In the 1960s, Northern Ireland’s Paddy Hopkirk became a national sporting hero for his giant-killing achievements at the wheel of a Mini Cooper S rally car.
Last week, 47 years after his landmark victory at the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally, Hopkirk took a ride in the firm’s latest rally challenger, the MINI Countryman WRC, alongside factory team driver Kris Meeke.
Hopkirk, 77, strapped into the co-drivers seat for three laps of the adverse handling circuit at Prodrive’s test track in Warwickshire, UK, and afterwards talked to wrc.com about the experience:
It’s been a few years since you sat in a World Rally Car - how did you enjoy the ride?
“It has changed a bit - but then again a lot of it hasn’t changed! Kris is very good, very smooth and it was most enjoyable. The one thing he had that was very different was a big digital number telling him which gear he was in. That would have been useful in my day, but of course we didn’t have as many gears. Another big difference is he doesn’t touch the clutch - he was always braking with his left foot. The handbrake is probably used more than in our day. He uses it to set the car up at high speed - while we would have only used the handbrake on very slow corners. The grip is terrific. Now I’d like to have a ride on the loose.”
Would you like to be behind the wheel yourself?
“No, I wouldn’t thank you! I wouldn’t mind trying it when nobody was looking, but as you get older your reactions get worse, you sight goes, everything goes, and you don’t want to make an idiot of yourself. A few of my friends have done it and hurt themselves and I don’t really want to do that.”
You must be happy to see the MINI name returning to rallying?
“Absolutely. And I hope Mini will bring rallying back into the public eye again, and people who owned a Mini way back then will hope this new MINI wins. Back in those days it [rallying] was front page news; it wasn’t seen as just motorsport. We were driving for our country - it was more like the Olympics. There were 27 million viewers when I was on the [television] show, Sunday night at the Palladium! Kris is a good ambassador for the sport; he can speak much better than I could and he’s a qualified mechanical engineer, so he knows what he is on about.”
Your rallying successes with the Mini really captured the public’s imagination
“When I won the Monte, I had a telegram from the British prime minister and another from the prime minter of Northern Ireland. Of course it wasn’t just me, I was lucky, I was a competent driver and we had a wonderful team. The car was a little cheap family saloon that Alex Issigonis designed as the district nurses’ car. And here it was beating cars that were much more expensive, and big teams like Citroen, Mercedes and Ford. It was becoming the ‘in’ car to have and [Mini motorsport guru] John Cooper used to say, if you drove up to the big house there were two Minis outside; the ordinary Cooper that belonged to the cook and the Mini Cooper S that belonged to his Lordship. So it became a sort of classless car, the Royal family brought it and everybody else, it was great.”
How do you rate Kris’s chances this year against the current crop of WRC drivers, including Sebastien Loeb and - like in the 1960s - a selection of rapid Finns?
“Back then the Scandinavians were left foot braking and were used to driving on snow and ice with studs, much more than we were. But nowadays I think most of the top drivers are very equally competent. I think Kris is terrific, I really do. I think he is smooth in the car so he will get good results. Also, being an engineer he will be able help develop the car and I hope it will help the engineers at Prodrive and at BMW to do a proper job.”