Confusion reigns as Mini adventure is called to a halt
The return of the iconic Mini to the world rally scene was unveiled with great fanfare in Monte Carlo just over a year ago but yesterday the divorce of the two partners, BMW and British specialist engineering company Prodrive, was announced.
Despite an impressive first season in which drivers Kris Meeke and Dani Sordo performed above expectations and the Mini was voted Rally Car of the Year, the marriage failed due to rows over money.
BMW and Prodrive had been locked in a dispute for months.
With BMW fully committed to a return to the German Touring Car Championship (DTM), they insisted there was no extra finance available when Prodrive’s plans to fund the running of the rally team through commercial sponsorship and customer car sales failed.
In an effort to keep the project alive, Prodrive have resorted to selling Dungannon driver Meeke’s place in the team to the highest bidder on rally-by-rally basis, rumoured to be £180,000 a time.
Now an unhappy BMW have decided to demote Prodrive to ‘customer team’ status, promoting the Motorsport Italia-run Mini Portugal – previously a customer of Prodrive – to the role of the factory-backed team.
Yet, in a further twist, Prodrive, who have been responsible for the entire design and construction of the Mini Countryman WRC into a World championship contender, have been retained to carry on developing the car.
On the surface it appears to mean that the Mini Portugal line-up of Armindo Araujo and Paulo Nobre, two drivers who are well-funded but nowhere near the level of Sordo and Meeke, will contest the remaining 12 rounds of the World championship as an official Mini entry while Prodrive carry on their behind the scenes work.
Bizarrely, Prodrive will also provide technical expertise for the Portuguese team.
But it is nothing more than a new marriage of convenience, enabling BMW/Mini to fulfil its commitments to the FIA, motorsport’s governing body, and to ensure the car remains eligible to compete in rallies around the world.
In an effort to clarify the situation, a Prodrive post on its Facebook site says: “Mini has not appointed the Portuguese team as the new works team. They are entered as the manufacturer entry for homologation [eligibility] purposes only and will carry on being supported by Prodrive as they are already.
“We will be a works-supported entry but as we are not competing on every event this year we could not be used to homologate the car.”
The poster adds: “I hope this makes some sense.”
Barely. The future for the Prodrive team still remains unclear. They are currently in Sweden preparing for the next round of the WRC later this week when the locally-sponsored Swede Patrik Sandell will replace Meeke alongside Sordo.
For Meeke, who left Peugeot to join the Mini project on a three-year contract, the prospects of returning to the World championship remain remote. It depends on Prodrive finding a new backer.
Ironically, as a Prodrive’s No.1 test driver, Meeke is likely to be called on to play a lead role in the continuing development of the car — for others to benefit from.