I could understand why she liked to go topless during a motorsports event. She did have much to show off under the top. And all the attention she got from drooling guys was very ego-satisfying indeed. (No, I’m not talking about THAT girl you know)
Then, Charlene Khoo said, "You should shut it. It’s creating drag." When the fastest lady in GRA autocross 2009 speaks, I gotta listen.
I wanted to find out how well the Mini Cooper Cabriolet could do in GRA Autocross. Drag maybe a significant hindrance, as the Cooper only has 120hp, and it’s not the most aerodynamic car out there. So I closed the top and that probably contributed the 0.5s improvement in timing.
I’ve been with the Mini for a little over 3 months. It was love at first sight. I liked the look — interior’s great. I heard handling’s great. That was enough to spark the beginning of the relationship, which was also the beginning of some minor disgruntlement —
Mini is fat.
Why in the world does a small car like Mini need to weight 1.28 ton? I even suspect that the doors weight 100kg each. Because it tends to swing back and slap my rear end, and I feel like being rammed by a bull. I suspect that the weight was the major drawback in the race, even though the Mini does have similar power-to-weight ratio as the Suzuki Swift driven by William Lim, a.k.a. "Ban-sama-dia" (I don’t know, people shouted that when he received his trophy for the n-th time, in the AA class. I assumed that’s his nickname.)
Later, I resolved the rear-end slapping problem by timing it better. Open the door, swing it, hop in the car, and the door slams itself shut — voila, I have an automatic door now. Then there was some rattling, but that got resolved easily too — just drop the top and play the audio louder.
The car handles fine in day to day drive. But how does it handle in autocross, I wonder? Kevin Kung, a BMW instructor, told me it handled like a dream. He said I could just leave it in auto mode and the computer would figure it all out. I just need to work the steering. On my way to the race, I left the car in automatic sports mode for the first time. The car was surprisingly responsive. It maintained above 3500rpm all by itself. I thought it was going to work out. But that’s wishful thinking.
Pushing a newly acquainted car to the limit in autocross is not much different from bringing your new girlfriend to Fear Factor as a partner. Both of you may get along well day-in and day-out. But when the going gets tough, you suddenly realize she’s willing to shove your head into a tank of worms with zero hesitation.
Because I overlooked a basic fact. You see, autocross is very different from daily driving, in which you cruise most of the time and make occasional turns. In an autocross course, there are many more turns. You might make as many as 20 turns in a single minute. You’re constantly accelerating, braking and turning. The automatic transmission is tuned to daily driving. It cannot cope with the frequent gear change required in autocross. As I slowed down for a corner, the car didn’t downshift in time. When it downshifted, it did so at the moment when I was suppose to be accelerating out of a corner.
Furthermore, the car is designed to pull off in second gear instead of first. But most of the time, I needed to exit a corner as quickly as possible in first gear. Even when I eventually decided to run the car in manual mode, the Mini still shifted to second gear stealthily. It’s like Mini and I were constantly having arguments about which gear to use.
Then the fight became physical wrestling. Paddle shift is supposed to make gear shifting more efficient because the hands never need to leave the steering wheels. I am accustomed to them in daily driving. But in the autocross, the steering wheel was turning like cyclone. My hands were twitching in awkward positions trying to reach for the paddles, but could hardly touch them. I had to use the stick shift then, but I forgot whether I should push or pull to downshift. Again, that’s time wasted.
While we couldn’t agree on gears, the Mini provided good feedbacks. I could sense what the Mini was doing quite clearly throughout the race. One trick the Mini was very willing to do was the handbrake turn. I had a lot of fun dancing around cones. Even though we had our differences, I thought the argument was constructive . Every time after a race, I feel like knowing the car much better. And the bond is strengthened.
Result wise, we made 7th out of 13 cars in Class OB (1600cc cars) and 6th out of 10 cars in Class AA (Automatic cars). Overall, it’s number 35 out of 68 cars — faster than some FWD Turbo and 4WD Turbo. I think despite all the arguments and disadvantages, the results said something about the car.
But I probably won’t race again in the Mini, because my RWD car is still more fun and competitive. Unless there are other members from the Mini Club Malaysia want to join the race as a group. Then, I might do it again in the Mini. The sight of colorful Minis lining up for the face will be quite spectacular, but I suspect it won’t happen any time soon.
Credits: photos taken by Charlene Khoo, Wingz Hansem, Michael Tan, Alex Yeo, Wingz Hansem and Wingz Hansem again, and Alex Yeo,in the order of appearance. More photos are available under my Facebook profile.