*Four new MINIs and one old up top at Banba's Crown.
"Have a Guinness or two for me."
Every time a friend or coworker learned I was off to Ireland to drive a MINI Cooper S Works in a local rally, their second sentence always involved imbibing stout (The first usually contained such words as "bitch" and "how do you rate."). In order for me to honor each and every request to lift a pint, I would have needed to start drinking on the flight over. Not a good idea, since this was to be my first experience driving a right-hand car on the left-hand side of the road.
Ah yes, driving on the other side of the road. It's not something I'd recommend doing when jetlagged, let alone soused. And we were not just driving but were rallying on the fifth running of the Irish Mini Owners Club's MTM adventure. MTM stands for Mizen Head to Malin Head, which are the most southern and northern points on the Emerald Isle. It was deemed an informal rally, but the driving was at all times spirited and, on occasion, flat-out insane. The rally began in Mizen on May 1, and we joined up with the club on May 2 at Killimer on the River Shannon.
There were six of us, four journalists and two PR reps from MINI USA. Five out of six of us arrived in Shannon at 8:00 in the bloody morning (Michael McHale, MINI's communications manager, was already there on holiday) after flying all night. Two of us (me included) had started from the West Coast. Three MINIs were waiting for us, a MINI One, a MINI Cooper and the car we'd journeyed all this way to experience, a MINI Cooper S Works. By 9:30, we were loaded up and off to join the rally group. The two MINI guys got the MINI One, my co-driver, Brian Robinson of Motorweek, and I got the MINI Cooper, and the two other journalists got the MINI Cooper S Works, which turned out to be a very good thing.
*Ballyvaghan: This Mini Moke has run in the MTM every year, rain or shine.
Why? Well, because of "The Incident." Not even an hour had passed after meeting up with rally organizer and leader Gerard O'Leary in Killimer, when "The Incident" occurred. I was driving, of course-despite only getting an hour or so of sleep in the previous 24 hours and being a newbie to driving on the wrong side of the road-and I was punchy as hell. My main fear was oncoming traffic; I constantly reminded myself that my side of the road was the left side. Then it happened. In the aptly named town of Kilrush, I clipped (my preferred action verb) a parked car-on my side of the road!
*The only way to tell this is the MINI Cooper S Works is the rear badging.
Oh, shit. In the 12 years I've been a motor journo, I'd never hit another car (or anything else). I felt as though I'd run over my grandmother's cat or, worse yet, my grandmother. Fortunately, the damage was minimal to the parked car, and the MINI Cooper was still driveable: no smashed headlight, just a basketball-sized dent in the left front fender. My ego, however, had been thoroughly crushed. The MINI guys and my co-driver were great, and "The Incident" was placed in its proper perspective: a perpetual teasing point for the rest of my career.
*The rally Minis covered nearly every year of production.
Our rally group of two was now a tad behind the others, so we ended up altering the proscribed course a bit. We motored quickly along the Irish west coast to the spectacular Cliffs of Moher (pronounced "more"), which stretch for 5 miles and feature sheer drop offs of 700 ft and such forceful winds that even the most acrophilic person would have second thoughts about approaching the edge. I crept as close as the photo shows. As we headed back to our MINIs, stalwart and brave co-driver Brian tossed me the key; it was my turn to drive again. I looked at him as though he'd lost his mind, then got in behind the wheel. I felt a bit more alert, as "The Incident" and an infusion of caffeine seemed to have shocked my system into a state of hyper-awareness; I just hoped it would see me through to our first stop for the night in Westport.
At this point came our first route deviation: Instead of hugging the coast we headed across The Burren, a karst limestone region of approximately 300 sq km that lies in the northwest corner of County Clare. It is a rugged countryside that looks nothing like the pictures of rolling green hills one always sees of Ireland; it is also starkly beautiful. Our short cut brought us to the small village of Ballyvaghan where we briefly caught up with the 70-plus-strong rally group on its way to Galway Bay and points beyond. It was here that we also learned the two journalists in the Cooper S Works car had a minor incident of their own. A large rock and a front tire had an explosive encounter, flattening the tire. Fortunately, the stock runflat really did run while flat. According to the drivers, the only noticeable indication of an airless tire was the warning light on the dash display.
*The new MINI looks huge, even when compared to the Mini pickup.
From Ballyvaghan, we circumnavigated Galway Bay and headed up through Connemara (considered one of the last unspoiled areas of Ireland and which Oscar Wilde called "a savage beauty"), Joyces Country (a mountainous region woven with rivers) to Westport and the Westport Woods Hotel, County Mayo. Our group of three had driven 217.20 miles on our first day-actually, the MINI Cooper's mileage was a wee bit less due to our catch-up short cuts. The Irish Mini Owners Club had covered 308.1 miles on this, their second day (day one for them was a short 38 miles from Mizen Head to Glengarriff). The weather had been fantastic: sunny, clear and mild; the roads were perfect for rallying: narrow, twisty and, after Kilrush at least, practically deserted; and all 70 Minis (and MINIs) had made it to the overnight checkpoint.
The MINI Cooper was deemed an excellent road rally car, nimble and relatively quick-the 115 bhp and 110 lb-ft of torque of the 1.6-liter engine is more entertaining than you would expect it to be when the engine is kept at its 4500-rpm sweet spot. The seating and ride quality were quite comfortable, allowing us to drive for many miles without adding to our fatigue. As we cruised into the hotel, all we really wanted to do was sleep. But, this being Ireland and the rallyists being Irish, the partying was just starting and would continue on well past the time I staggered with exhaustion to my room. I slept like the dead.
*We're almost to our penultimate destination: Malin's Head and Banba's Crown.
Day two (rally day three) presented us with the expected Irish weather, overcast and drizzly, which would turn into outright downpours during parts of the drive. Our goal today was Malin Head/Banba's Crown in County Donegal, 261.6 miles away. Brian's and my ride for the most of the day was the Works MINI. I had Brian drive first, as I was intent on breaking whatever pattern was possibly in the making. Our MINIs got in line behind MTM guru Gerard's MINI One, and we began a very "spirited drive," to quote Gerard. At first there were several Minis in queue on the road to Castlebar and Foxford, but Gerard's driving style (flat out) and the obviously more powerful modern MINIs were too much for the older vehicles. Gerard swore that his 90-bhp MINI One had nothing more than an aftermarket exhaust, and we had no reason not to believe him. We asked about his previous rallying experience, and he alluded to "doing things" in the past. They must have been some things, because his rallying ability might give even Paddy Hopkirk a run for his money. If we hadn't been in the 200-bhp Works MINI, we would have seriously struggled to keep up.
But we were driving the Works car, which has a 37-bhp bump over the 163-bhp Cooper S. Torque also moves up from 155 lb-ft at 4000 rpm to 177 lb-ft, also at 4000 rpm. The Works package (it can be retrofitted to existing Cooper Ss) is centered around an enhanced Eaton supercharger with specially coated vanes that generate increased flow pressure. The blower also has a new pulley design, allowing the unit to spin at higher rpm for greater power output. A performance-modified head replaces the stock one; it has improved port flow and can withstand the greater compression and heat produced by the supercharger. A reprogrammed ECU is included as well; combustion airflow, fueling and spark advance have been optimized for better throttle response and torque accessibility. The performance graph clearly illustrates this improvement. The torque curve is smoother and the power curve continues climbing all the way to redline.
*The last gathering of Minis at the White Horse Hotel in Derry, North Ireland.
The package also contains a cat-back stainless-steel sport exhaust, featuring a parallel-flow low-backpressure system, snarky-looking twin chrome exhaust tips and a decidedly deep-throated rumble. Visually, the only indication that you're driving the Works version is a small, tasteful Works badge on the rear decklid. Pop the hood, however, and the valve cover and the silver intercooler surround practically shout that this is a modified car.
Following (actually chasing is the more appropriate word) Gerard gave us endless opportunities to explore the MINI Cooper S Works' enhanced performance. From the moment you roll off the line, the powerband's bump up is immediately apparent. Where the Cooper S lags in the lower- to mid-rpm range, the Works version zips on past to achieve maximum pulling power at 4000 rpm. There are no dips, no dead spots, just pure, sweet acceleration. The package is well worth the $4,500 MSRP (installation not included). The six-speed manual gearbox is the same as the one on the Cooper S, which also contributed the suspension and brake systems. Each dealt with the increased power as though they were originally designed with the Works package in mind-quite a testament to the Cooper S's handling characteristics. Not once did the Works MINI feel as though it was at the edge of control, and we were really pushing it.
*From Banba's Crown one can see all of Malin Head.
The roads to Malin Head from Westport were even narrower, twistier and more undulating than the ones we drove the day before. Or at least they seemed that way, but then again, I may have been influenced by the weather; it was raining so hard that God had to have left the bathtub water running overnight. And we were driving as though the devil himself were chasing us. We flew down one one-and-a-half-lane road after another at speeds that no sane person would consider. Several of the newer MINIs that were with our group eventually gave up, as the pace was just too demanding (and exhausting) for them to maintain. When I wasn't driving-and when the rain chanced to let up-I watched the picturesque countryside scroll by, replete with thatched-roof cottages, green valleys and more sheep than I've ever seen in my life. Our route took us up through County Sligo to Sligo Bay and the city of Sligo itself; then it was north, past Donegal Bay and into the wilds of The Rosses before heading east to Letterkenny and then north alongside Lough Swilly to our penultimate destination: Malin Head and Banba's Crown.
*The Works: The valve cover and intercooler surround denote the status of the MINI Cooper S Works.
*The Works: The valve cover and intercooler surround denote the status of the MINI Cooper
We made it! If nothing else, the view from Banba's Crown alone was worth the long drive. Windswept, stark, desolate, and isolated are adjectives that leap to mind when gazing out across the northern-most point on Eire. The parking lot at the top is small, yet we were able to stuff quite a few Minis/MINIs into the area. As we wandered around the old WWII lookout tower and bunkers, various rally participants came and went, rejoicing in their almost finish of the event. For we were not quite yet finished. The last stop on the route was Derry in Northern Ireland, where the awards ceremony and end-of-the rally celebration awaited us. We had another 42 miles to go before we partied down for the night at the White Horse Hotel. And what a party; there were raffles, awards, gifts, presentations, dancing, laughing and, of course, drinking. I may not have consumed any Guinness (confession: I don't like beer/ale/stout/whatever), but the rally celebrants lifted enough pints to fulfill my obligations many times over. They had reason to celebrate; this was the fifth run of the Head to Head Adventure, and these seasoned veterans had covered 611.7 miles over some of the most demanding roads in Ireland in three long days. Well done.
*The Works package includes an enhanced supercharger, modified head, reprogrammed ECU and hi-po exhaust system.
*The Works package includes an enhanced supercharger, modified head, reprogrammed ECU and
The next morning saw our group of six in our three MINIs on the road to Dublin. Brian and I were given the MINI One to pilot, which was fine with us as we figured the drive down into County Derry would be a leisurely one. Boyo, were we wrong. The pubs in Dublin must have been calling Michael's name (or Gerard was a very bad influence), for he led our small band on a blisteringly fast dash into the city. We were pleasantly surprised by how well the MINI One drove. We obviously couldn't outpower or outrun the Works MINI, but it held its own against the 115-bhp MINI Cooper, thanks to its 103 lb-ft of torque (the Cooper outputs 110 lb-ft). It also has better seats than the other two MINIs: less spine-distorting lumbar support and more lateral and thigh support.
* The package delivers smoother torque and power curves.
We arrived in Dublin around 1:30 p.m. (we had left Derry around 9 a.m.) and were soon ensconced in luxury at the U2-owned Clarence Hotel on Wellington Quay. We also had a celebration of our own, crawling from pub to pub in Dublin's infamous Temple Bar district. We had survived the challenges of rallying on the other side of the road-with only minor damage to the vehicles and my ego. We had experienced the beauty of the Irish countryside, the friendliness of the Irish people and joy of driving excellent vehicles. I'd do it again in a heartbeat, and if there is a next time I might even try a Guinness-or two.