MINI's return to rally is fast approaching. The Countryman World Rally Car has just cleared the shakedown phase in the hands of famed racing firm Prodrive, and now heads on to further development.

Shakedown testing established the fundamental core of the car's functionality and systems as working and reliable enough to undertake the next level of testing: a week-long run on gravel in Portugal. Aerodynamics and final body work are still being developed as well, with the current test mule running what is basically a lightly modified stock skin.

Returning to rally is an easy choice for MINI at this point: the FIA has decided to institute 1.6-liter Super2000 rules for the WRC next year, and MINI has just launched its first crossover in its new incarnation. The fit is natural, and offers a brilliant way for the brand to promote the merits of what may be its ugliest duckling.

Working with Prodrive ensures the car will be capable of meeting the challenging surfaces and conditions presented by the global rally series, though it will remain up to MINI to find the driving talent to push the car to its limits--an absolute must to even stay within sight of Citroen's Sebastian Loeb, arguably the greatest rally driver in history.

MINI will kick off its rally bid with the first event of the 2011 season, February's Rally Sweden.