It's been close to a year since MINI blew motorsport's worst kept secret by confirming its participation in the World Rally Championship. After the protracted announcement followed the unveiling of a mock-up Countryman rally car at the Paris motor show in September, the reveal of the finalised regional version at the Historic Rallye Monte Carlo in March and the launch of the full-specification WRC model at MINI Plant Oxford last month.
The drawn-out affair finally came to a head last weekend when the MINI World Rally Team made its competitive debut at Rally d'Italia Sardegna, the fifth round of the 2011 series. Of the team's two factory cars, one finished sixth and the other retired.
So if ten months of anticipation climaxed in one solid points haul and a DNF, why on earth is the rally community so impressed? The results only tell half the story and the circumstances of MINI's 2011 campaign are far from conventional.
The Prodrive-run team will contest five further rounds of the championship this year. The half-programme is intended to allow further development of the John Cooper Works WRC more quickly than a behind closed doors testing schedule would, and also to attract privateer buyers and big money sponsors.
It means that, for this year at least, the team's focus is on performance rather than results, and development rather than championship points. There were moments last weekend when the MINI WRC was faster than the established chargers from Ford and Citroën.
Factory driver Kris Meeke set the third fastest time in his MINI on the rally's second stage, stopping the clock sooner than Citroën's four-time rally winner Sebastien Ogier could. The Northern Irishman would crash off the road on the following stage when a sticking throttle threw him into a corner faster than he'd planned, but the MINI's raw pace had been shown. "I have to be pleased with speed we've shown," said Meeke, who returned to competition the following day.
Of course, speed alone is never enough in motorsport; reliability is as critical a factor. "Kris's throttle problem is something we'll sort out relatively easily," said Prodrive's technical director, David Lapworth. "In a couple of days, we'll fix it." Aside from a cracked water pipe that sidelined Meeke for a second time, the team came across no major reliability concerns; Dani Sordo, the other factory driver, conquered a bruising rally on the car's first competitive outing.
Combining speed with reliability is the holy grail of rally car design; a pairing that wins championships. "It's easy to start fast and improve reliability," says Lapworth. On the evidence of the MINI WRC's first world championship outing, though, all that needs to be improved is consistency.