If you're a budding racing driver with dreams of landing a seat in the British Touring Car Championship or similar, the Renault Clio Cup UK has for more than two decades been the default springboard of choice. But with news that in 2020 the Mini Challenge JCW will elbow its way past the grid of 200 Turbos to become the official TOCA support series, 2019 is the year for those hopefuls to get their eye in before the racing takes place in front of sell-out crowds. In the year that precedes its promotion into the BTCC calendar, the JCW grid has ballooned to 30 cars, the spread of pace has got tighter and - by way of potentially ruining one of those factors - PH was invited to try its hand before the TV cameras turn up.
The cars to compete in next year's JCW class will be technically identical to those racing in 2019 - barring a few potential cosmetic changes including the introduction of headlights - so the cars you see here are the same ones coming to ITV4 in a matter of months. The driver line-up, too, is likely to remain largely unchanged, with several tin tops champs from other series already having made the switch to Minis at the start of this year. It means the calibre of a championship - already very decent - is now at its highest; turning up and giving it eight tenths is simply not acceptable in the Mini Challenge. Unless you want to be lapped, of course.
Silverstone is so sodden on our test day that many top drivers don't bother running at all in the knowledge that the weekend will be drier. But with only a handful of Mini laps under my belt from our recent go at a track day - and the following day's running limited to 20 minutes of qualifying - sitting in the pits is not an option, even if Silverstone's asphalt now has more in common with a riverbed than racing track.
The Mini Challenge JCW is a thoroughbred touring car, however, one running proper Dunlop racing wets that provide an amazing amount of grip and traction. Aside from the occasional high-speed aquaplane incident, brought on by the depth of water crossing the circuit, the 275hp machine inspires a tremendous amount of confidence and, so long as its controls are operated smoothly and progressively, it can be sent charging around the full GP layout with real enthusiasm. Visibility is reduced to a few metres when you're in the spray of another car, but the experience of working that Quaife limited slip differential and banging through the sequential 'box's six ratios, wipers frantically sweeping the windscreen ahead, is unforgettable.
It's also of little use when we're graced with blue skies, sunshine and a rubbered in track (thanks to the preceding British GT practice) ahead of the Mini qualifying session on Saturday. With zero dry laps of running in this Dunlop-branded car, prepared and run by championship frontrunners Excelr8 Motorsport, the pressure's on. The straightforward advice from data engineer Josh Williams is to "get the rear tyres up to temperature before you go for it," and the warm up lap is spent frantically weaving trying to do just that. The 3.6-mile Silverstone GP circuit is much longer than the rest of the layouts, so after an out lap and one warm up lap, I'm confident I can push into the first bend - Copse, because touring cars still begin on the old start/finish - but, to my embarrassment, the car almost instantly swaps ends on me. Before I can say 'cock', I'm sliding backwards at about a tonne and skating into the gravel trap. Cock. Rookie error.
Thankfully, the shame subsides fairly quickly because race one of two is at 9:25am on Sunday morning. Miraculously, we're not starting dead last but instead twenty-sixth, thanks to a few weight-related quali disqualifications. So the aim of the race is firstly to, ahem, not bin it - and then try and edge forward a few places. The leaders, which include my Excelr8 teammates for the weekend, Nathan Harrison and Dan Zelos, will undoubtedly scamper off into the distance, but the midfield is just a few rows ahead as we roll onto the grid, my tyres and brakes up to temp because I made damn well sure they would be on the green flag lap. Red start lights go on, I hold the throttle so the engine's spinning at 3,500rpm but the lights are out so quickly that I'm late to lift the clutch (which you only need to use for the start) and then proceed to over slip it in my panic. I'm quickly hounded by the four cars behind and am left hanging on at the back as we charge into Maggots.
Then the inevitable happens. There's big contact up ahead, with cars flying right and left, leaving me and a few lucky escapees to collect free places as we sprint down the Hanger Straight. I'm still being cautious because I need to finish this race out of the gravel, but limping JCWs are easy to overtake and somehow, by the end of the first lap, I'm in the top 20. Given the standard of the field, I'm buzzing - and then thankful that, for the most part, my race is mostly a lonely one. It's used to learn the car (I'd not done more than a lap in the dry prior to this, remember), and build up confidence that the bespoke racing chassis under this Mini is friendlier than it seemed the day before. As the 20-minute race draws to a close, I'm ecstatic to be reeling in the pack. That the timer runs out before I can get to them and improve on nineteenth is of little bother; I've finished after all, which was number one on the to-do list.
"You did well considering the lack of experience in the dry," are the kind words from Josh after the race, "but you were far too soft on the opening laps," he says after reviewing my onboard video. Josh's right, I'm hanging back where there are gaps and leaving the door open when cars behind show their nose. He adds: "Your braking points are good and you get back on the throttle quick enough since you're left-foot braking, but you need to smooth out the application of both," while pointing to the squiggly lines of data that are displayed on the screen. Overlapping the data of Harrison, Zelos and fourth teammate, Rory Cuff, with mine shows just how scruffy my inputs are. Josh explains that "this will unsettle the car" because the Mini's are about as sensitive as touring cars get when it comes to weight transfer. They're renowned for punishing mistakes, hence the respect top JWC drivers can command - and the terrifying experience of 'holding on' to a car as lively as this for novices.
Reset for race two. Starting p19, I'm in the zone where most first lap accidents happened, but with Josh's advice in mind, scrubbed tyres beneath me and twenty minutes of dry-weather experience to call upon, I'm feeling calm. Well, that is till the red start lights go on again and my pulse skyrockets. Revs rising, the lights go out and this time the fronts bite with the sort of over rotation that sends car 131 really sprinting towards Copse. I'm pretty sure that by the apex of the corner I've still not blinked when two cars run wide and I slip through into seventeenth.
Such is the accelerative effect of a Mini Challenge JCW that I arrive at the left-right-left-right of Maggots and Becketts in sixth, but despite the pace, Josh had instructed me to stay in top gear until the second left. In the morning I was scared the car would rotate with such velocity, but with miles under my belt and the video proof it was possible thanks to the onboard vids of my teammates, I know that getting back on the throttle will ensure that the nose remains in charge. Admittedly, the speed is slightly less on the first lap as we're all bunched up; I can hang onto the cars in front and even take advantage of those who've suffered contact on the drive down the Hanger Straight. A brief upshift issue - likely me not pulling the sequential lever with enough vigour until the third attempt - can't stop the momentum and I'm somewhere in the mid-teens by Stowe. But, this is where the drivers of this Mini series illustrate just how high the standard is, as I'm then mugged of three spots before the Wellington Straight. One of the frontrunners who'd had a bad start even does me around the outside.
Just focus on being smooth and choosing the right braking points, gears and throttle points for each corner, I tell myself - and hope a decent result will come from a race of consecutive qualifying laps. Even when up to temp, a Mini JCW does not appreciate a trailing brake or rapid movements of the steering wheel if it's loaded up and, as Rory - a karting graduate only in his second year of car racing - explained earlier in the day, "time where you're not either on the throttle or the brake can send the car rotating". The high-speed approach to Abbey is therefore taken with a stab of brakes and quick-following squeeze of throttle before the apex, so the wheel can be straightened up and the car allowed to gently four-wheel drift towards the exit. It's such a rush to get it right, but I'm inconsistent to say the least so slowly I fall back through the field and am forced into a couple of big oversteer moments.
I escape major incident, although I soon find myself back fighting for twenty-first position. Still, the battle is close and very enjoyable, making the number on my pit board feel of little importance. It's a shame, then, that with just one lap remaining, a fellow racer goes for a very (very) late lunge into Brooklands, only to lose the back end (see, no trail braking and steering!) and slam into my side, breaking my car's steering arm and bending the wishbone in the process. A DNF is not the way we wanted to end the weekend, obviously, but the ferocity of the battle beforehand was still enough for me to leave with a big smile on my face. The Mini Challenge JCW winners were three seconds a lap quicker and about half a lap ahead by the point I crawled car 131 off circuit.
But these are some of the finest drivers to compete in Britain - several will undoubtedly go on to fully paid for seats in national and international championships - so something would be very wrong with the universe if mere mortals like me were able to jump in and give them a run for their money. Expect to see names from this field on the BTCC grid soon; and rest assured they'll be very, very fast indeed. As for yours truly, it's back to the slightly less frenetic (but no less awesome) world of EnduroKA tomorrow...