Inside the WRC Team MINI Portugal

A rally weekend inside a top-level team in the World Rally Championship (WRC) is an experience few will experience and few will be able to thoroughly enjoy. It is an adrenalin-fuelled weekend, rushing from one time deadline to the next, tackling one challenge at a time to the emotional highs and lows that make this sport the best in the world.

The WRC Team MINI Portugal gave us just this insight into the non-stop action weekend that was the WRC Brother Rally New Zealand. Richard “Tomo” Thompson is Chief Engineer for the team and treated Handbrakes & Hairpins to the ins and out as the team took on this unique event.

“I come from a village south of Dalby forest in the north of England, which the then named Rally GB went through and I remember as a very young boy seeing cars pass our house and being serviced in the village, I thought it looked great and wanted to be a part of the sport as soon as I could,” says Tomo. “Soon a MINI (of course, what else?) come up for sale that needed some work, so I snapped it up. I spent hours with the A-series engine found in the car in those days, fitting bigger valves, a rally camshaft, better pistons. I fitted to it a close ratio gearbox and a limited slip differential that made it really tricky to drive, but had great traction! We went all over the country competing, the only limiting factor being the ability to pay for the fuel, tyres and entry fee… I did manage to win a local rally, but knew I wasn’t going to trouble Ari Vatanen at any time in the near future!

“While I might not have had my eye on a world title in the car, I certainly did out of the car and quickly dedicated myself to rallying in any shape or form,” the Englishman continued. “Now, as a Chief Engineer, my job for New Zealand started straight after Greece. I have to ensure we have the correct build specification for the cars and also the hardware to allow the drivers to go as fast as possible – the correct transmission settings, springs, dampers and anti-roll bars need to be specified as well as set correctly on both cars. We have a total of five sets of dampers for the two MINIs, this is for the whole of the event for the rally – a fixed maximum applied by the FIA – and spares need to be set to cover any expected changes in conditions. The event this year is run in their winter, but can be quite dry as well as very wet obviously!

As the team prepared for the event, Prodrive’s WRC Team also announced Dani Sordo would be competing in this event in his Prodrive-backed MINI Countryman John Cooper Works WRC machine, giving the marque three entries in this fast-paced rally. The BMW-backed team of WRC Team MINI Portugal was looking to New Zealand to bring them strong results, and the team was enthusiastic.

As far as rallying in the Land of the Long White Cloud, Tomo has fond memories. “I’ve been to Rally New Zealand a lot of times and have some great memories. One of the best is from 2006 when I was there working with MotoGP legend Valentino Rossi; it was amazing – what a fantastic guy! He loves rallies, but hates getting up early in the morning. During recce, the recce mechanics would drive his recce car to the start of the stages, he would get up at the last possible moment and jump into a helicopter (!) the team had hired for him, fly to the start of the stage and then do the recce. Pace notes were also of secondary importance: if he found a nice view he’d stop in the middle of the stage, take pictures, get back in the car and continue. It was good fun working with Valentino!”

Speaking on his tasks when he arrives in New Zealand, Tomo said: “After I touch down, I’ll take half a day to get my bearings after 30 hours of travel, then I’ll go and inspect the stages. It’s great to get out and see the conditions the drivers will encounter during the rally. As engineers, we note each kilometre in detail. We register things like surface conditions, how hard the surface is, the diameter of the gravel and any clean lines. We also consider if the stages will rut badly, gradients and any other details that help to ensure we are as competitive as possible. This might include something as simple as noting phone service in or at the stage, which is essential to ensuring the crew gets the best technical backup possible.”

Comparing the set-ups of the cars, the differences between a rough rally they have just completed – Greece – and this event, Tomo commented: “In terms of differences with Rally Acropolis – which was hot, dry and quite hard on the cars – New Zealand won’t be as tough on the crews as the ambient temperature inside the cars will be much lower than in Greece. The set-up won’t be too different, but the crews will need a slightly softer car, with less focus on sheer endurance. Also this year it will be probably colder, wetter and more slippery compared to other years so the drivers will have to focus on doing a good job on the recce to get pace notes as near to perfect as possible making careful notes of surface changes in particular. It will be a tricky event with a lot of slow turns, changes of grips and rough bits so a good preparation is the key to success!

Having arrived in Auckland, New Zealand with 80kg of spare parts and equipment (including the latest spec gravel dampers for Armindo, the Chief Engineer immediately turned his attention to the Service Park. “We immediately set to unpacking the container from Argentina and setting up the service area,” said Tomo. “That done I moved onto checking fuel calculations for the rally. This is vital for two reasons. Firstly I have to ensure the car doesn’t run out of gas. Secondly, it affects the car’s weight. The minimum weight is 1200kg without crew and 1350kg with crew. We’re lucky – the combined weight of Armindo and Miguel is 132kg (very light!) so hitting our minimum weight target becomes a science – or rather an art. For an engineer preparing the car closest to the target is a big win. We add some extra weight to the MINI to ensure it meets the requirement at all times. If for any reason the car starts using more fuel pushing it below the minimum, then we risk exclusion. It’s quite a job accurately tracking car weight. Things we monitor include the crews’ camel bag levels – Armindo and Miguel have three litres each and I get a bit angry if it isn’t all drunk, because it can equate to 6kg and throw my weight calculation off. Equally, on an average loop there is around 3 – 4kg of tyre wear, but it can be more if the roads are very abrasive. Specific to New Zealand in terms of weight is mud accumulation. This event can be bad for this, with some sections of the rally being quite wet and muddy it can add as much as 100kg. So when the crews stop to change their tyres they can be seen with home-made spatulas specifically designed to scrape the mud off as quickly as possible.

“The FIA’s technical checks passed well, and we had all the anti-tamper seals checked on the MINIs and spare parts and added seals to five sets of dampers. The cars were set-up according to both Armindo and Paulo’s comments after recce and anticipating the conditions of the Qualifying Stage. We looked at previous Rally New Zealands, particularly 2007 – the last time the cars were Michelin-shod as tyre choice will be critical this weekend due to the unpredictable weather conditions. In fact, many other aspects of the car specification are weather dependent. If it becomes wet, the main set-up changes are to springs, anti-roll bars and dampers, which become softer. This helps to make the MINI more progressive for Armindo and Paulo and it’s easier for the drivers to predict levels of grip available. We also shift the balance to the rear slightly so the rear of the car slides more easily than the front and the car turns into corners well. Everyone driving on the road has experience trying to get their car to turn on ice or snow in winter when all it wants to do is go straight on! The driver has a similar feeling to a lesser degree when he hits mud – what we don’t want to do however is go too far with the change, otherwise the car slides too much and a lot of time is lost.

What is interesting, Tomo predicted the outcome of the rally after the Qualifying: “I do feel that the event may be decided by Friday evening.” And these words proved too, as the lead never changed throughout this long event.

Day One:
“Both Armindo and Paulo made it through a tough day of competition, with Armindo coming home in eighth overall and Paulo in 20th,” said Tomo. For Day One, my alarm went off quite early (5am!) and we started the day with quite a debate about tyres. After discussion with the engineers and Team Manager, both Armindo and Paulo elected to use softs, which proved to be correct as all the stages were humid and wet after last night’s rain.

“After a quick breakfast and loading the vans with equipment most of the team headed down south to Raglan for the Remote Service while I stopped at the Te Akau refuel to catch up with our drivers after SS2, the first run of Whaanga Coast. It’s the job of the engineer and No. 1 mechanic to try to be at all remote refuels. This is allowed within FIA regulations and is very useful because you get a chance to look the cars over, check tyre wear and also advise of any set-up changes required. Today both Armindo and Paulo were in good spirits and content with their times so no changes were made. Two more stages were run and then the cars headed to the Remote Service point in Raglan and went well with both MINIs requiring only routine servicing. Due to the fact that the ambient conditions hardly changed, soft tyres were again fitted for the second loop of stages. We analyzed engine data at lunchtime via the data cards removed from both crews data recorders. This samples all major parameters at up to 1000 times a second and also allows an element of chassis tuning via the sensors directly linked to the driver. These include front and rear axle speeds [road speed], steering wheel angle, accelerator pedal angle and brake pressures. It’s a very useful record to allow us to compare drivers so that they can learn from each other’s strengths and unlock some extra speed.

“With Remote Service done and after a nice packed lunch that kept us going for the rest of the day, it was back to the refuel once again for Max [Armindo’s No. 1 mechanic] and I to catch the crews after the second Whaanga Coast pass (SS6). Everything was OK, but Paulo needed to use some of his drinking water in the washer tank as he’d nearly exhausted his supply. No set-up changes were necessary, which confirmed we were near to ideal for Armindo and Paulo. However, looking at the tyres, as with all the top ten crews it looked like some static camber could be reduced (this is the angle of the wheel from the vertical when looking form the front of the car). The purpose of the angle is to try and maximise the tyres’ contact patch when cornering – too much and the tyre overheats on the inside; too little and the tyre overheats on the outside. This would be impossible on a standard car as it has a fixed parameter, but it will only take Max and the boys five minutes to tune.

“With our detour via refuel, Max and I were the last members of the team to arrive at the Viaduct Events Centre Service Park back in Auckland. We immediately started preparing for the final flexi-service for Day One, and the mechanics readied the spares in case any are needed. Normally it should be routine, but we need to expect the unexpected!”

Day Two:
“Here we are again at the end of another day at Rally New Zealand with both cars safely parked in Parc Fermé ready for the start of the last leg of the rally tomorrow. Armindo is still in the top ten, in ninth overall, while Paulo finished the day having climbed to 18th position.

“The day began once again with tyre choice, but today it was an easy one. Armindo used both sets of soft tyres yesterday, so the choice for today was basically made for us. Most crews went with hard tyres with only Paulo, fellow MINI driver Dani Sordo and Petter Solberg going with softs in the morning. We had to try to maximise the grip for Armindo with small adjustments to the dampers to make the behaviour of the MINI more progressive. Unfortunately Armindo lost some time in the first stages of the day. Some of this could be attributed to Armindo holding back until he was confident in finding a good rhythm due to the combination of the hard tyre and patchy drying conditions. However, he was also cautious because he could also hear a noise from the left rear damper top mount on the road section to SS11, the second stage of the day. Fortunately, this didn’t cost any time in the stage technically and the boys did a great job in repairing it at Remote Service in Whangarei. We actually carry a sort of metal super glue in the MINI for these situations. The temporary repair held for half the afternoon, but finally let go again late in the day. Luckily again it didn’t cost time in the stages – it was more of an annoyance and Armindo managed to finish the day unperturbed. As soon as he got back to the main Service Park in Auckland, new parts were fitted to replace the damaged ones in the first four minutes of the 45 minute service.

“Paulo had a great day enjoying the challenging northern stages. We trimmed the MINI’s height slightly for the second pass through Mitatai Girl School 2 (SS15) and only effected routine maintenance. To be sure we had every eventuality covered, the part that troubled Armindo was also checked on Paulo’s car as a precaution.

On his role after Parc Ferme for the day, Tomo is kept busy. “During the service this evening we start to have a round-up of our weather information. This includes satellite imagery and forecasting as well as people near the stages. Whilst we are expecting a lot of rain on Day Three, we haven’t made any chassis changes to react to it in tonight’s service. We’ll do this tomorrow as it only takes 3 – 4 minutes to change anti-roll bars and damper settings and we will then just do the job once as accurately as possible when we are more confident of the conditions instead of trying to second guess. On most occasions I will discuss matters like tyre choice with Bruno, WRC Team MINI Portugal’s Team Manager. Whilst he may be a team manager, he has a good understanding of what is sensible and not. When you are in the Service Park and time is ticking away, your judgement can get clouded or you try to take too many factors into account. It’s then Bruno that will stand quietly and make his choice – which often turns out to be correct! There is also the financial implication to consider. The tyres we use on rallies are expensive so we always try to be sensible. If we can be sensible regarding our tyre usage then we can sometimes save some budget that can be used elsewhere to better effect. This could be an extra day’s testing for example and this is where Bruno’s experience really comes into play. All I want to do as an engineer is spend money on tyres, testing, development springs, different brake pads and anything I can think of that might make the driver go faster. It’s Bruno I have to ask if we can buy them!

Day Three:
It was a great weekend for WRC Team MINI Portugal with both drivers successfully completing every stage. Armindo finished the rally in eighth earning himself four WRC points and Paulo brought his MINI home safely in 17th place overall.

And from Tomo’s perspective: “After two long drives to Remote Services on the first two days, it was great to enjoy a quiet day in Auckland’s main Service Park and I have to tell you we had a fantastic view of the city skyline. Today’s stages were based north of Auckland and the itinerary included two runs through a Tarmac Super Special Stage at the city’s World Memorial Museum.

“We’re getting used to the rain now, and it was well-predicted last night. Today Armindo had a mix of two used soft tyres on the right side of his MINI and two new soft tyres the left side. Choosing to fit the tyres side-to-side aims to keep the balance between the front and the rear of the car. Paulo’s MINI sported four used soft tyres still in good condition and reported that the Puhoi stage (SS17) was particularly slippery. Armindo’s task for today was keeping Ken Block behind him and then waiting to see if any crews in front had a problem. This strategy worked well and we bagged eighth place after [Ott] Tanak rolled on the penultimate stage.

“We had a trouble free rally and it’s a real testament to the team that after three hard events the cars ran like clockwork. Armindo’s confidence grew and his times were the most competitive of his MINI career on gravel, which is a real bonus going into the next event, Rally Finland. In Finland the roads will be in complete contrast to New Zealand, but grip levels can be similar.

One of my favourite memories of this week for the team was getting to see our Team Manager Bruno fishing on a MINI in the middle of Auckland’s harbour, a real treat! Although, the professional highlight of the event for me was getting both cars to the finish without problems. It’s been a busy run, with Rally Argentina, then MINI United followed by the Greece test, Acropolis Rally and Rally New Zealand coming thick and fast. We had to re-shell a car in the Service Park in Greece after an accident on the test ruled out using the car on the rally. This was a real feat and showed that the team has real depth in being able to react quickly and effectively to unpredictable situations. Most people didn’t even notice this occurred other than the few people who spotted a bodyshell arriving on a transporter late on Tuesday afternoon prior to the rally. For this reason I’m really delighted that the guys at MINI New Zealand gave all the mechanics and myself a traditional Maori friendship token to mark the hard work that’s gone in since the start of the season, especially over the last few months. Often mechanics are the unsung heroes of a rally operation.

“It’s time to pack up the containers for the sea freight and await the cars coming out of Parc Ferme so we can prep them for their long flight back to Europe. Today I’ve already sent the set-up sheets, damper and transmission specs for the tarmac test in San Remo where we have some good roads which mirror conditions in Germany. In no time at all, Rally New Zealand will be a fond memory.”
– Credit: Select photos by WRC Team MINI Portugal.