I drive an X-Raid Mini All4 Racing and navigate – badly!

We drive Nasser Al-Attiyah’s X-Raid Mini rally car, and have a go at navigating him

By Shahzad Sheikh

Driving X-Raid Mini All4 Racing rally car in the Dubai desert

Have a look at the above picture closely. If you’re able to zoom in, you’ll see that that’s actually me behind the wheel.

This was a big moment for me – another one to tick off my bucket list of stuff I’ve driven, and it rates right up there with having driven a Formula 1 car. In fact I think I might print this image out on a canvas and hang it up alongside the other one of me behind the wheel of a Renault F1 beast from some years back.

Anyway, that’s enough self-indulgent BS – although you’ll have to put up with all the pictures of me, and the videos and well… okay… more self-indulgent crap throughout this article.

Driving X-Raid Mini All4 Racing rally car in the Dubai desert

So here are the things that you really want to know right up front so you don’t have to endure the rest of this feature:

  • Nasser Al-Attiyah is a driving god and a lovely chap
  • Driving the X-Raid Mini All4 Racing is an absolute hoot and a lot easier than you’d think
  • Trying to be a rally navigator is one of the hardest jobs in the world!

Now you can just scroll down for the pics and videos.

Still with me? Okay then, here’s the story in a bit more detail – hope you enjoy the ride as much as I did!

Driving X-Raid Mini All4 Racing rally car in the Dubai desert

X-Raid Mini All4 Racing

The X-Raid team builds, prepares and develops the Mini All4 Racing which is loosely based on the Mini John Cooper Works Countryman. But at 200mm longer, 209mm wider and 417mm taller, it’s actually 9% bigger. The wheelbase is also 305mm longer, its track width is 1736mm and it weighs 1900kg compared to the 1480kg of the ‘civilian’ car.

The Countryman look-a-like body panels are all carbon fibre and only the windscreen, door handles and taillights are shared with the production car. The rest of it is a tubular steel chassis of immense strength and all around you are buttons and switches, bars and hoops, cables and wiring, safety kit and spares – yep it carries three spare wheels and its own in-built hydraulic jacks to lift up the car.

Driving X-Raid Mini All4 Racing rally car in the Dubai desert

The rally Mini is powered by a 3.0-litre twin-turbo BMW straight-six diesel engine producing 320bhp at 3250rpm and an astounding 590lb ft of torque from just 2100rpm – it could probably make more if it weren’t for a 38mm air restrictor.

For comparison a JCW Countryman has a 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine putting out 215bhp and 221lb ft which will get it from rest to 100kph in 7 seconds and onto 225kph. The rally car accelerates only slightly quicker at under six seconds, and only manages 178kph, but then it’s heavier – and it can do this in the rough stuff.

Driving X-Raid Mini All4 Racing rally car in the Dubai desert

And besides, with its four-wheel drive, multiple differentials, AP Racing clutch, six-speed Sadev sequential manual gearbox and nearly 10-inches of suspension travel, this car does what the Countrman never can – consistently win rally-raid style events. In fact it not only just won the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge (which it also has twice before), but was won the Dakar rally the last four years in a row (2012-2015) having only first entered it in 2011, and the FIA World Cross Country Championship for the last three years.

Driving X-Raid Mini All4 Racing rally car in the Dubai desert

Driving the Mini All4 Racing

First of all you have to figure out how to get into the thing through the small opening left by the roll cage, whilst wearing a helmet, especially when you’re as tall as I am. The body-hugging racing bucket seat is a very snug fit especially with the harness fully tightened as it absolutely must be to stop you flopping about. Fortunately there’s enough legroom for me, but the footwell is pretty tight and the boots I mistakenly wore this day were a bad choice and almost too wide to work the clutch – thankfully you only need that to move off and stop – the rest of the time it’s clutchless changes.

You’re then confronted by an array of buttons and displays, most of which mean absolutely nothing to me. I’m immediately overwhelmed by it all and decide the best course of action is to not even try to take them in, but rely on my instructor and co-driver – I even let him put it into reverse to back out of the ‘garage’ and then neutral when we come back and stop.

Driving X-Raid Mini All4 Racing rally car in the Dubai desert

Instead I concentrate on remembering that you pull back on the big lever closest to you (ignore the next one – that’s the handbrake, and not needed in the sand) firmly and without hesitation (or you miss the change and have to employ the clutch – as I did once) for upshifts and push forward for downshifts.

Unlike most test cars that I get into, this time I don’t bother setting up the mirrors, checking where the indicator is, adjusting the climate control and Bluetoothing with the sound system to get some tunes on. It does apparently have a/c though I can’t feel it (it’s about 10 degrees centigrade higher inside the car than outside – which is about 40!), and you wouldn’t be able to hear any music (in fact we couldn’t even hear each other if it wasn’t for the communicators in our helmets).

Not as interesting as my previous video, but I just had to post it on my timeline as evidence that I have driven a full-fledged race winning Rally car – the Mini All4.

Posted by Shahzad Sheikh on Thursday, 9 April 2015

 

But I don’t care about any of that, because I’m behind the wheel of a pukka rally car – a race-winning rally car at that and the actual car of legendary Arab driver (and Olympic bronze medallist in shooting!) Qatari, Nasser Al-Attiyah. A gentleman and superstar in his own right, who only seems to know one way to race – by winning everything.

Watch my quick fire interview with Nasser Al-Attiyah here:

Back to your writer, and the anxiety and excitement levels are both off the scale right now: I’m absolutely thrilled to have this unique opportunity, but at the same time I have no idea what to expect having never driven anything like this, and I don’t want to be THAT journalist that wrecked Al-Attiyah’s rally car! And injuring myself would be pretty inconvenient too.

But the grip, the feedback through the wheel, the light and linear steering all serve to put me at ease. In fact from the very moment that I ease in the astonishingly accommodating and smooth clutch (not harsh, springy and snappy as I was expecting) and back out, my confidence in the machine starts to grow.

Driving X-Raid Mini All4 Racing rally car in the Dubai desert

It gets up to speed remarkably quickly through the lower gears and you can just punch in the changes with barely a lift and there’s no jerkiness to speak of. Of course you can get up to massive momentum on the straight bits, I daren’t take my eyes off the view out front and look at the speed – actually I wouldn’t know where to look to find the speed – but I know this is only the second time that I’ve gone as quickly as this off-road (the first was in the Local Motors Rally Fighter, and this is probably faster).

And as I snatch sixth gear and start to get a little alarmed at the velocity I’m carrying over rutted uneven sand – with false visions persisting in my head of the car catching a rut wrong, flipping up and over and squishing us – I reckon I’m probably at around 150kph plus.

Driving X-Raid Mini All4 Racing rally car in the Dubai desert

It’s hard to tell though, driving at speed in the desert is very disorientating, you think you’re covering ground quickly, but you’re not sure as there is no ‘road furniture’ to give you a sense of blur at your peripherals. It’s just the fear creeping in that’s telling you you’re going effing fast!

But at lower, cornering speeds, as I try to follow the instructor’s… well… instructions, I have far more confidence in the car. Several times I stick the throttle in early and get the back out on the sand, but a bit of opposite lock sorts it all out – all very natural and intuitive.

Driving X-Raid Mini All4 Racing rally car in the Dubai desert

It can be tail happy if you want it to be (although one of the drivers, Nani Roma of Spain told me sets his car up very neutral because he always likes the GPS on the car to be pointing in the right direction!). Clearly Nasser likes a bit of sideways for his car, and unlike other ride and drives, I don’t get an admonishing bark from my chaperone for such antics, so I keep on enjoying the drive.

What I do start to realise though, is that the passenger seat is where the real hard work is done…

Driving X-Raid Mini All4 Racing rally car in the Dubai desert

Being a rally navigator

Earlier in the day we had a crash course in rally co-driving and navigating by veteran Michel Perin – and it proved more than a mere eye-opener as the multiple abilities of what makes a championship winning co-driver became apparent.

Driving X-Raid Mini All4 Racing rally car in the Dubai desert

The best navigators are not only good map readers, with great memory retention and recall, are able to get instructions to the driver clearly and on cue, boast sensational spatial awareness of their surroundings, are able to hold their places on a book whilst being bounced around like a sneaker in a washing machine, harbour an incredibly sense of direction and natural geo-locating abilities, and yet are also tacticians outwitting the competition and master psychologists monitoring, mentoring and manipulating the mental states of their drivers.

Driving X-Raid Mini All4 Racing rally car in the Dubai desert

Imagine the scenario: you’re a co-driver in a top team with a huge potential to take the outright win – so you’re under pressure (and the driver will blame you if you get it wrong). You’re monitoring all the electronic displays in the car, following the pace-notes which you’ve marked in your own personal colour code and calling them out to the driver. You’re also trying to ensure he’s driving the car as hard as he/she can without breaking it, whilst choosing the optimum and easiest route to the next waypoint marker, that you have to get within 200 metres of and which may not necessarily be the most obvious and direct route.

Here’s a video of me trying to navigate!

But at some point using your natural radar, whilst all the mayhem is going on around you, you’re trying to follow the notes and your progress (in the barren featureless terrain that is the desert of course) and making your driver hit the marker – sometimes doing it surreptitiously so that your rivals, who are still scrambling about in the wrong place, losing time, don’t realise you’ve already clocked in and are off to the next waypoint. It’s like a superfast game of three-dimensional chess playing against a Vulcan!

Driving X-Raid Mini All4 Racing rally car in the Dubai desert

So there I was, strapped into the passenger seat, alongside multiple champ Nasser Al-Attiyah with a road book which I had helpfully marked up in my own system of colour codes – actually I just tried to make the page look bright and cheery – a vain attempt to distract myself from the sheer hopelessness of what I was about to attempt.

Driving X-Raid Mini All4 Racing rally car in the Dubai desert

Of course when the dunes started rushing at me, I simply forgot all the terminology that I had supposedly learnt and was resorting to stuff like ‘there, there!’ or ‘round and down the middle’ and ‘there’s two exclamation marks – what did that mean again?!’.

Thing was, my hapless ineptitude did nothing to deter Al-Attiyah who, far from slowing down in confusion, was simply squashing any previous delusions I had about becoming a rally driver, having piloted this very car at what I thought was a decently competitive speed. Instead he was just laughing at my hopelessness whilst having a spot of fun himself by barking back questions: ‘where now?’, ‘which way?’, ‘you didn’t tell me about that pole!’ or most worrying of all ‘Uh oh’.

Driving X-Raid Mini All4 Racing rally car in the Dubai desert

Achieving orbit in a rally car

Of course once we, through some incredible miracle – or the simple majesty of God’s mercy – actually completed the set stage for this exercise, he headed back up into the dunes for a ‘free run’ and a bit of fun.

That involved the sort of stuff that desert tour drivers do – you know up and over dunes, side-surfing and lots of rooster-tailing – except that this was at about five times the speed that they would do it. It was both relentless and unerring, the Mini faithfully and unflinchingly carrying off outrageous manoeuvres, clinging on at unbelievable angles and ably deploying every bit of that ample torque.

Driving X-Raid Mini All4 Racing rally car in the Dubai desert

And then there were the jumps – you can actually see me stop talking in the video as the shaking momentarily ceases whilst we fly though the air. The second one was particularly epic, we were airborne for what seemed like ages from inside the car prompting me to tell Al-Attiyah that we appeared to have achieved orbit and that we were now spacemen, causing him to simply laugh louder and drive harder!

But here’s the thing about the Mini All4 Racing – I have been alongside rally drivers before and even experienced a long jump. However the crash landing and bone-jarring experience that I was expecting from prior experience, as we rejoined terra-firma, simply never happened.

Driving X-Raid Mini All4 Racing rally car in the Dubai desert

In fact on the whole, whilst shotgunning in the X-Raid Mini was terrifically cacophonic and chaotic, the actual ride quality was far less pummelling and brutal than I was anticipating. The proof of this was that unlike previous rally ride-along experiences, my body wasn’t aching, moaning and creaking for a few days afterwards. In fact I felt fine and would have been happy to go a few more rounds in the car – a genuine endorsement of how amazingly well developed this car is, which is why, of course, it is able to easily shrug off long-distance high-speed enduros and bring home the silverware every single time.

So for the fastest possible way to get across country off-road? Get yourself a Mini All4 Racing!

Driving X-Raid Mini All4 Racing rally car in the Dubai desert

Many thanks to BMW & Mini Middle East, the X-Raid team and Nasser Al-Attiyah for one of the most memorable experiences of my career.

 

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