Mini Paceman goes Camel Racing!

What’s the toughest test of an SUV in the UAE? Forget the desert, it’s keeping up with the free-for-all at the spectacular camel races

Featured brand: Mini Paceman

By Fraser Martin

Mini Paceman Cooper S goes camel racing in Abu Dhabi

Whilst underage boy jockeys are now a thing of the past, replaced by radio-controlled mechanical jockeys rigged out in owners’ colours and operated, from their cars, by the owners, the fundamentals of camel racing remain the same as they have for hundreds of years: first past the post wins!

Mini Paceman Cooper S goes camel racing in Abu Dhabi
Other traditions have been modernised too. Owners now use a mobile phone, strategically strapped near the beast’s neck to shout encouragement at them, effectively ‘racing’ the camels themselves, albeit remotely.

Mini Paceman Cooper S goes camel racing in Abu Dhabi

But there are four elements in every race: the actual camel race in which, curiously, camels race; the TV car race in which outside-broadcast units jockey for position to record the action; the owners’ race which is predominantly run in your typical large Japanese SUVs and 4×4 trucks down the outside of the track on well-worn sand, and the return race, in which everyone does a U-turn and high-tails it back to the beginning again, in the vain hope of being in place for the start of the next race.

Mini Paceman Cooper S goes camel racing in Abu Dhabi

Into this fray we enter, in the most unlikely car imaginable, and yet one we think, remains uniquely qualified: the MINI Paceman Cooper S.

Mini Paceman Cooper S goes camel racing in Abu Dhabi

MINI Paceman at the Camel Races

It is early in the morning, just after sunrise – and a one-and-three-quarter-hour drive from Dubai to Wathba, on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, on the Truck Road in the dark – where I find myself in the rather appropriately named ‘Starlight’ blue Paceman, ready to joust with the white and beige destriers and chargers of the local camel owners. This morning, we will take part in the ‘support’ races for three year olds at the Wathba Track.

Mini Paceman Cooper S goes camel racing in Abu Dhabi

The object of the exercise is to keep up with the races – and what more aptly named car could there be than a Paceman, in which to do so. However with 184bhp at my disposal from the eager 1.6-litre engine, giving a 0-100kph time of 8.2 seconds (quicker than most of these SUVs) aided by the ALL4 all-wheel drive, the Paceman can easily stride past the lumbering beasts – and I’m not referring to the camels.

Mini Paceman Cooper S goes camel racing in Abu Dhabi

I find that unless I choose a camel at random, and try to run parallel to it, I can easily outpace the frenetic dodgem race taking place on the outside of the rails. The owners are so rapt in their involvement with what’s happening inside the rails, they barely notice the relatively compact MINI. Of course if I was driving an original MINI, I would not be writing this now!

Mini Paceman Cooper S goes camel racing in Abu Dhabi

Keeping up with the Camel owners

There is a lot to understand: all three mirrors are in constant use and my head moves continuously through a 180 degree arc as I try to keep track of other vehicles ahead, behind, on both sides and the late starters sweeping round the pack to get near the front. Although the Paceman feels more intimate and sporty from inside than the more family-friendly Countryman, the high ground clearance of the Paceman and its semi-command driver’s seat position is a blessing I’m particularly thankful for on this occasion.

Mini Paceman Cooper S goes camel racing in Abu Dhabi
The athletic coupe-like MINI seems well up to the task – the aforementioned all-wheel drive provides instant grip on the hard-packed sand. I am comfortably supported in the sports seats, nice and warm despite the chill of the morning thanks to the excellent climate control and, most importantly, nipping through the melee and not holding anyone up!

Mini Paceman Cooper S goes camel racing in Abu Dhabi

I may well be the only person actually looking ahead though, since all the other drivers appear firmly focussed on the camels and are not looking where they are going. Unless they all have Marty Feldmann eyes, I do not know how this is achieved. I wonder if this is a recipe for disaster?

Mini Paceman Cooper S goes camel racing in Abu Dhabi

Staying safe in the MINI Paceman

I’m not worried though, the MINI Countryman, with which the Paceman shares its structure, is rated a full five stars for crash safety by EuroNCAP. The Paceman comes with seven airbags: two front airbags, two front side airbags, two ceiling mounted side curtain airbags which stay inflated longer and also protect against flying glass, plus the passenger, if I had one, would be comforted to know that there’s an additional ‘knee airbag’ just for them. And there are sensors monitoring occupants’ positions to ensure the airbags are deployed at the optimal rate: how very clever is that?

Mini Paceman Cooper S goes camel racing in Abu Dhabi

I also have ABS with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and Dynamic Stability traction control at my disposal should I have to make sudden and sharp avoidance manoeuvres on this loose surface. There’s even a tyre pressure monitor as standard.

Mini Paceman Cooper S goes camel racing in Abu Dhabi

However the owners prove to be miraculously adept at managing the chaos and all the participants cars appear to be entirely unscathed, particularly in light of what happens next!

Mini Paceman Cooper S goes camel racing in Abu Dhabi

MINI Paceman – perfect for avoidance and endurance

As each race reaches the end of the track, there is a distinct slowing of the pack – clearly the camels are a bit knackered by the time the three or four kilometres are run – and there is just time for me to veer off before a complete volte face of Japanese 4x4s heads in my general direction, bearing down on the bright blue MINI with the relentlessness of a lava flow, but at 120kph!

Mini Paceman Cooper S goes camel racing in Abu Dhabi
Popping the handbrake, in classic MINI style, and exploiting the Paceman’s keen agility and faithful responses, I have all six-ratios calling upon the ample torque to safely make it back to the start line.

Mini Paceman Cooper S goes camel racing in Abu Dhabi
While the camels might be getting tired, the Paceman is unrelenting in its pursuit, race after race as Shahzad Sheikh shouts from our accompanying camera car that he’d like me to do ‘one more run’ to get these shots in the bag. The only problem is that he repeats that request over, and over, and over again! Though my nerves may be getting a little frayed, the MINI is happily shrugging off the abuse, and giving me plenty of reassuring feedback – it seems to be enjoying this.

Mini Paceman Cooper S goes camel racing in Abu Dhabi
So back we go for another round. If I am lucky, the race will not have started by the time we return. If I am not, I become the meat in a Land Cruiser and Patrol sandwich as they come at me from both directions. The scary part is that I am still the only driver actually looking forward! Just as well the MINI is a different colour from everything else around so it does stand out and thankfully it’s a bit of an eye-catcher when it comes to styling too.

Mini Paceman Cooper S goes camel racing in Abu Dhabi
This becomes apparent when we finally take a break between some of the races. Whilst Shahzad goes about getting some detail shots and incidental images, several camel owners stop by to ask about the MINI Paceman. And here we thought they were only focussed on the camels.

Mini Paceman Cooper S goes camel racing in Abu Dhabi
Perhaps that’s not so surprising. They’ve clearly clocked that the Paceman is actually quite a nimble thing – it ducks and dives as instructed, will cruise over undulations and even the softer parts of the sandy terrain around the Wathba Camel Track, and can happily outsprint the bigger motors when called to do so.

Mini Paceman Cooper S goes camel racing in Abu Dhabi
In fact it begs the question why none of the owners are using a Paceman considering it has proven so adept at the task at hand? It turns out it has nothing to do with local preference, choice or brand loyalty – it is a bit simpler than that. “We give the Toyotas and Nissans as prizes!” explained the nice chap from the Camel Racing Association.

Mini Paceman Cooper S goes camel racing in Abu Dhabi
Judging by how well our MINI Paceman Cooper S did on the day, they might want to consider offering a few Pacemans as race-winning prizes in future!

Mini Paceman Cooper S goes camel racing in Abu Dhabi

Mini Paceman – The Specs

Price:
Cooper S: AED195,000 ($53k)
John Cooper Works: AED205,000 ($56k)
Engine:
Cooper S: 1.6-litre four-cylinder, 184bhp @ 5500rpm, 177lb ft @ 1600-5000rpm
John Cooper Works: 1.6-litre four-cylinder, 218bhp @ 6000rpm, 206lb ft @ 1900-5000rpm
Performance:
Cooper S: 8.2secs 0-100kph, 208kph, 7.7L/100 (est)
John Cooper Works: 6.9secs 0-100kph, 224kph, 7.9L/100
Transmission: Six-speed auto, All-wheel drive
Weight:
Cooper S: 1470kg
John Cooper Works: 1495kg

Mini Paceman Cooper S goes camel racing in Abu Dhabi

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[Thanks to Al Wathba Camel Racing Track, the Camel Racing Association and the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority in helping us to put this feature together and of course.]

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