Enduring reliability sees MX-5s mix it with GT cars

AS the MX-5 marks its 20th anniversary, wheelworldreviews Editor David Hooper joins the Mazda UK race team for its first event in the 2010 Britcar Championship at Snetterton.

The team photo pictured (left to right) are the Jota Motorsport team who are running the cars for Mazda UK, the drivers, Mark Ticehurst, Owen Mildenhall, Jade Paveley and David Hooper, and representatives from Mazda UK on the start line at Snetterton.

RACE day saw another early start for the Mazda race team and its drivers. Jota Motorsport, the team which is preparing and running the cars for Mazda UK in the Britcar Championship, had got everything ready and final checks were being made to the cars.
The race at Snetterton is part of the build-up to the main event in the Britcar calendar, the 24-hour race at Silverstone, in October, to celebrate of the MX-5’s 20th birthday. In its first 20 years, the MX-5 has developed a loyal band of enthusiasts, men and women, young and old. Fun to drive, reliable to own and economical to run, there’s no wonder that it has become the world’s favourite sports car.
We had two practice or qualifying sessions, followed by a warm up after lunch followed by the race itself.
The team decided I would start the race, something that I hadn’t done before, and in Britcar, it’s a rolling start.
My 17-year-old team-mate Jade Paveley and I took it in turns out on the circuit, getting used to the car with a full fuel load, and the much faster traffic which seemed to be far less forgiving and patient on race day than it had been in Friday practice.
Our new team-mate and third driver, ex-Formula One and Le Mans driver Mike Wilds, took the other car, which was to be raced by professional drivers Mark Ticehurst and Owen Mildenhall, out for a few installation laps, ready for his stint in our car later in the afternoon.

Refuelling has to be done without any drivers in the car and fire extinguishers at the ready.

Jade and I practised our driver changes between our sessions out on track in the morning. As you come into the pits, the idea is to loosen the harness and as the car comes to a halt, switch off the engine, remove the steering wheel and get out of he car as quickly as you can, ready for it to be refuelled, before the next driver can get in. No one is allowed near the car while it is being refuelled   in case there is a fire.
You could feel the tension building in the garage, as the team made last-minute checks to the car – everyone was busy.
After the short warm-up session, it was time for me to get strapped back into the MX-5 ready for the race. I drove out of the garage and joined the queue of cars at the end of the pit lane, before we were released to make our way around the circuit to the grid.
In a rolling start, the racing cars are led around the track on their formation lap behind the safety car. As they enter the start/finish straight, the safety car peels off into the pit lane, and the cars, two abreast, wait for the lights to go out. When they do, the race is on.
The virtually standard MX-5s were the least powerful cars there, and as expected had qualified near the back. I lined up directly behind Mark’s car as the pack headed for the first corner.
Fortunately it was a clean start with no accidents, so I drove as fast as I could, knowing it would only take about three or four laps before the leaders caught me and lapped me.
Sure enough, it wasn’t long. I was about half way down the back straight when I saw the lights of the leading pack in my mirrors as they chased me down like a hunter after its prey. They were so fast they were on me by the end of the straight, so I kept well to the right as they streamed through as the marshals waved their blue flags at me for all they were worth.
I slotted into a suitable gap and carried on, but as the pack became spread out, there was a continuous stream of faster cars filling my mirrors.
A broken Marcos in the first corner brought out the safety car after around 40 minutes, bringing my stint of the race to an end as I was called into the pits.
The team refuelled the car and Jade leapt into the driver’s seat and disappeared down the pit lane for her first race. She did well and came back smiling, if a little relieved, but I know that feeling! More fuel went in before Mike, our experienced third driver took over.
Mike only managed a handful of laps before a Ferrari engine let go. The first we knew of it on the pit wall was when we saw clouds of black smoke in the gravel trap at Coram Curve. Luckily, the driver escaped the flames, but the safety car was having a busy afternoon.
Our two-hour race finished behind the safety car, which was a bit of a shame, especially for Mike, who brought it home fourth in class. The lead car, with Mark and Owen at the wheel, claimed second in class, but continued as an invitation drive for the full four hours, eventually finishing in a hugely impressive eighth place overall.
The big GT cars may be vastly more powerful than the MX-5s, but as this endurance race proved, they are also far less reliable and durable. Apart from racing brakes, slick tyres and a big exhaust, our MX-5s were virtually the same as the road cars millions of people have enjoyed over the years. Even at racing speeds, they surprised us with their economy and neither car had any reliability problems, which is a testament to Mazda’s engineering.
I was privileged to be invited to join the Mazda UK race team, and Jade and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience which proved to us what millions of owners around the world already know – the MX-5 may be 20 years old this year, but it’s still a great little sports car – on the road, or the race track.

In the thick of it – what the MX-5s lacked in outright pace, they made up for in reliability.