Two of the all-new machines were competing on Vodafone Rally de Portugal last week: the Motorsport Italia entry of Armindo Araujo and the Brazil World Rally Team version driven by Daniel Oliveira.
Portuguese pilot Araujo, the two-time Production Car world champion, ran as high as seventh but dropped out on day two with engine problems. Oliveira, starting only his second WRC event, overcame a propshaft glitch and an overheating engine to begin the final day of the event in 22nd overall, only to crash out on the final stage, having been slowed by a rear puncture on Sunday morning.
The double retirement aside, this was no disastrous start for MINI. Neither driver was able to conduct significant pre-event testing, meaning they were far from familiar with their cars, and the gravel stages of the Algarve are regarded as the toughest on the WRC calendar.
Oliveira is convinced that the debut points to a bright future for the project, particularly when the World Rally Car version comes on stream on Rally d’Italia-Sardegna in early May.
“We thought we would start this rally with 200 kilometres of testing but in the end we had much less than this,” said the 25-year-old Oliveira. “We had to change our plans so this rally was really just a big test. There are some modifications to make to the car and there is some testing to do but there is a lot of potential with this car. When the [factory] cars [of Kris Meeke and Dani Sordo] start in Sardinia things can only improve with the set-up.”
Prior to his exit, Araujo was full of praise for the MINI. “I was not driving at 100 per cent, just trying to build the experience of the car,” he said. “Because we did not have the aerodynamic kit [from the World Rally Car] we did not have the stability over the crests and it was a bit more nervous at high-speed. We also did not have the lighter windows and flywheel. But this car definitely has a great potential.”
Araujo’s preparations were disrupted by an engine failure during his pre-event test, which necessitated the fitting of a replacement unit for the rally. Although it proved trouble-free on Friday, a fault was discovered during end-of-day service and Araujo was forced to run with reduced power on Saturday before being instructed to retire in order to save the engine from further damage.
A busy month is now in store for Prodrive. The MINI John Cooper Works WRC will be formally unveiled to the world’s media on 11 April. Two tests will then follow, one in Spain, the other in Wales, before the team heads to Sardinia and the real start of MINI’s world championship adventure.