Tuesday, January 14, 2020

A MINI AFFAIR IN THAILAND: Race-Testing the MINI John Cooper Works Countryman


Experiencing this right-hand-drive, and track-ready MINI JCW Countryman at the Kaeng Krachan Race Circuit in Thailand.
Photo: Neil Pagulayan

Autohub Group, the official distributor of MINI in the Philippines, recently held a media drive, and race-test a 2020 MINI John Cooper Works Countryman on a track in Bangkok, Thailand. It was a privilege to be chosen among the six motoring journalists, who will experience the second fastest, largest, and most expensive MINI in their lineup.

After a two and a half hour plane ride from NAIA 2, we landed at the Bangkok Suvarnabhumi International Airport. This airport is huge as compared to Manila's standards. It should be because it welcomes the arrival of about 20 million tourists each year.

Bangkok Suvarnabhumi International Airport.

Our group, which was led by Owee Cruz, Autohub Group VP for PR and Marketing, were welcomed by Mr. Preecha Ninatkiattikul, General Manager of MINI Thailand, a kind-hearted man who is so trusting enough to lend us his two almost-brand-new 2020 MINI JCW Countrymans, and a Cooper S which we would be racing on the track the very next day. With him was our event host from Singapore, Amanda Poh, Corporate Affairs Executive of BMW Group Asia. 

Race Day

After having our breakfast for champions, we all headed to the Starbucks situated inside the hotel for our driver's briefing. Greeting us at a small function room inside the Starbucks were our BMW-MINI trained Thai instructors Wudhinant Sabhavasu and Chamaiporn Paphatphong. They briefed the six of us on the day's activities, the cars we will be driving, the route to the track, proper driving position,  traffic rules, speed limits, and how to drive a right-hand-drive car on the opposite side of the road. For some of us in the group including myself, driving a right-hand-drive vehicle on the left side of the road was a first-time experience and admittedly a confusing task at hand. 

Media drive briefing map.

We were split into three pairs of drivers. Riding shotgun with me for the whole duration of this event was motoring media, Neil Pagulayan. We both were assigned to a fresh-off-the-showroom 2020 MINI JCW Countryman. It was dressed in the purest of whites and capped with a fire-red colored roof. Making it stand out, even more, were its two red racing stripes running down each side of the hood. Being the largest of the MINI lineup, it stood tall and truly handsome.

Driving shotgun with Neil with our passenger, local Thai tour guide Fame.

I set my eyes on tinkering with every feature laid out before me. I was in awe with the futuristic/retro feel inside the cabin, from its huge color-changing circular infotainment touchscreen with i-drive at the center of the well laid-out dashboard to its playful group of toggle switches on the center and overhead consoles. The Countryman was spacious even at the rear with a lot of headroom to spare. 

Huge color-changing circular infotainment touchscreen with i-drive.

Our convoy of 5 MINI's was led by a red 2020 MINI JCW Cooper S Clubman which was driven by the BMW instructors. After experiencing Manila-like traffic getting out of downtown Bangkok, we drove for another hour to a PTT (Thailand's version of Petron which you would find everywhere) gas station, our first stop for a little leg stretching, bathroom break, and driver swap. Yes, it was finally my turn to drive this handsome pocket rocket.

MINI JCW Countryman convoy to the circuit outside Bangkok.

PTT gas station, which you would find everywhere.

After that quick stop, we headed towards Wiroj Kaeng Krachan Rot Ded Restaurant for our sumptuous lunch which is situated at the picturesque lake of the Kaeng Krachan Dam. Its relaxing view reminded me of our very own Lake Caliraya in Laguna. We were treated to a variety of delicious, but also very spicy seafood. I'm glad they were at the tolerable level. Water, I mean lots of water is key.

 The picturesque lake of the Kaeng Krachan Dam. Its relaxing view reminded me of our very own Lake Caliraya in Laguna. 

We were all excited and eager to get to the track and race. Our bulging tummies that were about to explode from consuming too much Thai food did not slow us down. Without a minute wasted, we got back into our MINIs, anxious as ever. We took the scenic route out and with all of us being avid photographers, we could not resist stopping for a car photo-op with that gorgeous lakeside backdrop. The short stopover deprived us of more track time, but it was all worth it.

The Race Track

The Kaeng Krachan Race Circuit is located 130km southwest of Bangkok in Petchaburi province. It has three track layouts – the full-length track is 2.9 km long; the medium-length track is 2.39 km long; and the short track, which is one km long. It may look small but it is noted for its fast S's and tight hairpin turns. This scenic track is no walk in the park. It is believed to be one of the most challenging and difficult circuits in the world. 

The 2.9-km Kaeng Krachan Race Circuit is located 130km southwest of Bangkok in Petchaburi province.

Kaeng Krachan Race Circuit

The Racecar

We were to race two variants of the 2020 MINI Countryman on the track that day. The stars of the show were two 231-HP John Cooper Works modified variants and the other was a 191-HP Countryman S. I will just delve deeper on the JCW variant because not only was it the car I spent more time driving, it also tickled my speed senses more.

The stars of the show - 231-HP MINI John Cooper Works Countryman, and the 191-HP MINI Countryman S.

The 2020 MINI JCW Countryman is powered by a 2.0 L inline-4  2.0-liter TwinPower Turbo petrol engine with 231-HP and 350 Nm torque mated to an 8-Speed Steptronic Sports AT with paddle shifters. The engine cooling system has been enhanced and the transmission has its own oil cooler. 

It also comes with standard front-biased ALL4 all-wheel-drive with a locking front differential. The engine is an improved version of the 189-hp one that powers the S models. MINI modified the crankshaft and main bearings, installed a larger turbocharger with 14-lbs of boost together with JCW-specific pistons and connecting rods, fuel injectors, and tweaked the compression ratio.

The 2020 MINI JCW Countryman is powered by a 2.0 L inline-4  2.0-liter TwinPower Turbo petrol engine with 231-HP and 350 Nm torque

MINI claims the JCW Countryman can zoom from zero to 100 kph in 6.5 seconds. My actual test on the track was a quick 7.0 seconds to 100-kph and I wasn't even on launch mode. The JCW engineers did horsepower wonders to this already powerful engine. 

The MINI All4 has a different kind of Traction Control System from other all-wheel-drive cars. It can selectively cut or reduce power on just one rear wheel depending on the degree to which you are understeering or oversteering. Coupled with the JCW Sport Braking System, the JCW MINI Countryman really is a competitive stable track car.
  
The ALL4 all-wheel-drive system did a great job in getting the 231 horses down to the tarmac with zero torque-steer

MINI has tweaked the chassis and adaptive dampers have been added. The front and rear axles have been modified too. They made it lighter and more rigid thus improving cornering performance. They're also fitted with a new great sounding low-growling Sport Exhaust system.

The exterior of the JCW variant provides some clues to the cars' sporting intentions. It wears the JCW badge proudly on all sides, even on its red brake calipers, and it's topped with a red roof and red mirror caps. The sporty-red trim around the front honeycomb grille also helps to differentiate these JCW models from their less sporty variants.

John Cooper Works (JCW) is a British car marque now owned by BMW and used on its Mini vehicles. Founded in 2002 by Michael Cooper, son of John Cooper, the racing car maker and tuner responsible for the original Mini Cooper.

Racing the JCW Countryman

All itching to drive on the track, we first had to huddle for our track and course briefing. First on the list was an introduction to the track itself, its design, its rules, the flow, the three exercises we will have to go through, and the speed limit. I was just kidding about the latter, there were no speed traps nor uniformed traffic officers to enforce it.

Our first exercise was for us to familiarize ourselves with the braking power of the MINI. We were told to accelerate hard from a stop, get to the speed of about 60-kph as we approach two traffic cones then apply the brake firmly as you reach them and bring the car to a stop before another set of cones 10 meters away. This JCW MINI stopped on a dime. The tires did not screech at all which means the anti-lock brakes worked flawlessly. The car did not even dip forward when the brakes were applied, thanks to the large 4-piston brake calipers at the rear. My confidence racing this MINI just went up 5 notches.

JCW Sport Brakes Red Calipers.

Our second exercise was for us to feel the handling capability of the JCW MINI. This time they opened up the medium-length track which featured tight corners and fast S's. The Countryman, even though its low center of gravity is compromised by its physical 'crossover' height, it remained composed at every turn, I was blown away by the flat cornering stance of the JCW Countryman, it actually handled squat like a go-kart.  I also noticed there was only a slight difference in the way of decreased body roll or higher suspension firmness when I switched to Sport Drive Mode.

Our third and last exercise was for us to feel the power and engine response of the JCW Countryman. This time they opened the full 2.9-km adrenaline-pumping race track to us speed-hungry neophytes. We were asked to keep the drive-mode on Sport and not to turn off the Traction Control. 

Finally, we got to stick that pedal to the metal. On Sport mode, I felt the quickness of the throttle response and greater feedback from the steering. The 8-speed automatic gearbox was seamless in its transitions. It made me focus more on my driving especially when attacking a difficult curve. The paddle-shifters provided snappy gearchanges with perfect rev-matching all the time. 
Coming from behind, the JCW Sport Exhaust sounded awesomely aggressive on Sport Mode. It was pure auditory ecstasy.  

The ALL4 all-wheel-drive system did a great job of getting the 231 horses down to the tarmac with zero torque-steer. We pushed those MINIs really hard on the corners and the JCW Sport Brake System never faltered. 

On my third lap, I was ready to be one with the car and feel soulfully connected. It even became simpler to drive on the track. Wherever I pointed the car to go, it went without resisting or hesitating. I never had the feeling the car would fly off the track even after I miscalculated a sharp turn. And mind you, these were street tires installed on these cars, but the MINI held on like glue.

Driving the track-ready 2020 MINI JCW Countryman

The ride became a tad firmer on Sport mode, but it still remained comfortable, thanks to the beautifully-contoured body-hugging two-tone racing seats for the added support.

After about an hour of all-out racing on the track, we were all called back to the starting line. We all thought that the instructors were calling it a day for us and ending what started to be our best day ever, but instead, they excitedly told us that we could swap cars if we wanted to and keep driving around the course till we drop. I gladly took it as a challenge and after another hour of racing, I realized car racing can be very tiring and agonizing to one's body and mind. And the only true relief would be to win that checkered flag.

Car and Track.

At the end of the day, atop a hill with the golden sun setting, I see a looker of a car before me with a very picturesque race track as its backdrop. A well-designed car anyone will easily get attached to. I am that 'anyone'. 

The 2020 JCW MINI Countryman All4 is a 231-Hp 5-door crossover daily-driver. It's comfortably big and capable enough for a family of four to go on those rugged outdoor weekend adventures and it's surely all muscled-up and race-ready for daddy's day on the track. 

All smiles at the end of race day - Philippine Motoring Media delegation with our BMW Group Asia hosts and BMW driving instructors.

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