Hopkirk hails Mini revival
It was Paddy Hopkirk who scored the landmark victory which catapulted the Mini onto the world stage.
His win on the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally captured the imagination of more than motorsport fans; it was on the front as well as the back pages of newspapers and resulted in Paddy, co-driver Henry Liddon and the little Mini Cooper being flown back to England to appear on one of the biggest television shows of its time, Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
Together Hopkirk and the Mini went on to become the No.1 partnership in world rallying.
Now, 47 years on, another Ulster driver, Kris Meeke, is soon to follow in Hopkirk’s footsteps and lead Mini’s return to the World championship.
And as the development programme being carried out on behalf of new owners BMW by specialist UK company Prodrive continues ahead of its first appearance in Sardinia in May, Hopkirk had the opportunity to sit alongside 2009 Intercontinental
Challenge champion Meeke in the 1.6 litre, turbocharged, four-wheel-drive Mini Countryman WRC at the company’s test facility in Warwickshire.
Have things changed a lot since his heyday?
“Absolutely. Back in those days rallying was front page news; it wasn’t seen as just motorsport. We were driving for our country — it was more like the Olympics,” he told WRC.com.
“When I won the Monte, I had a telegram from the British Prime Minister and another from the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland.
“There were 27 million viewers when I was on Sunday Night at the Palladium.
“Of course it wasn’t just me. I was lucky, I was a competent driver and we had a wonderful team.
“The car was a little cheap family saloon that Alex Issigonis had designed as the district nurses’ car. And here it was beating cars that were much more expensive, and big teams like Citroen, Mercedes and Ford.
“It became a sort of classless car, the Royal family bought it and so did everybody else. It just captured the public’s imagination.”
Hopkirk, now 77, also sees big differences in the way modern rally cars are driven.
“Kris doesn’t touch the clutch — he was always braking with his left foot. And the handbrake is probably used more than in our day. He uses it to set the car up at high speed — while we would have only used the handbrake on very slow corners.
“Back in my day only the Scandinavians were left foot braking and they were used to driving on snow and ice with studs much more than we were. But nowadays I think most of the top drivers are equally competent.
“But I think Kris is terrific, I really do. I think he is smooth in the car so he will get good results. Also, being a qualified engineer he will be able help develop the car alongside the engineers at Prodrive and at BMW.”
But the idea of getting behind the wheel himself brought an emphatic ‘no’ from Hopkirk.
“I wouldn’t mind trying it when nobody was looking, but as you get older your reactions get worse, your sight goes, everything goes, and you don’t want to make an idiot of yourself,” he laughed.