Op-Ed: Bear with me on this one. MINI + WRC = WIN!!

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MINI and Prodrive are finally going to do it. They are going to make Formula 1 the formerly highest echelon of motorsports.

MINI and Prodrive are coming to World Rally Championship. This is the greatest news since, well, I guess since my MINI dealer called to tell me mine had finally made the long trip across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal and up the west coast of Central America and Mexico to the Port of Los Angeles.

At least this is what Autosport is reporting. And they wouldn’t get this wrong, would they?

After months of speculation, Mini and Prodrive will announce a World Rally Championship programme this week, according to AUTOSPORT’s sources.

Mini’s first-ever World Rally Car, which will be based on the Countryman road car, has been in preparation for months at Prodrive’s Banbury base and the BMW 1.6-litre turbocharged engine recently arrived to turn a rolling shell into a full World Rally Car. Testing of the new machine is expected to begin soon and, as technical director David Lapworth said, once it starts testing it will not stop.

“When we start testing on our rally car development programme, it will be intensive,” said Lapworth. “We still have a good timescale to work towards for testing and we’re happy with where we’re at.”

Apparently, the car won’t be ready until the fifth race of next season. But that’s plenty fine with me.

There is, of course, an F1 angle to this: If Prodrive is diving into WRC, what might that mean for any potential F1 bid for 2011?

Now, I have to admit that while I’m a big MINI-proponent, and absolutely adore my JCW-tuned Cooper (British Racing Green, if you must know), I do wonder if a MINI will be able to keep up with the Citroens and Fords of the world. MINI’s thing is maneuverability, not outright power. I know my tuned, turbo engine pumps out around 190 horsepower, and a later generation version raises that number to the 210 HP range. A few tweaks (especially to the stock drivetrain, which is getting pushed at that level) might make that push 225, maybe 250, would still leave it 50 HPs behind, say, the Focus WRC car.

So I’ll be very interested to see the final specs on this car. The Countryman, for those who don’t follow the MINI line-up, essentially is a bigger, 4WD version of the Cooper. Putting it into racing is an excellent way to fight back the complaints, which already exist, that the Countryman goes against MINI’s DNA — kind of like the Panamera or Cayenne and Porsche.

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