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Project Maxed-Out MINI Part 3: Making it work, making it fast

Dan Barnes
May 5, 2003 SHARE

It has been frustrating driving around in what is probably the most aggressive-looking MINI in Southern California and having to answer questions about its performance with, "Well, uh, I wish I could drive it and find out." I've been gimping it around like it just got off crutches. Four rounds of fender trimming, pulling off the plastic rear flares and trimming them, the plastic inner fender and even the metal of the body itself as far as I dared wasn't enough. Smaller wheels and tires were needed.

The stock size was 205/45R17, but dropping to 40-series rubber opened many choices. I'd been impressed with BFGoodrich's g-Force T/A KD, but hadn't been able to try them on a project car. The fact that Sport Compact Car's MINI Cooper S is also on 205-section KDs clinched it. There would be no end to the smack talking. The shorter tires have less sidewall height, so major impacts aren't cushioned as well. They also shorten gearing 3.3%, the equivalent of adding 5 to 6 hp. They have a ton of grip and don't make noise when they slip.

I've been eager to try Velox Performance's PG-5S, a 12.5-lb, 7x17-in. forged, five-spoke wheel. With an anthracite-painted center section, its design is both simple and elegant, and the diamond-cut rim provides a bit of sparkle without the big-heavy-chrome look. The PG-5S is manufactured in ISO-registered facilities, certified to meet Japan's rigorous legal requirements (analogous to TUeV), and tested for a 620kg load rating. The wheel-tire combination weighs just 31.6 lb, reducing unsprung and rotating mass versus stock by 8.4 lb per corner. Mounting and balancing, as usual, was done by Wheel Warehouse.

The PG-5S comes just shy of clearing the Brembo calipers. There are only a few 7x17-in. wheels that will clear these brakes, and we can't use them on every project, so I called H&R Springs and asked for a set of its TUeV-certified, 5mm wheel spacers. Surprisingly, steering feel isn't noticeably deteriorated by a total offset change of 11mm. I've seen a 7- to 8mm error make a mess of a rear-drive car. Rear ride height was adjusted lower, but I maintained the same front ride height to ensure plenty of suspension travel.

An adjustable rear anti-roll bar from Mini Madness was installed. I couldn't find a way to do it without dropping the rear subframe. I initially set the bar on the soft setting, which geometric measurements indicate is more than twice as stiff as stock. After getting to the track and driving the car in circles a bit, I adjusted it to full stiff. It worked. Our MINI is a handling star, just like the original. It pulled 0.98g laterally and went 73.6 mph in the slalom. It was no slouch at the dragstrip, posting a 14.9-sec., 93.8-mph pass, and the Brembos reduced 60-to-0-mph stopping distance 8 ft, to just 115.

I used a few additional tricks to achieve these results. First, I started with a ringer. This car was a preproduction test mule, and made about as much power stock as production cars make after they've been chipped. As far as I know, the difference is all in software.

For the rest, I added lightness, coming out at 2,490 lb with no driver. Adding up the weights of everything removed and everything installed gives roughly 145 lb of lightness, but that figure doesn't include items such as the rear seats, side panels and headliner that I plan to put back later. The true starting place was well north of 2,650 lb. Perhaps MINI fibs a little on its curb weight figures, listed at 2,508 without driver; perhaps our car had a few more options. I was ruthless with weight. The brakes and suspension are lighter than the stock parts, in spite of being fortified. That was just the beginning.

The 56-lb factory glass sunroof was removed, and replaced with 3/16-in. thick polycarbonate sheet (Lexan(R) is one tradename). The perimeter was blacked out and white nylon screws (lighter than metal) hold it to aluminum brackets mounted to the factory sunroof attachments. It looks way cool, but 2 days into the work, I thought myself a fool. Similarly, 39 lb of battery and battery box were removed. A thin sheet was stitched in to cover the hole, and a 15.4-lb Odyssey PC680 dry cell battery was mounted in the right hand side of the trunk area. Removing the box cleared the way for a single-silencer, straight-through exhaust system that would have saved even more weight. I ran out of time to build one myself before the SEMA Show and installed Supersprint's system, which is still significantly lighter than stock. It is a non-homologated, competition system and is slightly louder than I'd like with the rear portion of the interior missing, but its snarl matches the car's handling. Supersprint's tests show the system makes low-single-digit improvements in both horsepower and torque.

Replacing the 47-lb stock seats and seatbelts with Cobra Sportline GT seats and Schroth Profi III harnesses was at once the best and worst modification. Cobra originally designed the Sportline seat for Andy Rouse, four-time BTCC champion. Cobra seats use closed-cell foam padding, which will never break down due to absorbing dust and other contaminants. I chose the Sportline GT model, which is a few inches wider to accommodate Americans' typically larger frames. This is a stellar idea, as even an average-conditioned 6-ft 4-in. person is wider everywhere than a 5-ft 6-in. Brit. This is the first competition seat that has ever been comfortable for me. Installing the seats became something of a fabrication project, even starting with commercially available brackets and sliders. The latter made the 15-lb Sportline GT seats weigh 30 lb by the time they were in the car.

I used competition harnesses because the shell seats aren't compatible with the stock belts--and because I wanted the MINI to look like a competition car. Buckling in is a hassle, but the support and driver location are unbeatable. These belts aren't DOT-certified. Schroth has other belts that are, as well as Quick-Fit harness belts designed to be used with stock seats and removed in seconds when not required.

I've gotten used to the stock MINI steering wheel only after many months. I tried to replace it with a MOMO wheel, but MOMO couldn't supply an adapter that worked for the MINI. The MOMO Aluminum Sport shift knob is the very best thing I did to the car, the only modification without compromise, a 100% improvement in every way on the stock shift knob. Call me anal, but the parts my hands touch matter.

A rally car doesn't merely have a cage in it; it is a cage. I didn't have the resources to engineer a WRC car in between contributing to issues of european car, so I made do with a bolt-in cage from Mini Mania. Manufactured by Autopower, the cage was designed for a solid-roofed car and wouldn't have cleared the factory sunroof and headliner. The rear seat and side panels were removed to install the cage. The side panels could have been trimmed and refit, but it was faster to leave them out.

The cage is not streetable; even when padded, it would be much better to have a helmet if the MINI was hit from the side. It eventually developed a brain-melting squeak that I couldn't chase out by tightening bolts. The bolt-in cage didn't add the rigidity or have the perfect fit of a custom cage, added more weight than a good welded cage and still took serious time to install. Some sanctioning bodies require the cage to be welded to the body; one racer we know had his bolt-in cage fully welded to meet tech.

A bolt-in cage is great for someone who needs to do all the work to prepare his car in his own garage, by himself, and doesn't have access to a welder or tube bending equipment. It's also the only solution for someone who needs a cage but wants to remove it down the line, as I did. Given that I'm not racing this car, if I had known what would be involved, I'd have just duct-taped the sleeves in place and put the padding over them for the show, saving days of work. After this experience, I decided that a cage is one line separating a street car from a competition car. I will not blur it again.

The cage was replaced with a harness guide bar from I/O Port Racing Supplies, allowing the harnesses to be installed safely. It is a beautiful, well-made product. It installs easily at the original seat belt mounting points. Four different, adjustable sizes are available to fit nearly any car; the GB3 was perfect for the MINI. Whereas a rollbar or cage protects occupants from a crushed roof in a rollover, the guide bar does not. For this reason, a rollbar is recommended for high-speed events. If a rollbar is just too much for you as it was for me, the guide bar may be the right choice for you, too. However, the guide bar is not strong enough to withstand the forces in a high-speed crash if you mount the harnesses directly to it. So, for events faster than an autocross, the harnesses must be mounted to the rear stock lap belt mounting locations and looped over the guide bar.

Going from this MINI to a stock Cooper S is eye-opening. The stock seats are like toadstools; neither super-comfortable nor super-supportive. The stock car feels heavy and slow, and the handling is comparatively sluggish. This MINI is so rewarding to drive hard that I drive it hard all the time. I haven't been pulled over yet, but cuteness (the car's, not mine) will be my only hope if I am.

On the other hand, it sucks as long-distance cruiser, where the stock MINI shines. To start with, you can hear more of the music you're listening to in the stock car. This MINI is loud. Fluttering of the plastic sunroof turns out not to be a problem, and the tinted polycarbonate reduces light transmission as well as absorbing UV.

The seats are extremely comfortable and supportive, even on long trips. Every motion of the car body is felt immediately, which can be tiring on rough freeways but is a tremendous benefit when driving seriously. I would prefer 15- or 16-in. wheels to provide a little more sidewall and smooth out the ride if our MINI had smaller brakes. AP Racing has a very interesting 12-in. kit that may work with some 16-in. wheels.

Pablo Mazlumian is used to driving Project M3. That car is stealth compared to this, and he remarked how much attention the MINI received just driving around town. When returning to the MINI in a lot, it's normal for there to be a few guys hanging around checking it out, waiting for you to tell them how cool it is. I never liked that with a Porsche 911 Turbo or M3, but I'm getting used to it with the MINI I built.

MINI Madness
(866) 410-5809
www.mini-madness.com
Rear anti-rollbar

BFGoodrich Tires
(877) 788-8899
www.bfgoodrichtires.com
g-Force T/A KD 205/40-17 tires

H&R Special Springs
(888) 827-8881
www.hrsprings.com
5mm wheel spacers and long lug bolts

Velox Performance
(888) 899-9988
www.veloxperformance.com
PG-5s 7x17-in. wheels

Wheel Warehouse
(714) 772-1281
www.wheelwarehouse.com
Mounting and balancing

BMP Design/PROMINI
(800) 648-7278
www.bmpd.com
Supersprint exhaust system

Odyssey Dry Cell Batteries
(660) 429-2165
www.odysseyfactory.com
PC680 Lightweight battery

MDI/ SCHROTH
(888) 536-8550
www.schroth.com
Schroth ProfiIII asm harnesses

Mini Mania
800-946-2642
new.minimania.com
Bolt-in rollcage

MOMO Automotive Accessories Inc.
(949) 380-7556
www.momo.it
Aluminum Sport shift knob

Sube Sports
(714) 847-1501
www.subesports.com
Cobra Sportline seats

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By Dan Barnes
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