The classic Mini won the Monte Carlo Rally – not just once, but several times. In 1967 Finnish rally star Rauno Aaltonen was the man at the wheel. And today he shows enthusiasts at one of the more keenly attended driver safety training events on the calendar how to drive a Mini like you mean it. BMW opened up its proving grounds in Aschheim near Munich for the occasion.
Thilo certainly isn’t going easy on his 1991 Rover Mini. Its driver’s right foot pinned to the floor, the small but perfectly formed Brit slides towards the outside of the corner, slips into a drift, catches said drift and lines up for the next bend. This is no time for braking, not with a dark-grey contemporary filling its mirrors. The circuit set up by the instructors at the BMW proving grounds certainly packs a punch; long corners, tight turns and a fiendish uphill right-hander (for which you never seem to be in the right gear) are all there to be tamed.
A roar from the exhaust of the 1300, a healthy 80 horsepower making its presence felt, accompanies the car’s relentless progress around the course, broad tyres ploughing through the water. To almost coin a phrase, it’s not raining, it’s pouring – and those little Mini wipers are swishing away gallantly against the tide. It looks like Thilo was expecting worse, though, having rocked up with two spare wheels (incl. snow chains) and a full-on sledge pinned to his poor car’s roof. He grins when asked about his radical accessories.
The dark-grey car is waved past; this is not a battle to the death and Thilo will only stand his ground so long. The drivers gathered here are no strangers to each other, after all, and this is a day to share in the joy.
Driver training for the keen.
Rauno Aaltonen may be from Finland, but he’s rather more chatty than many of his compatriots. He earned his nickname “the Rally Professor” for an analytical style at the wheel that turned rally driving into a science, and in 1967 he won the Monte Carlo Rally in a classic Mini. He’s driving a very special example of the breed again today, one which mimics his winning car that day down to the details. But today is not about winning. Instead, Rauno is here to teach a group of suitably bubbly Mini club members some tricks of the old trade when it comes to harnessing the diminutive cornering master’s handling talents. This is driver training for the already initiated.
Open day at the proving grounds.
The gates to the otherwise strictly “out of bounds” BMW proving grounds in Aschheim near Munich have been opened for one whole day. The participants in this training event are putting their skills to the test over four stations and under the watchful eye of experienced instructors. The circle test, braking and evading drills, a cracking circuit exercise and a challenging slalom course provide a richly varied training programme. This was the first time the event had been doused in quite such heavy, sustained rain since it was first held seven years ago. The result was an extremely slippery under-car surface, but at least it was kind on the tyres.
Back in the dry, Aaltonen gave a short presentation – washed down with coffee and snacks – to get everyone in the mood. The knowledge imparted included tips on correct steering technique and seating position. 12 classic Minis had gathered for the event, many in pairs so their drivers could swap cars from time to time. And so the troops marched out onto their “exercise yard” in two groups. From the outset it was clear that, for the assembled participants, this was serious; they wanted to push their cars and themselves to the limit. Accordingly, observers noted more than one unscheduled pirouette on the super-slick asphalt.
Follow the leader.
Each group followed a similar rotation. An experienced instructor showed the drivers what each station was all about. And when the participants headed out to try it for themselves, they were accompanied by tips, instructions and suggestions over the radio. The tight and twisty circuit offered the perfect stage for the classic Minis. And the slalom course also highlighted why the small car was once such a great champion – when the going got tough for the large sedans it was up against, the classic Mini simply darted on by.
Only one of the Aschheim line-up found itself in any serious trouble – Martin’s light-grey Innocenti Mini 850. The 47-year-old unrestored Italian, built under license back in the day, had to make do with 36 hp, skinny tyres and antiquated Hydrolastic suspension. So no, this was never a car intended for racing. And with weather like Bavaria was serving up it didn’t even have a chance to open its rare folding roof and show off a trick that was beyond the others. Martin still loves his car, though, and is planning an imminent ground-up restoration.
Strangely, there weren’t many women at this year’s event. But that promises to be a blip, since the MINI and classic Mini both have a large female following. Melena, for example, is at her sixth Mini driver training, and took turns with her partner Christoph to thread their beautifully restored, bright-orange Cooper through the cones. Second place in the consistency test was her deserved reward, while Christoph set the fastest time.
Wet feet, smiling faces.
Despite the Mini enthusiasts’ day in the rain and their resultant squelchy feet, the mood that evening was radiant and everyone had learnt something new. The mechanics scrambled by BMW as a precaution had barely had any work to do. And the only real casualties of the action were a few cones here and there.
Rauno Aaltonen rounded off the day by signing autographs, including one on the bonnet of the Mini Moke whose hardened driver had seen no reason to bother with doors. The Finn had the final word: “If everyone on the roads was as happy as we’ve all been here today, driving would be so much safer.”
There is arguably nothing more motivating than pleasure. And the classic Mini is simply a wonderfully pleasurable thing to drive.