The combination of a scientific approach to development and a natural impulse to go fast means building this modified R56 JCW for track use has been no trivial pursuit…
Feature first appeared in Performance Mini. Words: Dan Bevis. Photos: Chris Frosin
When it comes to modifying cars, many approaches can be taken. Some people have an over-arching game plan in their head from day one, mapping out all of the parts they intend to use and ticking their way through the list with clear focus. Others prefer to allow the car to evolve organically, making a tweak here and a change there, tailoring it to their lifestyle preferences.
Naturally these methods are just two points along a very broad scale, and the technique employed by Rafail Tsartsaris in the development of this modified R56 JCW can best be described as scientific. Methodical. Parts are changed and changed again, but don’t think of it as a case of trial-and-error so much as a supremely forthright insistence on making the car as perfect and high-performing as it can possibly be. Ruthlessly ousting upgrades that he doesn’t feel are up to his standards as well as designing, modelling and 3D-printing his own parts where necessary, this car has more the feeling of something that’s been grown in a lab in some vast petri dish than one spannered in an oily garage. This is a clinical pursuit of excellence, and there’s absolutely no room for chaff here.
He’s not a robot, of course. This whole thing is spurred on by pure emotion; Rafail’s the same as any other enthusiast – it’s all about the passion.
“The main reason I wanted an R56 was that they looked like fun to drive, like a go-kart,” he grins. “Also, one of my best mates owns a 600bhp R56 and that was a big inspiration. There’s an endless amount of styling options for these cars as well. It’s easily possible to make them unique to your own taste.”
Rafail does have form with MINIs prior to this one, his first being an R50 Cooper – something he describes as being a great overall car, if a little slow for his liking. It received a bunch of handy power modifications, including a Scorpion exhaust system, K&N induction, and a remap, but after a while he decided it was just time for something faster.
He says, “I was looking into various BMWs and Audis, but when I saw this JCW at a dealer in Nottingham I requested a test-drive and then bought it straight away.
“I was very impressed with the power and handling of the car. The condition was perfect engine-wise, as well as the bodywork. And there were no modifications at all when I bought it, aside from some MINI spotlights, a DVD player and Viper stripes.”
The perfect basis for a project, then, although perhaps Rafail didn’t quite appreciate at the time how in-depth this project would go. “It was very unpredictable journey,” he elaborates, “and it took a few years to get to where we are today. I have spent an unbelievable amount of time and money to get the car to this stage.”
Projects like this are not strictly rational things, of course, and there’s seldom any mileage in trying to justify the spending on a spreadsheet. Again, it’s all about the passion. But a certain level of rationality in the planning and the preparation is always advisable, and it’s here where Rafail started.
In order to ensure the R56 provided the perfect base for what he wanted to achieve, he first had to reassure himself that the car was as good as it could be before taking it further. With this in mind, he gave it a major service prior to booking into Millsys Autos for a timing belt change as well as the de-coking that’s so important for these engines – they’re renowned for collecting a build-up of carbon around the valves and intake ports, so it’s a good idea to have it cleaned before trying to extract extra power from it.
“After that, the performance modifications could begin,” Rafail grins. “I took it on a track day at Silverstone, and I have to say I was a little disappointed with how it performed, which is what really spurred me on to make some changes. I was testing every product available to find the most suitable for my car and my driving style; I’ve tried five different induction kits and came to a conclusion that the AEM is one of the best – although the JCW airbox with a cone filter inside is also up to the job.”
This ruthless approach to bench-testing options can be found behind all of the major decisions throughout the spec list. Many combinations of brake disc and pad were tried before Rafail settled upon EBC slotted and vented discs with PBS Pro Race pads. He even has two pairs of seats that get swapped in and out – Cobra Suzuka buckets for track days, and Corbeau Clubsports for shows.
“When it came to upgrading the turbo, I didn’t want to mess around,” he reasons. “I went for the Stage 3 hybrid turbo from PRS Racing – it’s expensive, but very reliable, especially if you drive the car on track a lot.”
This hybrid unit is highly regarded, featuring seven-blade compressor wheel and cut-black turbine blades – the turbo offers massive power potential and vastly improved throttle response for either the N14 or N18 engines, rated up to 350bhp. A hot little number, and it doesn’t require you to muck about with the exhaust manifold.
In Rafail’s case, he’s got it set up with an Airtec intercooler, a Milltek stainless exhaust system with decat, the aforementioned AEM induction kit, and perhaps the jazziest addition: AEM water/methanol injection. This has a 250cc single injector and squirts a 50/50 mix, which massively reduces intake temperatures as well as reducing carbon build-up (again, very important on N14 engines), and with all of these upgrades working in harmony the JCW is putting out an entertaining 295bhp and 317lb.ft.
Chassis-wise, Rafail was pretty satisfied with the car’s factory handling, although these things can always be sharpened up – plus he craved the adjustability and versatility of coilovers. So the MINI’s now wearing MeisterR ClubRace coilovers, as well as a combination of Hardrace rear control arms and Powerflex bushes throughout.
Where things get really scientific is with the parts Rafail has made himself. You see, he works as a senior engineering BIM technician, meaning he’s extremely talented in the field of 3D modelling; he also has three 3D printers at his disposal, so if there’s something he wants to fit to the car that doesn’t exist on the market, or an upgrade whose off-the-shelf designs require improvement, he can do all of that himself.
He says, “I have designed and 3D-printed a brake cooling kit for the car, and that helped a lot on track with heat management on the discs. I’ve also designed a few brackets and mounts for the boost gauge, the Ultragauge, a phone holder, and some 3D-printed parts for the Coolerworx shifter – anyone who is interested in these can find the items at airifix3dparts.co.uk.”
Throughout this build, there’s a laser-focused quest for perfection, along with a clinical forthrightness when it comes to development. That said, it’s all underpinned by good old automotive enthusiasm.
“I think the most impressive thing is the engine,” Rafail ponders. “People are always asking my maintenance schedule, as it’s very rare to find a track car with an N14 at this power level, which has 120k on the clock and stock internals – I still can’t believe it myself, to be honest.”
That’s the very essence of a project like this: taking the unbelievable and making it plausible. The approach has been extremely scientific, but it’s the love and enthusiasm that makes it so engaging – he wanted something faster, so he made it happen… and then he just kept going. The quest for perfection is just in this guy’s nature.
Tech Spec: Modified R56 JCW
N14 1.6-litre turbo, PRS Stage 3 hybrid turbo, AEM V2 water/methanol injection, GFB diverter valve, Turbosmart vacuum tubes, Airtec intercooler, bespoke aluminium pipe from intercooler to throttle body, Milltek stainless exhaust system with decat, AEM induction kit, oil catch can, Forge coolant hoses, NGK Laser iridium spark plugs, NGK coil pack, Alta boost port
JCW manual, Helix six-paddle clutch, Helix single-mass flywheel
MeisterR ClubRace coilovers, Hardrace rear control arms, Powerflex bushes throughout, Vibra-Technics torque link
Brembo JCW four-pot callipers, 316mm EBC slotted and vented discs, PBS Pro Race brake pads, Hel braided lines, AP Racing Dot 5.1 fluid, Airifix brake cooling kit
Wheels & Tyres:
7x17in ET37 Sparco Assetto Gara wheels in matt black, stud conversion, 10mm spacers, 215/40×17 Avon ZZR semi-slick tyres
Corbeau Clubsport seats for shows; Cobra Suzuka seats for track days, TRS 3in four-point harnesses, JP Cages rear roll cage, Coolerworx shifter with Airifix cover, Airifix sport button relocation, Ultragauge with Airifix mount, JCW carbon/Alcantara handbrake, JCW carbon steering wheel insert, Alcantara-trimmed dash, black LCI-conversion heater panel, Boost CD and steering wheel inserts, GP2-style dials, voltage and boost gauges with Airifix air vent gauge pods, AEM methanol controller with carbon fibre plate
Challenge rear diffuser, Challenge front splitter, Orranje G-Wing, Orranje vented A panels, Viper stripes, de-chrome, LCI black bi-xenon headlights