by Greg Kable
29 April 2020
So, here it is: two and a half years after we first saw that extreme concept car at the Frankfurt motor show, the new Mini John Cooper Works GP has finally arrived.
Yes, it has been a rather drawn-out development cycle for the fastest road-going Mini model yet. Indeed, there were times when it appeared plans for a new GP had been abandoned for lack of any official confirmation on its progress. Still, you know what they say about the kind of things that come to those who wait.
Like its distinguished predecessors, the GP will be produced in a limited run of just 3000 examples, of which 575 are reserved for the UK. At £33,895, it’s a big (£7935) step up from the standard John Cooper Works. Two versions are on offer: a full-specification model and more track-biased ‘naked’ one, which goes without air conditioning or an infotainment system.
The good news is that Mini has stuck to its guns and delivered a car not too far removed from what it originally promised for its 60th birthday: one that incorporates all the gregarious spirit and driving enjoyment delivered by its various competition cars down the years.
Performance-wise, the third-generation GP raises the bar by a not insignificant 74bhp and 98lb ft over the JCW three-door hatchback, upon which it’s heavily based and alongside which it’s assembled at the Mini factory in Oxford.
The 2.0-litre unit delivers 302bhp, endowing this most powerful Mini with a power-to-weight ratio that’s up by 67bhp per tonne over its predecessor, at 241bhp per tonne. No less influential to the driving experience is the torque, which peaks at 332lb ft between 1750rpm and 4500rpm.
Changes over the engine used by the JCW include a new twin-scroll turbocharger running greater boost pressure, a reinforced crankshaft with a larger main bearing, lighter pistons, new connecting rods, a redesigned vibration damper, a larger sump and greater cooling potential. Advertisement
Although it retains front-wheel drive, the GP is sold exclusively with an automatic gearbox. This seems an odd move, given its positioning as a road-and-track car. However, Mini says the ZF-produced eight-speed unit, with its unique, centre console-mounted gear selector and steering wheel-mounted shift paddles, is key to providing the GP with the sort of performance to challenge rivals such as the Renault Mégane RS 300 Trophy and Honda Civic Type R – even though it retains the same individual gear ratios and 2.96:1 final drive ratio as the JCW.
Like its predecessor, the GP is a pure two-seater. While the front of the cabin is little changed from the JCW, apart from the inclusion of a digital instrument display and new trims, the rear bench has been removed in the interest of weight-saving and body-stiffening. A transverse brace is added behind the front seats, although this is simply to stop luggage sliding forward and plays no part in improving rigidity.
What’s it like?
Hitting the starter button unleashes a rich blare of exhaust noise that’s eminently appealing and fully befitting of the GP’s track-bred character.
On the move, where it emits the odd crackle on a lifted throttle and during downshifts, the acoustic qualities are clearly more expressive and immediate than in other Minis, thanks partly to the adoption of a new stainless steel exhaust system featuring unique ducting and purposeful-looking, 90mm-diameter tailpipes.
There’s no arguing with the effectiveness of the engine in motivating the GP’s relatively low kerb weight of 1255kg. There’s a hint of low-end lag, but keep it percolating above 2000rpm and it remains engagingly responsive and nicely linear in terms of delivery, with plenty of torque-driven urge and tempting smoothness through the mid-range.
There’s too much torque for the mechanical differential lock and dynamic stability control (DSC) system to properly cope with on occasion, in fact. The result, when accelerating hard, is some moderate corruption of the steering as the GP struggles to fully place its reserves to the road in lower gears.
This aside, the performance feels every bit as strong, if not stronger, as that indicated by Mini’s claimed 0-62mph time of 5.2sec. The engine remains willing, with a fittingly muscular character to the 6800rpm cut-out, while the gearbox performs wonderfully crisp and rapid shifts on a loaded throttle in manual mode.
There’s no need to bother scrolling through different driving modes to tickle the best out of it, either: the uber-Mini is programmed for Sport only.
It doesn’t take too long to discover that the GP operates on an altogether higher performance plane than any previous production Mini. At all points, it feels faster, more urgent and generally a good deal more fervent than even the JCW.
Happily, these traits also apply to the handling, which if anything is even more impressive than the sheer speed generated by the new engine. There’s a terrifically agile feel to the GP, and it’s never less than incisive across a winding back road.
The basis for this is a series of stiffening measures incorporated within the body structure, including a new engine mount, a beefed-up front tower strut brace and, most notably, a sturdy rectangular support for the rear suspension.
The GP also runs its own unique camber rates, beefed-up anti-roll bars and, with unique 18in wheels featuring greater offset than those of the JCW, suitably wide tracks. The standard 225/35-profile Hankook tyres come with S1 Evo Z tread or, as worn by our test car, TD semi-slicks.
On top of this, Mini has lowered the ride height by 10mm over the JCW, bringing a lower centre of gravity and even greater visual aggressiveness to the stance.
It’s the immediacy of the steering that initially shines through. Turn the wheel and it delivers great on-centre response. The hefty weighting of the speed-sensitive electromechanical system can be a little disconcerting at first, but it becomes a welcome attribute once you’re dialled in, particularly at speed, where it compensates for a lack of proper road feel. It really is nicely judged, giving the GP a keenness in directional changes that’s clearly beyond that of the JCW.
The cornering ability of the GP is characterised by superb body control and a steely resistance to understeer. The real strength, though, is the grip. With all the various changes to the suspension and the huge purchase provided by its grooved race tyres, the car is capable of generating truly heady cornering speeds on smooth surfaces. However, it takes a lot of commitment to even begin scratching the surface of its lateral limits on public roads.
We’ll need a lot more time at the wheel and a circuit to properly explore the GP’s handling, but those in the know at Mini suggest it will see off the standard BMW M2 coupé over a single lap of the Nürburgring.
What we can already vouch for is its outstanding high-speed stability. On an extended autobahn outside Munich, we briefly saw 160mph, at which the GP felt superbly planted and full of intent. Mini says it can hit 165mph when given more room to roam, making it the brand’s fastest model yet.
The compromise in achieving all this manifests itself in the quality of the ride – although not by as much as you might expect. There’s a general firmness to the suspension (which is by MacPherson struts at the front and multi-link at the rear), but it’s not totally devoid of compliance. Overall, it’s a touch more reactive to surface imperfections than the JCW. However, it was far from harsh on German roads.
The brakes are well up to the job, too. Once again, they’re the same specification as those used by the Clubman JCW All4 and Countryman JCW All4, with 360mm discs grabbed by four-piston calipers up front and 330mm discs with single-piston floating calipers at the rear.
Of course, there’s more to the new GP than its sheer speed and sweet handling. This car unapologetically signals its track-bred intent with the most radical bodykit and arguably toughest stance ever applied to a road-going Mini. The visual purpose apparent in the original concept remains very much ingrained in the function-led exterior.
The visual differentiation over the standard JCW is quite extreme and instantly signals the added performance potential. It starts at the front, with a deeper front bumper that houses larger cooling ducts and a more pronounced splitter element.
Further back, there are blade-like front wheel arch extensions that carry the car’s individual build number. Like those used for the rear wheel arches, they’re fashioned from the same carbonfibre that’s used within the body of the BMW i3 and are used to house the wider tracks and 8in-wide alloy wheels.
The biggest visual difference, though, is the GP’s enormous rear wing. It looks as though it has been stolen straight off a TCR race car and, along with subtle lip spoilers, helps contribute to providing added downforce at speed. There’s also a subtly altered rear valance within the rear bumper, which houses centrally mounted twin tailpipes.
The GP is now even faster and remorseless in handling ability than ever before. It’s wonderfully focused and manages to involve you to a high degree in the right conditions.
However, despite its obvious competency, the decision to make it available with an automatic gearbox only appears misguided. As hardcore as it is in many areas, it doesn’t quite feel like the full raging race car for the road that Mini would have us believe it is.