Being TV-advertised at present, reports Iain Robertson, the Mini E is the fully-electrified version of BMW’s take on the illustrious model that is also fulfilling, in enhanced form, another role altogether for the international Formula E race championship.
Thanks to a series of high-profile, city centre-based races for the all-electric alternatives to the Formula One scene, Formula E has captured public attention worldwide. Sadly, as with almost all major public events, the past season of Formula E, which is reliant on its connection with an attendant audience, has been lost to the pandemic.
From its slightly shaky ‘street racing’ concept in 2011, to a spectacular Olympic launch in Beijing, China, in 2014, all jibes about ‘racing milk floats’ have mostly dissipated, as spectators both on event and via television coverage have appreciated the blend of exciting speed, thrills and dramatic spills. As a developing formula, the support it has received from vehicle manufacturers has been phenomenal, not least because many of them have been running electric vehicle (EV) programmes concurrently and the race series can act as a banner-waver for their retail sales operations.
The early format of up to a dozen teams of two, single-seater cars taking a mid-race pit-stop for the drivers to swap into a freshly charged example lasted for three seasons. Improvements in power, battery technology, regeneration and aerodynamics meant that drivers were no longer required to make the compulsory halfway pit-stops that also created much bemusement for the 2017/2018 championship onwards.
BMW has already laid out its stall on the EV front, with hybrid and partial electrification, all the way to full EV status being declared for its present and future model line-up. The Bavarian firm was among the early investors in the Formula E project and provided the hybrid i8 supercar as a Safety Car for the races, while an i3 was provided for the Race Director and a 530i e-Performance model as the fast response Medical Car.
In a fabulous quirk of first-time napkin novelties, recalling the day that Alec Issigonis sketched an outline for the original, 10ft long Mini, Formula E founder Alejandro Agag and FIA (motorsports’ governing body) President Jean Todt drew up their early plans for an all-electric race championship in a Parisian restaurant…on a paper serviette. It is therefore fitting (in some ways) that a Mini E is assuming the Safety Car role for the revived Formula E Championship that commences in April, in Rome, and will be used as the high-profile on-track support vehicle thereafter.
Although its arresting visual appearance comes from a set of high-tech appliques, the Mini E Safety Car is based quite heavily on the most recent Mini GP, a stripped-out, two-seat, John Cooper badged, limited production, high-price profit-earner. The key difference lies in its battery pack and drive system, which has been optimised by way of reducing the car’s kerbweight by 130kgs and increasing power slightly. As a result, the Safety Car can accelerate from 0-60mph in around 6.4s, which is twice the time it takes for a Formula E racing car.
Having engineered the BMW Mini road car to work with McPherson strut-type front and multi-link rear suspension, the Safety Car factors in race-type coil-over units at all four corners, which are three-way adjustable for rebound, compression, height and camber settings. According to BMW’s driver, they deliver the maximum ‘go-kart’ feeling, in terms of feedback and responsiveness, although such a set-up would make the car totally unsuitable for road use. Race-specification suspension control arm mountings, a 10mm increase in the Mini’s track width, plus the four-piston brakes and (orange-painted) alloy wheels from the MINI John Cooper Works GP, complete with Michelin Pilot Sport tyres (245/40 R18) round off the overall package.
The rear end of the car is finished in black and Curbside (sic.) Red metallic using highly reflective yellow accent surfaces to extend the eye-catching design language from the front end and flanks. As needs dictate, it results in a most dynamic statement. The prominent roof-mounted rear wing features air through-flow and more yellow accent lines, while also integrating the LED warning signal light bar. It was 3D printed at Plant Oxford. The flared wheel arches accentuate the car’s wider track and lead the observer’s eye towards the pronounced rear air diffuser. Cut-outs around the wheels clear the view to the tyres and, between the wheels sits the carbon-fibre aero ducting that provides the car with a near flat underside but directed flow at the rear. When the Safety Car is viewed from this angle, the accents in Energetic Yellow and lack of exhaust tailpipes highlight the fact that it has an electric drivetrain.
The inside is stripped back, race-car style, to an absolute minimum and only the much-modified front seats remain. The driver’s area consists of a racing seat with six-point safety harness. The steering wheel features a carbon-fibre impact absorber (no airbag!) and a small digital instrument cluster is located just behind it. The normal central display screen is replaced by a carbon-fibre cover, while the centre console that houses the gearshift lever, parking brake and bank of controls for the external warning lights are all finished in carbon-fibre.
The same material is applied to the door cards that contain cloth straps as door pulls, all in pursuit of losing a few pounds. Another central feature of the interior is the welded-in roll cage that is a race circuit legal requirement. There are many custom-made components throughout the car. However, BMW’s 3D printing facility worked overtime to create the removable pads on the driver’s racing seat, the innovative structures of which combine both comfort and fire-proofed durability. As an interesting diversion, the thickness, rigidity and even the colour of the pads can be altered as required by the physiology, weight and personal taste of the driver at each venue.
Conclusion: As a mobile showpiece, the Mini Safety Car is also something of a technological achievement for BMW. It will never be made available as a road-going alternative and is worth around £120,000 in its present state.