DAVID HOOPER joins the Mazda UK race team at the Silverstone International Circuit to race MX-5s in the Britcar Production Sports Car Class against faster, more powerful opposition.
A COOL dry day welcomed the Mazda UK race team to the circuit which markets itself proudly as the Home of British Motorsport.
When I arrived at Silverstone’s impressive Wing paddock complex I was a little awe-struck by the sheer scale and cleanliness of the facilities. This Wing complex makes the other pit-lane garages I’ve seen look like back-street lock-ups – the sort of places where Del Boy would keep his Ford Capri Ghia!
Our race cars, two 130mph MX-5s, are based closely on the soft-top Mazda MX-5 Sport Tech models and are powered by a 160PS 2.0-litre MZR engine with a six-speed manual transmission and a limited slip differential for better handling.
We were to compete on Silverstone’s nine-corner, 1.85-mile International Circuit in the second round of the Britcar Production Sportscar series, taking on the more powerful Porsche, Ginetta and Mazda teams contesting two 45-minute races.
I was joined by another journalist, Richard Aucock, and Mazda UK’s works drivers, Owen Mildenhall and Mark Ticehurst, who I was paired with in Car 5.
After signing on, Richard and I were first out on track. Mixing with seasoned competitors in some scarily expensive machinery is quite daunting for relatively inexperienced racers like us.
It took me a few laps to get the hang of the circuit, but I quickly settled into the car, beautifully prepared by the JotaSport team. The racing MX-5, as with the road cars, is easy to drive but one of the biggest challenges is getting used to the extra grip slick tyres provide – and the extra speed you can carry through corners.
The Britcar field is an eclectic mix of machinery, mostly saloon cars in the shape of BMWs, Hondas, and a smattering of MX-5s, but also includes Porsche Boxsters and even a Mini, all of which boast many more braked horses than the 160 our little MX-5s can muster.
My test session was cut short after a BMW M3 ran wide out of the fast Stowe corner, went onto damp astro turf at the side of the circuit and barrelled into the wall on the inside of the track, scattering debris all over the track and prompting red flags. The BMW was clearly beyond repair.
On race day, the team decided Richard and I should qualify first and we lined up in the pit lane with the other cars ready for the green light. The large field filed onto the track line-astern, but it was only a matter of seconds before the action started. On the second corner, a BMW M3 in front of me spun round and I had to dodge the twirling car. Then, as we came onto the pit straight and accelerated out of the corner, a Porsche Boxster did a couple of 360 degree spins right in front of me.
We handed over to Owen and Mark and before long the two were enjoying themselves, having a race of their own. The pair emerged from the cars grinning from ear-to-ear, with only a tenth of a second between them, but Owen had the edge this time and started one place higher on the grid.
Our car came in with a big scuff on the front corner and new dent on the bonnet, after Mark had gone off the track and taken out an exit marker.
The first of the two races saw the small Production Sports Car class line up with the faster Production Endurance grid, making an impressive sight of more than 30 cars rolling towards the green lights.
The team had decided to let the vastly experienced pro drivers take the rolling start and it proved to be the right decision as the first corner quickly resembled a demolition derby with several cars going off the track.
As the remaining runners came past the pit wall, our MX-5’s rear bumper was flapping in the wind after being hit firmly by a Honda rejoining the track. A marshal came to “have a word” and said that if it got any worse, the team had to bring him in.
The mechanics went for the masking tape and I got my helmet on just in case we had to go for an early change, but the Mazda’s bumper held.
At about mid-way through Race 1, Mark came in and I took over. The pit stop was quick, and the flapping rear bumper was ripped off by the mechanics. The car felt great on its hot slick tyres, I was comfortably at home on the circuit and set about putting some decent laps together.
On my third lap, I knew I had braked too much at the end of Hangar Straight before turning into the fast Stowe corner, so next time around carried more speed into the corner, but turned in slightly off-line, which meant as I came out of the corner I rapidly ran out of race track. I decided to use the run-off area, straightened the car up and balanced the throttle, but the run-off area was astro-turf – and it was still saturated from the overnight rain.
It was like driving onto sheet ice and the back of the car snapped away so fiercely it was impossible to catch it, despite immediately steering into the 80mph skid. The car did a high-speed spin down the hill and realising I was in trouble I dipped the clutch and stamped hard on the brakes to try and bring the car to a halt, but my MX-5 hit the waiting concrete wall before finally coming to a halt in almost exactly the same place as the BMW had the previous day, near the entrance to the pit lane.
The astro-turf may look pretty on the TV, but it’s dangerous and accounted for two racing cars over the weekend. I’m certain that if the run-off area not been covered with the stuff, my car wouldn’t have spun and the BMW may also have avoided being damaged beyond repair.
From inside my crash helmet, I’d no idea how bad the damage was, and after a tourettes-like outburst I realised the engine was still running. A glance at the water temperature gauge showed it was steady, so I drove the car back to the pit garage.
Our JotaSport and Mazda UK mechanics patched up the front end and got the MX-5 out again for the second race, which started shortly after another major downpour.
Both cars were on wet tyres this time and again Mark and Owen took the start and made impressive progress in the slippery conditions, with Mark piloting our car up to third position.
After the second driver-change, Richard and I were back on track and we made sure we got the cars to the chequered flag, coming home in fourth and fifth places overall.
Our eventful outing at Silverstone proved that the diminutive MX-5 can embarrass far more exotic and powerful competition – there’s no wonder it’s the world’s best selling sports car.