Testing, testing – Mazda MX-5s are back on track

AS the MX-5 marks its 20th anniversary, wheelworldreviews Editor DAVID HOOPER joins the Mazda UK race team for a two-day test as it prepares for its first race in the Britcar Championship.

Kart racer Jade Paveley and David Hooper with the MX-5s in the pit lane at Croft.

THE world’s favourite sports car is 20 years old this year – and what better way could there be of celebrating such a major milestone than by taking the MX-5 racing.

The Mazda brand boasts a strong motorsport heritage and the company kicked off the year with an endurance race for dealers from across Europe at the Adria raceway, not far from Venice.

Grimsby’s dealer principal, Jeremy Griffiths, was one of five drivers in the car which won the event outright for Mazda UK.

Following on from that success, Mazda is returning to the Britcar Championship, five years after its successful campaign with the RX-8s which saw several class wins for its number one car driven by Mark Ticehurst and Natasha Firman, the winner of the Formula Woman Championship. A second car, driven by journalists, also claimed some impressive results.

The essential race equipment has been added, but the MX-5’s interior is clearly recognisable.

I was one of the drivers invited to take part in 2005 and after gaining my racing licence at Croft, competed in my first race at Snetterton – a four-hour endurance race – at night, finishing fourth in class, with Mark and Natasha winning the class that time out.

When I was invited to join the Mazda line-up again with the MX-5s, it wasn’t one of the most difficult decisions to make. It was an instant yes!

Mazda is using the cars which raced in Italy, albeit with numerous modifications to meet the FIA rules. The main event will be this year’s Britcar 24-hour race at Silverstone in October, but the build-up to that began with two days’ testing at Croft, followed by the cars’ first competitive outing in the UK, a four-hour endurance race at Snetterton, in Norfolk.

Mazda’s lead driver is again Mark Ticehurst who will be teamed with journalist and racer Owen Mildenhall.

Jota Motorsport is running the cars, and I was invited to join the team at Croft, where I was in for a bit of a surprise. My team mate had changed, and I was now paired with a 17-year-old kart racer called Jade Paveley, who was taking her driving test that day and would join us tomorrow.

Thanks to changeable, showery weather, the technically challenging Croft circuit was damp and greasy, so after a familiarisation session, we took the race cars out for the first time.

For endurance racing, among the many modifications from the standard specs, are secondary fuel tanks which, due to the regulations, had to go in the boot. They are filled by dump cans which quickly transfer large quantities of fuel into the extra tank, which in turn then pumps it into the car’s original fuel tank, so the team wanted to know how the extra weight, which sits high up, and behind the rear axle would effect the car’s handling.

It quickly became apparent that on slick tyres, the car’s handling was not where it needed to be. When driven hard through corners, the weight change was pushing the car onto the tyre’s shoulders, making it feel as though it was stepping out, but more importantly causing excessive tyre wear, which would obviously cause problems in n endurance race.

After the first session, team manager Sam Hignett, debriefed the drivers in the truck and discussed what we could do to improve things. It all got quite technical, with the professional drivers talking about the need for thicker roll bars and increasing the camber, or the angle of the rear wheels, to improve tyre wear and reduce body roll.

The extra fuel tank needed for endurance racing fills what is usually the boot.

While I was sent out to get used to the race car on slicks, the team swopped bits from another car and made the adjustments. Mark took his car out to see if the modifications had done the trick. Lap times two seconds a lap quicker than his previous best, confirmed we were going in the right direction, and we finished the day on a positive note.

Next morning, Jade and Mark went out in the two seater car to begin her coaching. The MX-5s are quite different to the 125 Gearbox karts she is used to racing and she had a lot to learn and not much time to do it in.

Owen was doing more testing in the lead car, while I was tasked with doing a long fuel run at race pace, which would not only help me get used to the car in changeable showery conditions, but also help the team assess how much fuel we would need for the race.

Another good day was brought to an early end by thunder storms and heavy rain. Both cars were sent out on wets to see how they handled, but the rain was so heavy the circuit soon became flooded and impossible to drive, but testing being what it is, the two laps I managed revealed an unexpected problem. Despite being an open car, the windscreen steamed up. The heater system had been removed to save weight, but there was a surprising amount of heat in the car, which meant the inside of the screen misted. I had to wipe it with my glove, which is obviously not ideal should it be a wet race. That was something else for the team to work on – but they only had one day back at base before heading to Snetterton on Thursday.

Jade made good progress under Mark’s expert tuition, but still had some way to go to get up to speed, but a private lesson from British Touring Car Champion Matt Neal, a friend of the family, during a break in a BTCC test day at Snetterton that week, helped no end.

Anyone who follows motorsport will hear people talk about “testing”. To actually be part of it for two days with a professional race team, provided a fascinating insight, and to have been able to play an important role in the preparations for the forthcoming races was brilliant.

The race-prepared MX-5s make a colourful sight.