02/08/2011 Driving the Ennstal Classic in a Mini Cooper S: a Styrian road movie
Covering nearly 900km of Styrian roads, packed with numerous special stages plus fog, rain, sunshine and lots of applause – welcome to the 19th Ennstal Classic. Read our rally report from the cockpit of a 1963 Austin Mini Cooper S.
When the press spokesman from MINI asked me in January whether I’d like to help him shoot the road movie ‘Ennstal Classic 2011’, I accepted on the spot. However, the star was to be a competition Mini Cooper S, dating from 1963. The car from the BMW Classic collection delivers 90HP from a 1.1-litre engine: that might not sound like much, but with a gross weight of only 635kg, you don’t need a calculator to figure out it will be fast. Hmm, but can those 10-inch wheels, apparently lifted from a skateboard, really transfer that power to the road? And then there are the seats, in a fabric which reminds me of Aunt Mary in Worcestershire...
Another special treat is the lighting. The five beams at the bow and the one at the stern resemble the tactical weapons aboard a Klingon star ship straight from Star Trek. But these photon torpedoes are excellently suited to irritating other drivers. Tailgate the car in front, with headlamps on full beam, and three minutes later a flashing right indicator tells you: “Okay guys, come on, pass us, you action heroes.” Unfair, but effective. All round the dashboard are toggles and switches more plentiful than a James Bond special, with each lamp operated individually, and spray nozzles, and rear and front window heating each with its own switch.
First impressions of this right-hand-drive machine: the steering wheel has the upright position of London’s double-deckers, and below 3000rpm nothing goes, thanks to the special camshaft. I hope we don’t have to do a hill-start. But once the little car has picked up speed you really whizz along, and when braking into a corner you can appreciate how light this car really is. Even if you are left behind during an uphill stretch, you can re-pass the other cars when braking for the next corner.
From 3000rpm, there’s a definite increase in acoustic enjoyment. From the little orchestra pit down by the front axle comes the perfect soundtrack to this film. The concert includes all the mechanical sounds that engineering is capable of producing: the two soloists, transmission and engine, offer virtuoso performances, supported by an ensemble of chassis and running noises.
The Finnish professor of rallying, Rauno Aaltonen, has been a part of the Ennstal Classic for years. Ever since winning the Monte Carlo Rally in 1967, he has been idolised by the international Mini community – and he kindly shared tips during the Ennstal. “Always drive the car with verve, then it’s unbeatable.” Better yet: “If you win, it is always the driver, if you lose, the navigator.”
The rally began on Thursday, with a 381km run. The first stage led over the fog-bound Sölk Pass to the newly modified Red Bull Ring. Here, we drove several laps in a regularity ‘race’. It is all too easy, we found, thanks to the heady mix of centrifugal forces and vibration, to miss the mark by a clear minute: “1 min 45 sec left, 1 min 30 sec left, oops, damn, we’ve only got 20 seconds left! Floor it!”
Then, right before reaching the day’s destination in Gröbming, we encountered the next stunt of the day served up by the screenplay. Because one of the more powerful participants had stalled at the steepest part of the Sölk Pass, so we had to stop as well. A hill-start on what felt like a 17 per cent incline is simply impossible for a competition Mini. Someone has to get out and push, while the other tries to keep the engine running. After 500 metres uphill, in 7 degrees Celsius weather with fog and drizzle, your circulation begins to feel like the Mini’s clutch. Both are in danger of imminent collapse. And then, like in a horror movie, two beams suddenly appear in the foggy haze. A local family asks: “Need help, lads?” After rummaging in the prop room of the Mini, we disconnect the safety belt and use it as a towrope. We love action movies!
Friday is the day of the Ennstal Marathon. Starting time is 7am, with a 512km course and hardly any rest; a road movie in true ‘director’s cut’ style. We pass through the Austrian states of Salzburg, Carinthia and Styria, tackling 19 special stages on the way. By evening, the number of roadside spectators had increased significantly – a drive-in, and free of charge. We are cheered frantically, with an amazing amount of sympathy directed at the Mini. Whether young or old, people erupt in spontaneous applause.
The last stretch, about 80km from the finish line in Schladming, is the setting for the 19th special stage: 50km/h average speed along 8km, going uphill. Suddenly I snap at my driver: “Go faster!” He: “Thanks for the brilliant tip. I’m going full throttle. That’s all the power we have.” Suddenly, out of the blue, there’s smoke and ominous vibrations. Our red-skinned warrior is felled by a heart attack. The head of the BMW service crew comes rushing, only to diagnose a terminal bearing failure. In the famed words of the surgeon in Winnetou III, an Indian epic much loved by Germans: “I can’t extract the bullet, it’s too close to the heart.”
Thus we are attached to the tow bar and limp home, 80cm behind the service vehicle. The bad news: we’ve forfeited the rally score. The good news: we probably have the lowest carbon footprint of any competitor. This may not have been academy award material, but let’s be honest: who wants a trophy collecting dust on a shelf anyway?