Watching Nick Swift's heroic David and Goliath battle, duking it out with the Rovers, Capris and Camaros, had been a highlight of the event, and ignited something of a latent lust for hot Minis. Furthermore, after a banging my head against a recalcitrant dual-clutch gearbox for 12 months, the prospect of needlessly blipping up and down a slick manual had my fingers and toes tingling.
Yes, unbelievably, all the launch cars were specced with the Steptronic six-speed auto box. Not a manual in sight. Needless to say, my heart sank and my left leg went back to sleep.
When I finally composed myself enough to scroll further down the page, I was dealt another blow. It was rolling on active dampers and 18-inch wheels shod with run-flat tyres. In other words, about as far removed from my ideal spec as is possible. In fact, little restraint was shown when configuring YC15 OFR. Bulging with toys, the price has been pushed up to PH forum melting £31,945 and into the sights of cars like the Golf R and BMW M135i. To pick two entirely random examples...
hopeful first drive, and repeating the figures of 231hp and 1,200kg, over and over in my head. I also prayed that it would still display the trademark wheel-at-each-corner agility and pants-on-the-floor centre of gravity. And above all, I hoped for a miracle from the gearbox.
Then it arrived; all perforated jaw, jutting chin and knee-high rims. Visually challenging shall we say. Age and regulations, it would be accurate to say, have done the iconic Mini shape no favours. No longer blessed with that square footprint and perfect proportions, the prominent chin, comically large lights and bloated body are sadly not a patch on its predecessors.
That said, there's plenty of tinsel to draw your eye away from the basic silhouette, and nary a panel is devoid of either chrome trim or a John Cooper Works badge. Inside is even better, or considerably worse, depending on your appreciation of shiny things. I've set myself a challenge to find a surface that hasn't been covered in leather, chequer board, chrome steel, brushed aluMinium, piano black, Dinamica suede or some kind of mood lighting, and so far I'm not doing too well. I guess it must appeal to the average Mini buyer, but to me, coupled with the array of toggle switches, it's all a bit Studio 54 meets B52 bomber.
It's an absolute cracker, bursting with character from the moment you flick the engine start toggle switch. That 2.0-litre, twin-scroll turbo feels immensely strong from way down in the rev range, and yet still makes a trip to the 6,000rpm limiter a worthwhile endeavour. Better still, it celebrates the forced induction with whooshes under load, whumps with every upshift, and pops, bangs and wastegate flutter off throttle. I firmly believe hot hatches should make you feel a bit childish, and, so far, the Mini has definitely excelled in this department.
And what of the auto 'box? Well, I'd still prefer a manual, but take over control of the six-speed Steptronic, via the steering wheel mounted paddles, and ratios are delivered surprisingly promptly. For sheer response, it's in a different league to the Clio's supposedly superior dual-clutch system, and the paddle movement is small, yet snappy, leaving no ambiguity as to whether you've shifted or not.
Against all the odds, the JCW and I have got off to a good start. Looks aren't everything and character still counts for something, it seems (it's what I keep telling the missus). But, I still have some question marks. The grip from the run-flat Pirelli P7 Cinturatos hasn't inspired so far, particularly in the wet, and the steering is demonstrating MI5 levels of secrecy about what's happening beneath the front wheels. With a trip up to Scotland on the cards, I'll have much more opportunity to explore the capabilities of the hottest Mini yet. I'm looking forward to it, and judging by the pulsing red lights around the enormous circular central screen, so is the Mini.
Car: Mini John Cooper Works
Run by: Danny Milner
On fleet since: May 2015
List price new: £31,945 (Basic list of £24,445 plus £750 for Rebel Green paint, £1,400 for Media Pack XL, £2,470 for Chili Pack, £240 for variable damper control, £140 for run-flat tyres, £220 for sun protection glass, £215 for seat heating, £210 for Mini Yours fibre alloy interior, £590 for Park Distance Control, £150 for LED headlights, £590 for Harman Kardon hi-fi, £140 for intelligent emergency calling, £450 for head-up display)