to fifth at the startline and floored it, it would just wheelspin all the way to the braking point at Paddock. Even in the corner, the tyre grip was so much less than the other three, it was impossible to get a feeling for the difference.

“But the engine seemed fantastic. OK, you can’t really get a feel of the power delivery because you’re never flat out, but it was nice. It felt like a modern racing car. It’s got a good digital display and all the details, but unfortunately it was wet.”

Verdict of a Le Mans winner

Tandy reckoned Death's machine had an interior reminiscent of a Le Mans prototype, but was impressed by all of the cars

Tandy reckoned Death's machine had an interior reminiscent of a Le Mans prototype, but was impressed by all of the cars

Photo by: Gary Hawkins

Having sampled all four cars, Tandy admitted the Minis completely exceeded his expectations.

“I really didn’t appreciate how fast they would be,” he concedes. “I don’t think I took into account the weight factor. Minis are light anyway but these cars take that to a whole new level. They’re small cars, obviously, and these things are pared down to the minimum too.

“It’s effectively a very small spaceframe chassis for three of them, a small fibreglass body, and the biggest engine and gearbox they could fit and keep it front-wheel drive. I spoke to the owner-drivers and said, ‘Why don’t they make them rear-wheel drive?’ And they said it was just kind of in the spirit of Fastest Mini. So that was one thing I didn’t expect. I did think some of them would be rear-wheel drive but they’re keeping it in the spirit of a Mini, which is great.”

But ask Tandy which he preferred in the horrible conditions and there is no hesitation.

“If you discount the potential difference in tyre grip, then as they were today, for sure I would pick the Traveller to drive mainly because you could just be more controlled with the power,” he says. “They’ve all got such massive power in these lightweight front-wheel-drive things that in the rain, it’s all about trying to get the power down on the track. On a dry day, however, and when you’ve got some nice, hot, sticky slicks, that could all be completely different.

“I’m not displeased that I drove them in the rain, though, because it often gives you more of a safety net for something going wrong. You’re typically sliding around more, you’re getting more of a feel for how the car’s working and you’re going slower.

“I think the hardest was Richard Billingham’s – with both the turbo cars it’s impossible to know how they would be in the dry because they’re completely not built for a wet track. I think that was the one that intimidated me the most because it was noisy as hell and it had loads of power. It had a five-speed H-pattern box so that was probably the most difficult to drive consistently in those conditions, but it was fun.”

‘Fun’ is a perfect way to describe these most special of Minis and defines the whole concept of what the Fastest Mini in the World race is all about.

Tandy enjoyed his run out in the Minis on a wet and wild day at Brands Hatch

Tandy enjoyed his run out in the Minis on a wet and wild day at Brands Hatch

Photo by: Gary Hawkins

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