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MINI SE7EN

The thought of racing a Mini Se7en around a circuit has been at the forefront of my mind for quite some time. At a PMC test day at Cadwell Park a few years ago, I had the great opportunity of driving my father-in-law, Phil Manser's car and have been hooked ever since. I had driven karts for a season and also driven in grasstrack with my father, but this was something else! I had a huge grin for weeks after the Cadwell experience and I remember my little Nova feeling more than slightly sluggish on the way home afterwards. I left the circuit thinking, 'One day…'

   


It was towards the end of 1999 that I decided that I really ought to get my act together. First of all, I needed to get an ARDS pack from the MSA the first step towards getting that all important race licence. The pack includes the infamous 'Blue Book' (we now have three copies in our house due to Rachel and I both being timekeepers!) and, amongst other things, a video. Having passed my medical, I duly studied the pack before arriving at Silverstone one Sunday in mid October to complete an ARDS course in order to obtain my National 'B' race licence. The course itself was a great experience. After a couple of hours of lectures I was driving a Peugeot 306 GTI-6 around the Southern circuit. This involves using the Grand Prix circuit from Becketts right through to Abbey, and using the Ireland section (backwards!) of the International circuit. I was chuffed to bits. Rachel actually got a free passenger ride (extremely sideways and extremely fast) in a GpN Escort Cosworth with single seater driver Duncan Vercoe (thanks to a friend of ours who works at Silverstone). I think it made up for the waiting around and the anti-social hour at which we had to leave home. Having finished on the circuit, I had to complete a short exam, wait for the results and get debriefed, before leaving with a precious piece of paper that declared me fit to race.

   

Now was the time to start the search for that championship-winning car! With my budget? I don't think so!! Back to reality. It was at this point that I realised just how expensive it can be to buy even a budget Mini Se7en. I had already decided that building one from scratch was out of the question. I had some insight into the problems that restoration can throw up from a road-going Mini that I had a couple of years ago the less said about that the better!! I therefore decided that it would be preferable to buy a car that somebody else had already done the hard work on.

It wasn't until the AGM of the Mini Se7en Racing Club in January 2000 that I saw an advert that looked promising. The car in question was up for 'Offers' and I was on the telephone as soon as we got home that evening to find out more. The car would come with a trailer (the sort that fits in a single garage with the car on it), an engine, all ancillaries and a generous helping of accident damage.

The car had not raced since it's encounter with wait for it my father-in-law's oil at Mallory Park in 1993!! It made no difference I was hooked! I arranged to go down to Aldershot the following Sunday with Phil and my own father in a vehicle with a tow bar, just in case…and came back with my new toy on the back.

The very next day I was down at Phil's workshop preparing the offside rear quarter of the car for some fairly major surgery. A new quarter panel was needed along with a good amount of TLC for the sill and wheel arch the whole corner had moved in by around 2 inches!

   

This was to be my first attempt at body repairs, not really the best of jobs to start with, but I was enthusiastic if nothing else… After several days of work the new panel was in and I began the seemingly never-ending task of filling all the 'blemishes' in the bodywork. In the midst of the filling I had to order a new roll cage as the regulations have altered since the car last saw a racing circuit. With help from my wife Rachel, sister-in-law Carol and endless help and advice from father-in-law Phil, the roll cage is now in.

It was now that I decided that some more strength would be a good idea especially laterally. The correct size of CDS (Cold Drawn Steel) was ordered to allow a further 23 feet of metal to be welded in by my father. I now felt much happier, having added two extra door bars and three lateral supports, all in accordance with the regulations of course.

 

 

At last it was time to prepare the car for spraying. This was to prove a major task as I was about to find out! Firstly, all surfaces were rubbed down, with particular attention being paid to the places where different colours overlapped to make sure they ended up smooth otherwise the old scheme would show through underneath. Having chosen my colour scheme to be in the same pattern as my father-in-law's, I decided on two Ford colours Gentian blue and diamond white. My main sponsor, Bryan, was able to advise on the products needed to ensure the best finish due to his background in car bodywork. The car was initially sprayed with etch, which gives the next layer a good surface to stick to. This was then rubbed down to prepare for a coat of two-pack primer filler, which would get rid of any blemishes in the old surface. Another session of rubbing down then followed, to provide a smooth surface for the first coat of actual colour to be applied. The inside of the car was the first part to be sprayed. Once this was dry, the inside was masked off so that the roof and door pillars could be sprayed white. The next stage of preparation was the longest, as it involved masking off the white to provide a smooth coachline easier said than done.

   

We were at last ready for the final bout of spraying or so I thought! Unfortunately, weather conditions and a paint hardener that would not go off quickly enough led to lots of nice runs down both sides oops! This put the preparation stage back by two weeks, which disappointingly led to me missing the chance to race for the RAF at the Eight Clubs event at Silverstone (not to worry there's always next year). We took this opportunity to start to put the engine back in, attaching as many ancillaries as we could without affecting the ongoing paint preparation. Out came the wet and dry paper yet again to remove the runs and prepare for one last coat of paint. Thankfully the final coat went on perfectly and looked terrific! I was chuffed to bits with the result it was looking better than a lot of road cars and we at last seemed to be making progress.

   

Once unmasked, it looked great and made all the hours and hours of hard work and endless rubbing down seem worthwhile. However, it wasn't over yet it needed polishing which meant, you've guessed it, rubbing it down yet again! This time it was lightly sanded and then polished up with an electric buffer to obtain a glossy finish. This left me with a major dilemma should I really race this car and risk the immaculate finish being dented or scratched? Only joking!

At last bits and pieces were going back on the car. First the fire extinguisher was plumbed back in. Next to go in was the seat kindly donated by father-in-law Phil (his old one). I spent quite a time measuring up and altering the seat subframe, as I am quite a bit taller than Phil. With a rollcage in the car, there isn't actually a lot of room for a six-footer to fit inside a Mini!

It was now time for a final assault to get the car moving again. I rallied around for volunteers / helpers / slaves (call them what you will!) and found myself inundated with offers. My wife Rachel, my father Ray, father-in-law Phil and his father Norman all agreed to help and worked their socks off over the next few days. We were ready to rock and roll! First check did we have ignition? Yes! Would the engine turn over? Yes! Did we have oil pressure? NO! Oh dear bad news!

   

After an hour of trying to solve the problem, it was decided to remove the spark plugs and tow the car behind a tractor (my father-in-law happens to be a farmer!) in an attempt to speed things up a bit. It worked! The oil pressure was on the increase and the blood pressure on the decrease!

Now for the moment of truth as soon as the plugs were back in a short tow was all it took to make it fire. Wow at last the engine was running! After a short 'play' around the farm yard it was time to 'pit' and complete the necessary jobs to go for a proper run. Nothing could have prepared me for the experience! No brakes to speak of, a dodgy clutch and a narrow lane don't really agree. It was, needless to say, an eye opener!

   

With only a few weeks remaining before my first race at Donington Park, it was time to do all the finishing off. Rachel helped me with all the stickers and kit preparation, but I still had the trailer to prepare and tidy up. To say it was a close run thing in getting to Donington would be an understatement stickers were still being applied to the roof whilst the car was being winched onto the trailer on the day before the race! The last few days prior to the race seemed to be a logistical nightmare, trying to cater for every eventuality from getting fuel for the car, to making sure we had tickets and food for my supporters.

   
 

The long-awaited day finally dawned cold and windy but dry (for the time being) we were off to Donington! Sunday 29th October 2000 must have been the most nerve-racking day of my life so far. I wasn't nearly this nervous when I went parachuting at Weston-on-the-Green for fun eleven years ago! I made sure that we arrived in plenty of time, as I had to attend new driver briefings as well as sign on and get the car safely through scrutineering. All went smoothly until we were leaving the scrutineering bay (having passed).Suddenly the exhaust decided to detach itself from the underside of the car better then than on the track in the middle of qualifying, but annoying all the same! With the exhaust securely reattached and the all-important scrutineering ticket stuck on the side window it was time for the final preparations before qualifying. Would I need wet or dry tyres, how much fuel did I need, how would it handle? The questions were endless.

   

There was a considerable amount of interest in the car as it has a fair amount of history within the Mini Se7en Racing Club. The people who built it back in the 1980s are active members of the club and still competing although now in the faster Mini Miglia formula. They had been looking forward to seeing the car all season and were eagerly awaiting a first glimpse to see how much of the original car remained. Many of the original parts have survived even the front wings an amazing feat considering the car has completed nine seasons of racing in it's fifteen year lifetime!

   

At last it was time to set off for the collecting area. Whilst I drove off with Phil on board (in case of any last-minute problems before being let loose on the track), the rest of the team headed for the pit-lane and grandstands. I kept the car running, as it had been a problem to get started something that should have set alarm bells ringing, as it was a major clue that something was wrong. Phil jumped out and I followed the pack of Minis to start our fifteen minutes of qualifying.

   

I covered approximately 200 yards before a misfire developed at around 5000 rpm, preventing me from reaching the maximum revs of approaching 9000 rpm. Severely hampered by a lack of speed, my mirrors were soon full of Minis. They were passing me at an alarming rate and the problem was getting worse and worse, as I tried to make my way back to the pits. I frantically flicked switches in the vain hope that it might be easily rectifiable, but it made no difference. My main concern was that I needed to complete three laps in order to qualify. If the problem proved to be terminal and I was unable to go out again it would all be over, but it was too bad to continue for another two laps, so I had to risk coming into the pits.

 

 

Once in the pits, I relayed the symptoms to my pit-crew. With that the car cut out completely, with all the ignition lights going out too. Oh no! This was not good but as luck would have it, this actually helped with the diagnosis. The ignition master switch, which is located on the outside of the car for emergency purposes had come loose and switched the ignition off on its own! It was a very bad connection, but the team managed to get it to stay in the 'on' position and push-started me again to continue in the quest to qualify. Had the problem gone away? Not completely, but it gradually got better and better until I was able to use full throttle towards the end of the session. The problem then was that there were several cars off the circuit in dangerous positions, resulting in an almost continuous stream of yellow flags and consequently no chance of a flying lap. The important thing, however, was that I had got my three laps in. I had qualified for my first race - fantastic!

The circuit itself is amazing. The Craner Curves are just awesome and take guts to take flat out but isn't that exactly what motor racing is all about pushing to the limits! Not in my first outing it wasn't! Back in Parc Ferme, it was time to try and control my excitement, but it was impossible. I just couldn't describe the experience I was so drained from the rush of different emotions that I had encountered in the past fifteen minutes from dejection to exhilaration that I couldn't put my feelings into words.

   

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