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The NOT NORMAL MINI JCW track event

“Sign up now for your chance to become part of a history – one that’s been in the making for over half a century now”.

Sounds pretty enticing doesn’t it? What car fan can resist the temptation of being part of automotive history? OK perhaps that’s a bit lofty of a statement created by the advertising agency and the marketing department. But what car fan can resist a free track day where a bunch of go-carts agile “sooped up” John Cooper Works MINIs lie at the ready?

I was recently invited by MINI Canada to participate in their John Cooper Works “Drive it like John” track days event. Here I would get a chance to experience the fun side of the performance-orientated John Cooper Works MINIs. All 7 of them!

MINI hired the guys at NVRVR to document the day for them. Check out their video!

In more detail

Track Days with MINI John Cooper Works is an exclusive, invitation-only event where approximately 50 Mini fans/customers were invited to a private track event to test the performance and handling of all seven agile MINI John Cooper Works models. The invitation says it in a much more fun way, “there’s a cherry on this chocolate-covered sundae: you’ll get to drive these high-performance beasts around a real racetrack, just like the pros. How delish is that”.

I think you get the point of what the invite was trying to say! Vancouver was the first stop in MINI Canada’s tour, which then was to move onto Montreal and finish off in Toronto.

For those of you who don’t know who John Cooper is, a little history lesson can be found here. John Cooper Works (aka JCW) has been whipping out tuned MINIs since the 1960 and has been an in-house division of the MINI brand since 2008.

D-Day

The Vancouver event was hosted at Mission Raceway. Pretty much the only road course in the Lower Mainland.

Upon pulling into the gates to the Raceway, a non-descript “Drive it like John” themed sandwich board presented itself. Like a horse with a carrot being dangled in front of its eyes, I pressed on.

JCW Track Day 1

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In the parking lot were 16 JCW MINIs around. MINI Canada went all out and wasn’t playing about! As I was later to learn, the plan was for about 25 of us to share the cars (in two separate groups), so everyone would get the chance to drive all 7 JCW models.

JCW Track Day 3

After the typical registration and disclaimers were signed off, I ventured further into the tent. A light breakfast was being served, and the tent was decorated with some fun MINI items. On each table was also a very nice (and expensive looking) John Cooper Works souvenir book/brochure along with a checkered flag Mini branded pen.

JCW Track Day 5

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MINI History, Heritage, and everything else

We kicked off at 9am with a great presentation from Debra Tovell, MINI Canada’s product planner. She talked about the heritage of the MINI brand, the latest product lineup, and specifically who John Cooper was. After years of seeing JCW MINIs on Top Gear and other UK TV shows, I was really happy to see MINI Canada’s commitment to bringing more powerful engines to suit the nimble handling of their vehicles.

Debra explained that all the JCW MINI vehicles that we were to be driving would be sharing the same 1.6L 4 cylinder turbocharged engine with 208hp @ 6000 rpms. This engine is tuned for a wonderfully flat torque “curve” of 192 ft-lbs of torque at 1900-5000 rpms. What this translates into in the real world, is a consistent pull in everyday traffic situations. In essence, no dead spots in the power band when you need it (e.g. when squirting around the person that signals for a left hand turn at the last minute on Hastings St).

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How not to crash on the course: Safety, communication, and driving techniques…

Next, the professional drivers took the stage. One of the benefits of MINI being owned by the BMW Group is that they had access to the BMW Performance Driving school instructors (who incidentally taught the BMW M Performance Driving school the day before on the same track). We were given a tutorial on proper hand, shoulder, and seating positions.

In a nutshell, with your hands at the 9 and 3 o’clock positions, you have a full 180 degrees of rotation of the steering wheel without your hands having to leave those spots. Compare this to only 120 degrees of rotation if your hands are at the 10 and 2 o’clock positions. That 60 degrees of extra steering lock can make the difference between avoiding an obstacle on the road and hitting it! Most people also sit too far away from the steering wheel and pedals, resulting in lack of control and increased the odds of getting into an accident.

After a rigorous “crash” course on weight transfer, braking points, entry, apex and exit, we headed out like a pack of eager sled dogs to get some seat time!

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Our morning “exercise” consisted of getting familiar with the Mission Raceway track and the cars. We were all paired up with other drivers, and would rotate throughout the day to allow for equal seat time.  Since most drivers had never been on a track before, a lot of the emphasis was placed on safety and communication via in car radios.

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I was impressed by the level of attention that was put into the program, but wasn’t surprised given the professionalism of the staff thus far and having been to other BMW Group driving events.

And now the fun begins

The driving activities of the day ultimately consisted of the following.

  1. Follow-the-leader in a MINI JCW Countryman ALL4 around a short section of Mission Raceway in an track orientation exercise
  2. One-on-one coaching over the walkie talkies while we drove the short inner course of Mission Raceway ourselves
  3. Slalom course to evaluate the tossable fun nature and go-kart like steering that MINIs are renowned for
  4. Follow-the-leader in a MINI JCW Countryman ALL4 around the full Mission Raceway track for 14 full laps of the track (as the driver then as the passenger)
  5. HOT laps in the MINI JCW Countryman ALL4 with the pro drivers at the helm

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Without a doubt, exercise 4 was the pinnacle of my day. Essentially, we were lined up in a single file behind an instructor piloting the Countryman. After one full lap around Mission Raceway, the car that was immediately behind the Countryman would pull off to the left and slow down with its hazard lights on. The next car behind was then to move forward in the line to fill the gap so that it was now directly behind the Countryman. The car that had pulled off to the left and slowed down would then rejoin the back of the pack.

If this sounds a bit complicated, all it meant was that it was an efficient and effective way to ensure that everyone got to drive a 7 full laps while enjoying the view behind 7 different MINI JCW models.

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As it turns out, because my co-driver was not fond of twisty roads and ended up being motion sick after 3 laps (sorry Marie!) I got the opportunity to do 14 full laps of Mission Raceway in the JCW Clubman.

We ended off the day with hot laps in the Countrymans with the pro drivers. 3 of us packed into each vehicle, and we truly got to see the vehicle “dance” at the limit in the skilled hands of the instructors. Needless to say, it reinforced how most drivers’ limits are far below what any of these vehicles are truly capable of.

JCW Track Day 14


My general thoughts about the 3 vehicles I spent the most time in…

MINI JCW Clubman: This was favourite vehicle, much to my surprise, and happily the one that I had the opportunity to drive the most extensively on the track. I say “much to my surprise” because I fully expected the MINI JCW Hatch to be the best handling vehicle on a tight road course like Mission Raceway.

However, the Clubman’s extra 80mm length in its wheelbase versus the hatch, paid huge dividends on the Raceway. The Clubman simply felt more stable and comfortable on the rougher sections of track. And of course in the real world, this extra 80mm translates in to more usable cargo room as well.

Despite the slightly heavier curb weight  of the Clubman, the wonderful tossable go-kart nature was not in the least bit lost. It felt just as agile as its brethren. From a visibility standpoint, whether or not the central pillar caused by the two cargo barn doors will get in the way of your view out back remains to be seen. Of course, it wasn’t an issue on the race track, and I love that the barn doors had their own novel wiper blade on each side.

And as a special note, I have to say that the engine and exhaust noises this puppy was making was bloody thrilling! MINI absolutely nailed the exhaust note in this car. I generally don’t like FWD cars or 4 cylinder engines noises, but this vehicle changed my mind. And that says a lot about how impressed I was with it.

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MINI JCW Countryman ALL4: Having driven the Cooper S version of the Countryman before, this was the most familiar vehicle to me coming into this event. My “problem” being a motorhead, is that more power is never a bad thing, and I always wanted more than what the Cooper S Countryman had to offer in this department. The JCW version fixed the biggest reservation that I had. More power! Plus it just looks badass in the Black and Chill Red colour scheme with the big black 19″ wheels.

Handling was neutral in the corners, with far less understeer than expected from an SUV-type vehicle with all-wheel drive. Traction was never an issue as the ALL4 all-wheel-drive system sorted out the power where it was needed. The system worked invisibly and imperceptibly, just what you would expect from a well engineered vehicle.  All around, this is an SUV that is fully worthy of the MINI brand. And thank you MINI for finally offering a 5 seater version of Countryman with the deletion of the centre rail option.

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MINI JCW Paceman ALL4: I wasn’t sure what to think of the Paceman coming into this event. While I am generally a fan of the jacked up two door SUV look (e.g. I love the Range Rover Evoque Coupe), I wasn’t sure how this was going to translate to the MINI brand. With purists and critics initially crying sacrilege upon the Countryman debut, I wondered how the Paceman would look In the flesh.

Overall I think it’s a success having seen and driven the vehicle. While I’m not a big fan of the upturned frowny grill, it does look mean in the JCW black or white and red colour scheme. With the Paceman, you get the ALL4 all-wheel-drive security from the Countryman, combined with more of the handling dynamics of the Clubman. The Paceman is just that little bit quicker than its Countryman relative, a little lighter, a little more hunkered down.

For me personally though, if I was going to go with a higher seating position, I would probably go all in and get the Countryman for the extra practicality of the two rear doors. Of course this is just based upon just the couple of hours I spent with the vehicle, so your mileage may vary!

I would fully welcome the further opportunity to test and report on all 3 of these vehicles in a more extensive fashion in everyday life <hint hint, wink wink @ MINI Canada>

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My Parting thoughts…

Thank you MINI Canada for giving me the opportunity to participate in this event. Huge kudos to the events team and the pro drivers! Not only was it well organized from start to end, but I appreciated that it was FAR more extensive of a program than simply driving around cones in a mall parking lot for a 30 second lap. I always wonder if you can even call that a lap?

This JCW Track Day event truly allowed myself, along with my fellow “classmates”, the opportunity to sample the full JCW MINI lineup in its entirety, and what sets it apart from its more common variants. From the slalom course, to the high speed sweepers of Mission Raceway, this day was far superior than any free driving event that I’ve been to in the Lower Mainland.

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I want to also make a point to mention that one of my non-driving highlights of the event was that we got to hear from Debra, the MINI product planner. Her friendly approachable nature and product knowledge was bar none. The pre-driving product presentation was one of the best I’ve seen; engaging without too much of a “rah rah, we’re the best” marketing play. Since it is rare that an automaker sends its busy product planner to a public event, I noticed and appreciated it.

So, if any of you are in the market for a new premium sporty car or compact SUV, be sure to head down to your MINI dealer to “Drive it like John” for yourself! With the full lineup of vehicles that they have today, John Cooper Works or otherwise, you owe it to yourself to consider the MINI lineup in your vehicle shopping adventures.

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Andrew Ling
Andrew is a proud car and tech geek who has worked in Surrey for over the last 10 years. He comes from a communications/marketing background and has worked for automotive-related companies such as Edmunds.com, BenzWorld.org since 1999. From track driving, to rally driving to autocross, he has done it all! When he’s not reading about the latest automotive news, he can be found outdoors snapping pictures at various events around town.
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