It's 10 p.m. at the upmarket Galereya restaurant in downtown Moscow. A pale blue MINI Cooper S sits on a makeshift startline as a girl with an eccentric fringe unfurls a Russian flag. The flag drops and the driver wheelspins his way into the city traffic. Welcome to the mad, bad world of the Moscow MINI Marathon.
Billed as a social jamboree cum motorsport event, the Marathon is being organized by MINI Russia as a treat for its customers. Twenty-five cars have been entered, including a couple of original Minis. Car number 21 is a "Works" Cooper S and will be piloted by the only foreign competitor--me.
I'm not due to start for another 30 minutes, so I've time to meet my rivals. Maria Kitaeva is giggling excitedly at the wheel of her new Cooper S. "My parents bought it me for my last birthday present," says the 20-year-old, who's a student at the University of International Relations. But aren't her parents concerned that she's taking part in a street race? "Maybe they don't know too much about it," she says with a grin.
It might sound unlikely, but Kitaeva is typical of Russia's MINI owners. Even the base model sells for 30,000 Euros in Russia ($35,400) so it's very much a luxury item. "We only sold 150 here last year," explains Elena Kravets, MINI's marketing and pr guru. "People in Russia like to express their wealth by owning a big car. They normally buy a MINI as a third car, often for their daughters."
She hands me a bag of clues that includes a pool ball, a chocolate dinosaur and a model car. I've been teamed with a Russian journalist, Igor Shein, and we must visit six locations and perform a variety of tasks. Each section will be timed so the speed of our driving, even in the city, will be of crucial importance.
At 22.28, the flag drops and we explode into the Moscow traffic. The John Cooper Works kit for the Cooper S costs around #3,500 ($6,250) in the UK and increases the MINI's power output to 200 bhp. It's the quickest car here, but I'm nervous about exploiting its potential in a busy city centre. And my concerns are exacerbated when I spot a MINI receiving Police attention within 500 yards of the start. "Don't worry," says Shein, "the fines are normally about 100 Rubles (c.$2.50) and most policemen accept a bribe."
Feeling far from reassured, we arrive at the first control and after I correctly guess the number of gold bars in a safe, we receive the location of the next control. We speed southwest past Red Square and I can't help wondering what Lenin would have thought of our hedonism? "I suspect he'll be turning in his mausoleum," says Shein with a laugh.
Motoring in Moscow today is very different from the '80s cliche. Although the Ladas still exist, they now jostle for road space with Mercedes, BMWs and Range Rovers. A local casino is even offering a Maybach as a prize. The scene is ostentatious to the point of obscenity, and everyone drives like they're fleeing the KGB.
My second and third tasks involve potting the pool ball (I miss) and dressing a female mannequin while blindfold (no problem). Then it's back across the city in search of a shooting range. It's now that I spot my first horse of the evening. A huge brown mare is wandering across a busy backstreet carrying a helmet-less rider. "You can hire them for about 100 Rubles an hour," says Shein, casually.
It's now 11:30 p.m. and I'm stopped by the police for the first time and they want to see all my documents before I'm allowed to go. I continue until I'm stopped again, and again. "They're disappointed that you have the correct documents," claims Shein, "they saw the car and anticipated a big pay day."
We arrive too late to complete the final task and are led instead to the exclusive Zima nightclub, where the winners will be presented with their trophy. It's packed with people wearing clothes that you normally only see in "lifestyle" magazines, and on the road outside there's a Ferrari 360, a Bentley Arnage and a fleet of S-Class Mercedes'.
Kitaeva has finished second and is bubbling with enthusiasm. "I got stopped by a Policeman for crossing the road's centre line," she explains. "But I told him to hurry up because I was in a race. I paid him 100 rubles and he asked what the prize was. Apparently, he'd already stopped someone else."
Nobody will confirm my position, but rumor has it that I came last. "You drove like an Englishman," reckons Kitaeva. "You were always thinking about the rules and being sensible. Russian's don't drive like that." A blonde called Katya is equally unimpressed: "I bet on you to win," she explains at the finish. "I thought you looked fast."
It's a bizarre end to an extraordinary event. I've just taken part in a semi-legal street race, sanctioned by BMW and held in the heart of Moscow. Saturday nights don't get any better than this.