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A mad dash from Nurburgring to Spa-Francorchamps in a Mini JCW

If the high-speed blatt from Munich to the Nurburgring in the latest Mini John Cooper Works hatch in time to watch the 24-hour race wasn’t high enough on my bucket list, then a chance invite from our good friend Ron Simons of RSRNurburg to head over to Spa Francorchamps for one of its premium track days was surely the golden ticket.

I’ve known Ron for more than a decade and have watched his race car rental business in Germany and Belgium grow year in, year out. Legions of happy customers from all corners of the world have had the opportunity to drive a properly prepared track car around what are arguably two of the most famous race tracks on the planet.

The business itself owns more than 150 track-ready cars: from the ground-level Renault Megane RS280, BMW M2, M4 and a stack on Porsches from Caymans all the way through to a bunch of 911 GT3s and GT3 RS versions, as well as full-blown race cars and caged Lotuses specially prepared for both the 'Ring and Spa circuits.

NOTE: This story has a vehicle assessment-focused companion piece here.

The weather in June is usually beautiful in Germany – plenty of warm sunshine and cooling off ever so slightly at night. But this year was different with a European heatwave on the rampage and hotels that don’t feature air conditioning, meaning, a good night’s sleep after a long day at Sunday’s Nurburgring race wasn’t going to happen.

But, none or that mattered, when I received a text from Ron, late Sunday, suggesting I drive over to Belgium early Monday morning in time for a track walk with he and his 80 paying guests, some of whom had paid up to ten-thousand bucks for the privilege of driving a track-prepped Porsche 911 GT3 with a private instructor riding shotgun.

For those who may or may not have heard of the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, the iconic 7.004km is nestled in the Liege province of Belgium and plays host to both the Belgium Grand Prix and Spa 24 Hour endurance race. It’s easily the favourite of most F1 drivers for its magnificent rolling hills in the Ardennes mountain range as well as some of the best corners of any track in the world.

The most spectacular section is known as Eau Rouge, the mother of all corners, though in reality, it’s really a series of three corners that is said to sort the wild from the mild.

Today’s Formula One pilots take it flat out. Previous generation wheelmen did that too, but sometimes with disastrous results. Popular German driver Stefan Bellof died here in 1985 when his Group C Porsche collided with Belgian driver Jacky Ickx, while Jacques Villeneuve and his BAR Honda teammate Riccardo Zonta both crashed in 1999 as they tried to take it flat out.

But, that and so much more in store would have to wait until I arrived there the next morning – all being well that is. After a poor sleep thanks to the unseasonably warm night, it was up early with a plan to leave at 6:30am, leaving plenty of time to make the run from my hotel in Adenau, Germany to Spa.

Only, I was delayed thanks to Facebook posts and a few other organisational matters which needed to be ticked off for my drive back to Munich the following day. That said, I was in the car by 7:05am and on the way, only this time, free of suitcases and other shit that might restrict my cross country performance in the Mini JCW.

Ron was dead right when he said “you’re going to enjoy the drive to Belgium, especially if you take the alternative route”, which is exactly what I tried doing, only that just confused the navigation system and got me kind-of-lost for a while. Bad move, so I just punched in Spa and drove the thing like I'd stolen it, because at this stage, if I didn’t get a move on, I wasn’t going to make the track walk.

It’s staggering just how perfect German roads are, even b-roads like these that criss-cross over undulating fields in a perfectly unmarked state. They don’t seem to crumble away like roads in Australia. And, potholes simply don’t exist in Germany, or not in these parts anyway.

I dialled up all the settings in the JCW for maximum attack and while there’s no real issue with its cornering prowess or general go, the steering is numb and not overly quick, either. For a hardcore Mini that promises ‘go-kart’ handling as a prime selling point, there needs be a lot more communication through the tiller to the driver. It’s a bit of a letdown.

The irony is I had so much more fun doing high speeds on the Autobahn than shredding the tight twisty b-roads to Belgium. And, that’s just plain wrong for a car with such a strong heritage.

There’s plenty of punch available under the right foot though, but I’m not sure the overall experience is thrilling enough to compete with rivals like Hyundai’s i30N, Renault Megane RS280 or Honda Civic Type R.

That said, I’m quietly confident the new more powerful engine will be up to the challenge when it finally makes its way into the JCW hatch. Certainly, the GP edition should be a different kettle of fish entirely and able to carve up the German countryside like no other before it.

It’s all a bit soft and disconnected for the top-shelf performance Mini, a fact made all too obvious on the kind of terrain it should relish. This is not what I expected.

It didn’t take long before the signposts were all in French and all I could think of was an authentic baguette, pastry and hot chocolate in a Belgian cafe. For more than a few minutes it even took precedent over Spa itself – until finally I arrived – at the wrong gate. The sat-nav couldn’t help me either, I just plodded around until I saw the blue RSR Driving Academy flags that seemed led to the main pit area.

There’s no mistaking this venue as one of RSR’s premium track days either, because the JCW looked mighty under-gunned in the presence of track-prepped Caterhams (plural), Ferraris, BMW M cars, Lotuses and scores of Porsche GT3s and GT3 RS models here for some fast laps.

All up, there were nearly 90 drivers signed up for the day’s event, including two seemingly cashed-up Aussies who had coughed up more than eight grand each for the privilege of driving an RSR prepared Porsche GT3 RS (with private race instructor) riding shotgun.

There’s a 300km limit for these cars, but these guys had paid another grand-or-so for more laps to be added to the tally, and why not, given the sheer cost and effort just to get there.

The pit setup is a brilliant mix of coffee bars, gourmet food and snacks (including fresh baguettes!) cakes, juices, water, along with plenty of couches for relaxing between driving stints.

Other pit garages are set up for tyre pressure checks and brake maintenance should the cars need it, especially those that intend to go hard on this particular day. There’s a 60:40 ratio of RSR race rental cars with owner/drivers at any particular event, though the sheer number of Porsche GT3s (20 plus on my count) was staggering.

There were one-offs, too, like the yellow Ferrari F40 Spider, currently owned by a successful businessman from thew Netherlands who looked to be a pretty handy driver. Certainly, he definitely knew the track and he manually shifted his way around Spa quicker than other cars with PDK 'boxes.

It wasn’t long before I jumped in (the passenger side) of one of Ron’s manual GT3s for the low-speed shuffle around to the top section of Eau Rouge/Raidillon. It’s this and one or two other corners at Spa that make up the bulk of the track walk.

You can’t quite believe how steep, and indeed, daunting this section is. Actually, it’s not exactly Eau Rouge that’s the problem here. The part that is problematic is the uphill stretch with its 18 per cent incline leading into Raidillon – that’s the one that can cause the car to become massively unstuck if you haven’t positioned it properly right from the left-hand entry.

And, don’t believe you can take Eau Rouge flat, even in a GT3 with an experienced driver behind the wheel, as I would find out later in the day when Ron would take me for some hot laps in the same car.

RSR is big on rental car pilots also stumping up for a race instructor to be in your car for every lap throughout the day, which is something we fully subscribe to because you end up lapping so much quicker than most of those drivers that choose to go it alone. Not to mention any track secrets worth a few tenths or more off your lap times. All invaluable stuff and well worth the extra coin.

The baseline renter is the new-generation Megane RS280 – more than capable of putting in some fast laps around this 7.004km circuit and there were plenty in use on the day.

By far the most prolific and loudest of the fleet were the hordes of Porsche GT3s – most had race exhausts by the sound of them screaming down the main straight before late braking into La Source or turn one. It’s a fantastic sight and sound experience when you get three or four of them going hammer and tong to arrive first into this corner.

The F40 track car was also a sight to be seen and heard as well as being surprisingly quick, even up against the quickest of the GT3 drivers. But the prize for the fastest pilot of the day must go to the highly-tuned Caterham 7 that from what I could see was barely braking, instead, shifting down one or two gears only, before getting back on the throttle.

Even the GT3 RSs were no match for this French driver who had brought his Caterham on the back of a trailer behind his BMW X6 M. I spoke to him out back after the last track session had wound up and turns out it was a specially prepared version using the brand’s heavily modified 2.3-litre Cosworth-tuned Ford Duratec engine.

This thing was an out-and-out weapon, seemingly able to obliterate the entire field of 80-plus performance cars each and every time it went out on track, except for one car and one driver - Ron’s Porsche GT3 with a manual shift. It was his chosen weapon to show me how it’s done at Spa. And that he was about to do in no uncertain terms.

I’d been with Ron in his RSR GT-R Nissan Ring taxi for a lap around the Nurburgring in semi-wet conditions but still at warp speed, so I knew Ron was a very quick wheelman. But Spa was dry, so once the GT3’s temperatures were up, I can tell you with absolute clarity he didn’t hold back. If we didn’t hit Eau Rouge flat, it was damn close to a full-throttle assault.

I saw 250km/h on the speedo and we were passing plenty of cars and doing it fairly easily except at turn 10 (Bruxelles), where the car was almost sideways, or as Ron put it, “just rotate the car here and its much cleaner.” Yes, Ron, I’ll do that, but not today mate, thanks all the same.

With only a few fast laps in the GT3 and you can see why the F1 drivers love Spa. Once you know the corners and work out your braking points, it just flows. But, for me, today was much more of a reconnaissance mission so that when I return, I’m comfortable behind the wheel of my own GT3 rental.

And, for those folks who can hold off a few months, RSR is currently building a huge car storage setup trackside along with a few luxury apartments for those who want to spend more than a day at Spa. When fully completed, the complex will feature more garaging, as well as luxury accommodation for those who want to stay overnight for an extra day or so, not to mention the Belgian Grand Prix race weekend itself.

I really wish I could have stayed overnight in a cute Belgium hotel in Spa Francorchamps and dined in a French restaurant before an early start on my return drive back to BMW in Munich where I had scheduled lunch with a mate after an emergency passport photo shoot for a special US Visa I needed.

Either way, I’ll be back at Spa in no time to drive this place for real.

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