Not only did it represent the arrival of a new manufacturer into the sport, it also marked the return of a truly iconic name to the world of rallying.
While a handful of factory-assisted MINIs are tackling expanded WRC campaigns this season, the works squad is only committed to six events in 2011. One rally in, and MINI’s Dani Sordo already has drivers’ championship points in the bag while his team-mate Kris Meeke has a top three fastest stage time to show for his efforts on the squad’s debut.
Not a bad start by any stretch of the imagination and Richard Taylor, whose Prodrive organisation has developed the John Cooper Works WRC and runs the MINI WRC Team in the global series, certainly thinks so.
“It’s one event out of six done so it’s early days but so far we’re pleased where we’re at and the signs are good for this year and next year,” says Taylor. “It’s always difficult when you come to an event for the first time. You’ve done a lot of testing which has gone very well but you don’t know how good you can be until you do a rally. Sardinia was the first and the drivers, MINI and ourselves are really pleased with how it’s gone. We’re all very positive.”
A throttle issue ultimately prevented Meeke from going the distance in Italy but Sordo reached the finish in sixth overall. The team will test in Finland shortly before Meeke tackles Rally Estonia from 15-16 July in an effort to finalise the MINI’s set-up for Finland’s high-speed gravel stages. But already preparations for the three mainly sealed-surface rallies MINI will contest later this season are at an advanced stage following a successful four-day test in Germany last month.
“We left there feeling we’d achieved what we’d set out to achieve,” Taylor continues. “We did best part of 1000 kilometres in four days which was phenomenally good so we’re very pleased with that. Both drivers went away very happy that they’d got a good set-up for each of the different types of roads we’ll experience in Germany.”
The MINI presence in the world championship will expand to six cars on Neste Oil Rally Finland with customer entries from Matti Rantanen and Matthias Therman alongside the semi-works registrations from Armindo Araujo and Daniel Oliveira and the factory cars of Meeke and Sordo.
“It reflects the popularity of the car and the interest in it,” says Taylor. “Everyone who has driven it so far found it easy and fun to drive. The main aim is to be winning the world championship in a few years but the other is clearly to build the customer business. Certainly all the customers who have got the cars are very happy with them and are enjoying using them.”
In addition to Finland and Germany, the factory team’s roster of events will take it France, Spain and Great Britain before the end of the season when things get serious. With 2011 always viewed as a development year, the commitment to a full programme in 2012 will only raise the anticipation - not to mention the expectation still further.