“As you’re down at Goodwood on Thursday, fancy driving Bulldogs Racing’s Mini John Cooper Works car,” read the message from the Mini PR department. Well, that sounds like fun, I thought. So I dug out the old string-back driving gloves, said “tallyho” to the big smoke and dashed off for my date with the Goodwood Hill. Only that wasn’t quite the reality. I wasn’t avoiding the stones of the Flint Wall or the bales at Molecomb. I was avoiding the traffic around Bognor Regis. What the devil?
Yep, I was driving this Mini JCW racing car on the public road – my very own Mille Miglia, or Mini Miglia, perhaps. Not that I was racing anyone. I was actually following a convertible Mini, being driven by the owner of the fledgling Bulldog Racing team, Alexander Schabbach, with his business partner and the car’s creator, Sven Thelen, sitting next to me in the passenger seat, explaining all there is to know about this joyfully little project. And it really is a joyful tale, so let me piece it all together for you.
It all started last November when Thelen decided, for reasons I never fully determined beyond “why not”, to enter a car into the 50th N24. At that point the race was just six months away and he didn’t even have a car, but he had teamed up with Schabbach, who isn’t technical but has a good business brain. So what car to buy? “When you drive with a Mini you always have a lot of fans,” noted Thelen, so based on lovability alone, they bought a nearly new Mini Cooper.
If all this sounds a bit amateurish, the fact is Thelen knows his onions when it comes to motorsport. His career began by training as a race mechanic at Audi Sport, and he stayed with the team for six years. Then he moved to Porsche Motorsport, and now spends most of his time running a GT car in the World Endurance Championship. Now, as he does that for a day job, you might think his hobby would be something very different but this genial, motorsport-mad man likes to build and run racing cars as a hobby, too.
So while Schabbach was busy gathering some sponsors and technical support from companies such as Hankook, along with getting some PR assistance from Mini Germany to help promote the team, Thelen, with help from his dad, was stripping the little Mini down to nothing and rebuilding it with only what was needed to compete in the SP3T class at the N24. To run in that class you need to have a stock engine and gearbox, but they could stick in the more powerful 306hp 2.0-litre turbo from the Mini Countryman and run that through the regular steptronic eight-speed auto. The only change to the driveline was a mechanical limited-slip differential with a 70 per cent locking potential. He changed all the consumables, like the wheel bearings, just to minimise the risk of a stupid failure.
The other essentials include 6,000 euros of radio, monitoring and GPS tracking equipment that are requirement to race, and of course, the usual fire extinguisher, racing seat, harness, engine cut out switch and a cage. Thelen opted for a welded cage, to stiffen the chassis as much as possible, and would’ve ditched more of the interior bits to save weight, but, as you can see, a lot of the dashboard remains, including the infotainment system. I know the Nordschleife is 25.783 glorious kilometres and hard to learn, but a sat nav to find your way around? That’s a bit unprofessional. But the reason wasn’t the poor directional skills of the drivers, he simply ran out of time to rip out the hardware and associated wiring looms and recode all the ECUs so that the car would still run.
In fact, this was a real problem. Thelen’s friend did a lot of recoding to stop the ECS system interfering and the ABS interrupting as much, but there’s a lot more that could be done. Although the car retains the air conditioning, which gives a bit of comfort to the drivers, it only works at low speeds, and as soon as the car’s at racing speeds it cuts out so it doesn’t zap the valuable 10 to 15hp needed to run the compressor.
Amazingly, the car’s standard cooling system was considered up to the job. Thelen says that the radiators are so tightly packed at the front of the Mini there wasn’t room to make them bigger without extending the nose. The only change was a bigger intercooler and more fans, plus some bright LEDs to light up the ‘Ring at night. He also made a new exhaust. He’s not a qualified welder but, in the ‘can do’ manner that sums him up, he’s taught himself and says that the results “aren’t pretty” but do the job. So now there’s a single straight-through pipe that connects the standard manifold, via a racing cat, to a bespoke, stainless steel rear section.
The front brakes have improved cooling, bigger Brembo discs, Pagid racing pads and AP Racing calipers. The rear brakes are standard, and look decidedly tiny through the wheel spokes. The fuel lines now run inside the car, to prevent damage over kerbs, and sprout from the 100-litre fuel cell welded in place of the rear seats. There’s a filler in the lightweight plexiglass rear side window that gets fuel in at a rate of one litre per second, so each pit stop takes around 90 seconds including a tyre change. The original fuel filler flap now hides the pneumatic connector that works the air jacks.
On the aero side, there’s a big splitter at the front and a flat underbody covering the rear suspension that leads to a sizeable rear diffuser – this is similar to the one the Mini Challenge cars runs. And above that, there’s the massive rear wing jutting 40 centimetres out the back. The profile of the wing element is a copy of the Porsche Cup racers. It can be angled up to six degrees, but they found that leaving it at zero gave the required downforce without adding too much drag.
The springs and dampers are from KW with polybushes to keep all the geometry settings true. Otherwise, the components are broadly standard, but there are new camber links at the rear so he can get nearly four degrees of negative camber on the back wheels. To set it all up he started with the factory settings, then kept tweaking the camber and toe at both ends until the car’s handling was as balanced as possible. Which was a challenge because the car is so light at the back, and, despite the wing and diffuser shoving it down, it proved a headache to tie down.
Given more time, he’d have added a lot more carbon fibre, because the car’s about 1,200kg without driver and fuel, which puts it just over the 1,170kg minimum weight limit. He’d like to shed about 100kg, though, so he can add ballast at the rear that, he thinks, will stabilise the back and help the rear tyres to work better. At the moment it’s a struggle getting the rear tyres hot enough and maintaining their temperature on track. During the race they were heating the rear tyres more than the fronts before leaving the pits and the drivers were being really aggressive, sliding the rear on corner entry, to stop the tyre temps at the back dropping outside their operating window.
Speaking of drivers, there were four of them, and, if you needed proof the Thelen is a good egg and well thought of, they all donated their time and skills for free. Three of them are racing drivers, Michael Fischer, Danny Brink and Uwe Krumscheid, while Jens Dralle is a journalist for Auto Sport und Motor. All of them have plenty of ‘Ring experience, which is essential if you’re not going to get bitten by the most challenging track in the world during a gruesome 24-hour race. And they weren’t – well, not by the track itself. The car had a technical issue in qualifying that meant the drivers had reduced power, but during the race they’d made up 21 positions in 16 laps and were scrapping for fifth place. Fischer said, “The car is really great to drive and a lot of fun. In a hectic race like this, it is important to concentrate on the track and the competitors and be able to rely on your car.”
Sadly, it was the competitors that caused the problems. First, while Krumscheid was driving, another driver thumped into the side of the Mini. The damage meant a tow back to the pits, but eventually the car was repaired and running again. Then Dralle picked up a puncture from some carbon shards on the track left by another crash, which meant nearly a whole lap nursing the car back to the pits. When it was back out again, the plucky Bulldog was being cheered on by the crowd as it circulated, but the applause fell silent on lap 40 when it was hit again. And this time the damage was terminal. Both Thelen and Schabbach talked positively about the experience, though. “At times we were lapping third or fourth quickest in our class, and without the crash a podium was on for sure.”
It’s been repaired now, of course, and it’s my turn to see what it’s like to drive. Bizarre, is the answer: rolling out onto the public roads in proper little racing car is a very odd experience. It garners some looks for a start. There’s also a weird juxtaposition: the stripped-out motorsportiness next to some familiar creature comforts, like the infotainment screen to my right. Having a normal Mini automatic gear selector is odd, too, although once you’re moving you just use the lovely, tactile carbon shift paddles behind the little KMP Alcantara-trimmed racing steering wheel. The changes are quite slurry, which, again, dilutes the motorsport atmosphere a bit, but that’s about all I could find to fault it. In every other respect, it’s a racing car: noisy, harsh and unforgiving. They’re not complaints, by the way – they’re positives.
Raw equals good in my book. There really is something wonderful about being cocooned by a cage and strapped tightly into a bucket seat. It’s immediately exhilarating, and heightened by the sounds of stones ricocheting around the wheel arches and the twang of cats eyes reverberating around the cabin. You’re so deeply immersed in each sensation; like you’ve been plugged into the car’s nervous system and privy to feeling everything that it’s going through.
The first striking feature is the steering. I really don’t like the way Mini sets up the steering in its road cars – trying to be sporty but ending up too much like computer game. There’s very little sensation or weight build up and the hyperactive gearing makes them nervous. The Bulldog is properly keyed in, though. I asked Thelen whether it’s the standard rack and EPAS software. “Oh yes,” he says. But because of the more aggressive toe and camber settings, plus bigger tyres, you get much more bite and heft that makes the quick rack feel controllable. It loads up wonderfully through fast, sweeping bends. You have to hang on to it a bit under power, as the diff makes the rim wriggle under power, but it’s manageable. And thanks to the stiffer mounts and bushes, all the glorious animation from the road surface comes fizzing up the column like it’s a big tuning fork. It’s quite brilliant.
The ride is harsh, naturally. Thelen seems almost apologetic about this. “I’m afraid it’s not really set up to run on UK roads,” he says. “That’s okay,” I shout back, “it’s not meant to be, and let’s face it, our roads are embarrassingly crap.” Even a standard Mini Cooper is lumpy, and bearing in mind what this car’s purpose is, it’s not devastatingly bad. In fact, get some speed in the car and it even demonstrates some compliance, but the overriding trait is tautness. Tautness in the chassis, which feels so well braced, and tautness in the springs, which control all determinable roll, pitch and dive superbly.
There’s a familiar, over-assisted feel to the brake pedal for the first centimetre or so of travel. Once you get past that, any unwanted compressibility fades away and you’re left with a solid, inspiring pedal with enough texture to meter it easily. Did I feel any instability under braking – the thing that Thelen is determined to dial out? No, but that wasn’t going to materialise on a public road unless I was being a pillock. And I wasn’t being a pillock, because this is Thelen’s pride and joy.
He’s not overly prissy about it, mind. It was Thelen encouraging me to give it some gas to sample its straight-line pace. It’s probably got a bit more than the 306hp thanks to the exhaust – Thelen reckons another ten or so at most – and the torque is the same as the road car’s, but, with just 1,200kg to shift, it, well…shifts. Like most racing cars, though, it’s not the straight-line speed that’s impressive, but the way it brakes and corners. And also the engine note. When you pin the throttle wide open there’s a hard-edged, four-cylinder thrash from up front, while behind me is the unfiltered rush of the turbo jettisoning charged air through a big-bore central pipe. It might not be a soulful six or a tuneful twelve, but it’s still a sound that makes you smile.
I don’t know about you, but with a busy day job and lots of life admin to trawl through, I sometimes struggle to cut the grass at the weekend. So I really admire the plucky spirit of these boys. Thelen says for six months he was working flat out – weekends, evenings, public holidays – to turn this into a reality. And then there’s the money. Neither he nor Schabbach seems willing to contemplate how much it’s all cost, but eventually there is a sheepish nod of heads when I say “200,000 euros?” Jesus. They haven’t shelled all of that out themselves, but still – it’s a hell of a responsibility to manage that sort of budget and the expectation it brings when it’s just a hobby.
Huge respect then for what they’ve achieved so far. Will it continue? “Yes,” they say “we hope so, if we can get the budget to carry on.” I really hope they do, and wish them all the very best because, if nothing else, they really do epitomise the bulldog spirit.