DAVID HOOPER joins the Mazda race team for a test day at Donington Park – but will he make the grade to race in the Britcar Championship at Silverstone on May 11?
THE last time I donned my crash helmet in anger at the wheel of an open-topped MX-5 Racing car, it was -30 degrees.
It was cold standing around watching the International Ice Race, but once behind the wheel, drifting the car from one corner to the next, on rally-spec studded ice racing tyres on a track carved out of a frozen lake in Sweden, there was plenty to keep my mind off the cold.
This time out, it was considerably warmer. The venue was Donington Park and it was the first time I had driven the circuit since its failed attempt to replace Silverstone as the venue for the British Grand Prix.
It was good to see that despite all the rumours to the contrary that circulated at the time, this wonderful, undulating circuit, has actually changed very little, with the exception of the back straight, which is now a few yards shorter than it once was.
It also felt great to be back behind the wheel of the superb Jota Sport prepared MX-5 racing car after a gap of two or three years. It felt like being reunited with a trusted old friend.
I made my racing debut with Mazda back in 1995, in the Britcar Championship, competing in the Production Class in what was then the newly launched RX-8.
Mazda ran two cars, one crewed by professional racing drivers, the other by journalists. The coverage they got was superb, it gave us motoring hacks something different to write about, but it was the reliability of the cars which impressed the most. They took the challenges of endurance racing, competing for three, four and even 24 hours at a time, in their stride, regularly embarrassing far quicker and more exotic purpose-built rivals which succumbed to mechanical failures which meant lengthy pit-lane repairs and lost track time.
It proved the reliability of the RX-8 and its rotary engine. Later came the MX-5, which are still competing regularly and punching well above their weight.
My outing at Donington was a test day, to familiarise myself with the car again, and get a feel for its handling on the limit, in preparation for the MX5’s outing in the Britcar Championship at Silverstone.
I also drove the more powerful GT Concept road car with 205bhp, but with road tyres and standard suspension. It was actually quicker on the straights than the 160bhp race car.
However, with slick tyres, firmer suspension and a powerful race-standard braking system, the brightly-coloured race car can corner faster, brake harder and for longer and do it again lap after lap after lap.
Making the transition from road cars, to racing cars takes some getting used to. The levels of grip from the slick tyres mean the car is capable of carrying much more speed into a corner than I expect it will be able to – it’s almost as though it’s on rails.
The Donington Circuit is technically challenging to drive, but also hugely rewarding on the odd occasion I managed to get every corner right.
The famous Craner Curves can be quite scary on the run down to the Old Hairpin, while the right turn into McLeans is unsighted, as is Coppice at the top of an incline – you have to commit to the corners and turn in before you can see them, and if you miss the apex you’re likely to very quickly run out of race track.
It was fantastic to be out on track again, although I’d forgotten just how much the Hans device that sits on your shoulders can bite into your collar bones until the straps settle in.
Thankfully I was quick enough to be offered a race seat for the Mazda MX-5’s next outing in the Britcar Championship on Silverstone’s GP circuit on Saturday, May 11.
It’s a double-header, two 45-minute endurance races, with each car having two drivers.
It’s a circuit I’ve driven on, but never raced and to say I’m excited would be an understatement!
I’ll let you know how we get on.