The Mini Challenge has been running in Britain since 2002, but the announcement that it will replace the Renault Clio Cup as the official TOCA supporting class for the BTCC is arguably its crowning moment. From 2020, the field of Mini racers, which are barely any slower than the UK's top touring car class, will do their wheel, bumper and door-banging in front of sell-out crowds and on the telly in front of a national audience - global even, if you count those who watch online.
Moreover, the series will finally edge past Renault's longstanding Clio class as the most obvious link to tin top stardom. For a driver hoping to make it big in the BTCC, WTCC or even GT racing driving in the Mini Challenge's JCW class is what Formula 2 is to F1. For that reason, these cars must be fast and difficult to drive, but also closely controlled to ensure that it is the human element, not mechanicals, that provide any advantage. All Mini Challenge JCW cars use the same F56 skeleton, and a forged and heavily retuned version of the road-going JCW's 2.0-litre turbocharged engine alongside a Quaife sequential six-speed gearbox.
But it goes much further than that. As a category to feed BTCC, Challenge JCWs also have a motorsport specification differential, uprated driveshafts and a racing clutch. The 275hp powertrain alone distances the race car from a conventional Mini; add in the lightweight shell, the three-way adjustable dampers and coilovers, not to mention the big Alcon brakes and motorsport-spec pedal box, and the comparison with the road car is almost futile. This is a serious piece of kit, make no mistake. Which even the pros say is tough to master.
You climb into the Mini's cockpit like you would any other touring car, with a step over the roll cage before you can slip into its deep bucket seat. The chair's angled more upright than a sports car's, with the steering wheel straight ahead and set with its top roughly at eye line. The long sequential 'box gear lever is a handspan to the left of the wheel and the motorsport pedals are placed close to the bulkhead so your legs are stretched and race boot heels rest on bare metal floor. It might not look comfortable, but like many racing cars, it feels pretty much perfect for the job. All that's left of the road Mini's dash is the top and the circular outline of the centre console, which has traded its infotainment system for switches to control everything from the ignition to brake bias.
Press the fuel and ignition switches and the 2.0-litre fires into life like a thoroughbred, the motorsport ECU automatically blipping the accelerator until the temperature is warm and then leaving the motor to tick over at well over 1,000rpm. Its tone is raucous and gravelly, with the rasp from the Scorpion exhaust system out back clearly audible thanks to the complete lack of soundproofing. The whole car vibrates, too, what with the engine being almost solidly bolted to the body and the gearbox using straight cut gears. Once you move its whine is almost as deafening as the four-pot and if you don't give it some throttle, the car kangaroos in protest.
Getting a front-wheel drive car with this much poke to warm its Dunlop slick tyres in equal time is like getting quadruplets to fall asleep in sync. It's an impossible task, particularly when the venue for our test is Snetterton, a circuit where long right handers ensure the left front is ready for action in three turns while the right rear has barely gained a degree after three laps. Little wonder Challenge drivers are so eager to weave on the formation lap - to the extent accidents are not uncommon before they've even reached the grid. The Mini demands respect from the very start.
Slicks warmed, however, and the merits of untreaded tyres on a fairly small platform are immediate. Out of Snetterton's tightest turns, you can squeeze the throttle progressively and wait for bite to maximise before flooring it and tugging the sequential 'box lever for third, or else be more aggressive and click up a cog earlier with a heavier right foot to ride the motor's vast reserves of torque. Do this and the Mini surges forward with supercar pace but considerably more visceral drama as the diff juggles the power and sends the aftershock up through the steering column and into your hands as violent kickbacks. It's nothing you'll ever experience in a road car - although no doubt the smoother option is better for laptime.
Not wanting to be left out, the Mini's back end is lively, to say the least. These JCW race cars are notoriously unforgiving and when the nose is not scurrying the car forward it's the rear demanding attention. Brake hard in a straight line and such is the unassisted system's bite that the tail can edge out as if the bias were more rearwards than it is. Trail braking into a bend is downright terrifying the first time you try it. It instantly becomes clear that the way to get a Challenge car hustled around a corner quickly is to take advantage of the playfulness, before calling in the diff to keep the axles the correct way around. It's a technique familiar to road-going hot hatches, but the process is far more knife edged and obviously occurs at much, much higher speeds thanks to the amount of mechanical grip on offer. It makes things rather scary, particularly through Snetterton's ultra-fast first turn and technical final few bends, where you're continuously juggling wheel and throttle inputs.
The best drivers are able to smooth out the JCW's hyperactivity, seamlessly transitioning it from neat corner entry rotation to clean and rapid drive away from an apex. To do that amongst a field of two-dozen other cars each as loose as the next must be an intense challenge over a race distance. Back on the straight the Mini feels tremendously potent; the ratios of our car are set so close together that banging through them in quick succession has you hammering into the limiter in sixth a couple of seconds before the first turn. Say what you will about the humble and ubiquitous four-pot, but in race-tuned guise it pumps adrenaline as well as any multi-cylinder V as it phase-shifts from low-rev roughness to a proper intake-led tone past 6,500rpm.
Little wonder the driver of this car, Zuto Finance, Startline and Direnza Performance-backed Ryan Dignan, has been tempted back to the championship after a year of driving supercars on the road. Modern racing cars are on another planet - and a Mini Challenge JCW is an ideal machine to demonstrate one's talents on the asphalt. Which is either handy or worrying for yours truly, because this was just a warm-up for the Silverstone round next month. Grid of maniacs with something to prove, here I come.
SPECIFICATION - MINI CHALLENGE JCW
Engine: 1,998cc, four-cyl petrol turbocharged
Transmission: 6-speed sequential dogbox, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 275
Torque (lb ft): N/A
Top speed: Gearing dependant
Weight: 1,160kg (including driver)
Price: £52,950 (ready to race)
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