3 days, 127 laps of Winton Raceway, over 900km of driving on and off the track and the little Mazda MX-5 that kept on keeping on - what a weekend!

For about a year now I’ve been competing in track day events with my local MX-5 Car Club and had the opportunity to drive on all of Victoria’s premium road circuit tracks including Phillip Island, Winton, Sandown and Broadford. In this time I’ve picked up a new hobby, pushed and challenged myself, made new friends and have thoroughly enjoyed every single second. With all of this in mind, October 2017 presented a new challenge in the form of the Alfa Club 12 Hour Relay Regularity event at Winton Raceway.

The event sees 40 grassroots motorsport teams comprising of up to 6 drivers each taking part in a 2 day, 12 hour relay. The event is run under a regularity format whereby drivers have to nominate a set lap time and score points (or lose points) based on how closely they can drive to their set time. The catch? No timing devices of any sort are allowed within the car during the event and the only form of communication from a team to their driver on the track is via a single board that can be shown on the pit straight. For many like myself the event is the pinnacle of grassroots motorsport in the yearly calendar along with the Phillip Island 6 Hour Relay which runs a similar format. With this being my first time competing in a relay or regularity event it was fair to say I was nervous, but also excited, going into the weekend.

For those unfamiliar with Winton Raceway, it is a road race circuit located in northern Victoria, Australia. The track is one of the three main tracks in Victoria alongside Phillip Island and Sandown and features in the Australian V8 Supercar series. Of the three, Winton has the slowest average speed and slowest top speed but makes up for this with the more technical challenge it provides for drivers.

DAY 1 - Winton Raceway Test & Tune

Throughout the year Winton Raceway holds “Test & Tune” track days on a Friday where for a relatively small fee you can drive on the track in a Sprint format but with no official timing. With my only track experience being in competitive Sprint days and having never participated in a relay or regularity style event I took the opportunity to make the trip up to Winton to enter the Test & Tune prior to the 12 Hour event on the weekend.

The day started early with the alarm sounding a 4:30AM. The drive up to Winton was all going to plan prior to pulling into a petrol station after completing 170km of my 230km journey only to find that in my hast to prepare and pack the car the night before I’d left the oil cap off the engine. With my engine looking like a dessert covered in hot caramel sauce what followed can only be described as pure panic and angst as I ran into the petrol station and bought several cans of degreaser and towels. By pure luck the oil cap had remained trapped within the engine bay and despite the mess the dip stick still showed the oil level above the minimum mark. So despite my best efforts to tank the engine – for the second time in this manner since owning the car - I’d dodged a bullet. Maybe I could star as Neo in a Matrix remake!

Safe to say I arrived at Winton a little flustered but was greeted by some fellow club members who’d also made the trip up a day early to get some practice in. Any lingering thoughts of my stupidity were quickly erased as discussion turned to racing as I did my best to pry as much knowledge out of the two experienced heads of my fellow club members regarding adjustments to my driving style to compete in the Regularity style event as opposed to a Sprint.

After several sessions on the track and some experimentation I finally settled on a tactic to tackle the relay. This essentially boiled down to changing gears at 5,500-6,000 RPM as opposed to revving out to 7,000RPM, braking a little earlier and running a higher gear through several corners. All of this was designed to enable me to drive to a consistent time whilst reducing the amount of stress on the car due to longer running sessions and the forecast for hot weather over the event weekend. Needing to navigate through traffic was also a consideration and by leaving a little left in the tank this would allow some scope to push the car harder and make up lose time during a lap where required.

At the conclusion of the day I’d completed 6 sessions for a total of 51 laps – not bad for a $153 entry fee! Based on my lap timer and adjusted driving style I settle on targeting a lap time of either 1min 49sec or 1min 50sec for the event - to be finalised during the official event practice the next day. For comparison, I currently hold the class lap record at Winton within my club of 1min 46sec. The day was wrapped up with some final preparation with the event racing numbers and sponsor stickers being slapped onto the car before heading to scrutineering and having the car given the thumbs up.

DAY 2 - 12 Hour Relay Practice and Race 1

Day 2 of my weekend saw the first day of official competition for the 12 Hour event. With the car already scrutineered and being fairly settled on a goal lap time I spent most of the morning exchanging friendly banter with my fellow club members and seeking tips from those who’d competed in the event for a number of years. The total event entry of 40 teams would see 201 drivers take to the track during the event. Of this field my club entered 3 teams comprising of 5 drivers each and a total of 14 MX-5s ranging from the first generation NA6 to the current ND.

My team comprised of 4 first timers (including myself) and our Club Captain. A big thanks to him for taking the time to compete with the first timers as opposed to competing with one of the “A” teams so to speak. One of the highlights of the weekend was watching his stock ND and overtake a remarkable number of cars on one lap including at least 3, but I believe 4, cars around the outside of Turn 10 – a corner that I traditionally end up playing the dirt and for which I’m running out of good excuses to explain my misadventures. I’ve still got a few good ones left up my sleeve though including “I was just trying to let you pass and ran a little wide”. Geez, aren’t I a top bloke! Either way, check out “Xitan Racing” on Facebook if you want to see a stock ND driven to its limits.

The morning practice session for the event was certainly an eye opener with 40 cars on the track, all of different makes, models, speeds and driver experience. On an average sprint day track density is usually kept to 15-20 cars so navigating around the track was akin to trying to drive somewhere quickly during peak hour. Despite the traffic I was able to maintain my lap times from the Friday Test & Tune and after a quick discussion with my team manager I nominated a goal lap time of 1min 49sec. With the event being scored in ‘laps’ this meant I would score 0 laps for any time under 1min 49sec, 1 lap and a bonus lap for any time between 1min 49sec and 1min 50sec and 1 lap for any time above 1min 50sec.

Race 1 started on Saturday afternoon and consisted of a 5 hour run with a 7 hour run to follow in Race 2 on Sunday. With 5 team members this gave everyone a 1 hour stint on the track. Being October in Australia, Winton Raceway being located a few hundred kilometres inland and Race 1 kicking off at 1PM it was hot to say the least. As I jumped into my race suit, gloves and helmet and set out for my session I gained an appreciation for how it would feel if I was a stuffed turkey being shoved into an oven ready for a family feast.

Whilst the long and hot session was a challenge it was thoroughly enjoyable and I was pleased to find that I had managed to score a bonus lap on 25% of my total laps whilst only breaking my nominated lap time and incurring a penalty once. I would have been happy to break even let alone end up with an overall net positive result! Whilst the track density hadn’t changed from practice the other drivers were certainly more competitive and keen to hold their position making lap traffic and overtaking a greater challenge. Ultimately this resulting in having to push the car harder than I’d originally planned as I reverted back to my Sprint gear changes, gearing through corners and braking points in order to make up lost time when held up. Whilst this balancing act was challenging to say the least it added a new dimension of driving awareness I’d not previously experienced which was rewarding. Being held up at certain stages also saw some hand gesturing and extravagant new phrases which only myself and my GoPro will have the privilege of experiencing.

At the conclusion of Race 1 most were in high spirits as there were no major incidents on the track. Within the club there was a mixed feeling amongst the drivers with respect to their performance which is to be expected in such a competitive setting. The clubs cars had held up well in the trying conditions with the only exception being a NA6 on my team which experienced a broken belt whilst on the track rendering the cooling system useless causing the car overheated. In the long run the car was repaired and managed to put in some decent laps during Race 2.

Day 1 of the event was polished off with a fantastic meal at the local pub with all 3 club teams in attendance. Chatter remained jovial and some good laughs were had however some serious tactical discussion could be seen within some fractions as the teams worked to fine tune any issues from Race 1. Personally, I buried my face in food as soon as it hit the table.

DAY 3 – 12 Hour Relay Race 2

Sunday and 7 hours left to be completed in Race 2 of the relay. With the weather turning up the heat compared to Saturday and the longer running time it was decided each driver would run two sessions during the day.

On a personal note I had a blinder of a first run as I scored a bonus lap on 66% of my total laps with no broken laps. I also managed to string together 6 bonus laps in a row. Unfortunately, oil was dropped on the track down the pit straight resulting in a long safety car run that bought an early end to my first session. Regardless, I was very chirpy in the pits and any doubts I had about my ability to be competitive under the event format and rules had been blown well and truly away. Below is a video from this run showing 3 consecutive bonus laps.

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My second session for the day and last of the weekend saw my lap count tick over 100 for the whole weekend. Running an hour session to make up lost time in my earlier session, the scorching heat and fatigue from the weekend started to catch up with me although, I managed to convert 30% of my laps into bonus laps.

The Results

As the clock stuck 4PM the chequered flag was produced to signal the end of the event. After a short wait which included congratulating fellow competitors and taking some team photos the results were announced. My team finished 16th out of 40, a respectable result with four first timers. The clubs other two teams put in solid performances finishing 6th and 9th respectively. The overall event winner was a team from the MX-5 Club of New South Wales. With the MX-5 Club interstate challenge being held in November this certainly got the competitive juices flowing but at the very least it was good to see an MX-5 team take the crown proving the strength of the car in such events.

On a personal level I was extremely surprised by my own performance. Evaluating the event results in terms of the percentage of bonus laps scored relative to goal laps achieved I found myself to have the highest conversion rate within my club (31,82 %) and 17th overall out of the 201 drivers who competed on the day. Certainly not a result I was expecting and something I am now very proud of. With this particular event being focused on having fun, gaining experience and continuing to develop as a driver I am looking forward to possibly competing in one of the club’s teams next year who’s primary goal will be to place as high as possible. Either way, October 2018 can’t come quick enough!

The Car

The little black MX-5 that just keeps performing again and again – and here’s hoping things stay this way for a long time! The car itself held up well for its longest track outing to date. The same can’t necessarily be said of the driver with existing back problems after a grand total of 127 laps harnessed into a race seat! The tyres started to turn to jelly during some of my sessions but this was to be expected given the running time and weather. My new set of Hawk Blue brake pads performed remarkably well compared to the EBC pads I’d previously run on the car with the only downside being my wheels now look like they’ve been sitting on the top shelf of my garage for several years with the amount of brake dust caked onto them. Leading up to and during the weekend I’d started to notice some small vibration from the front left of the car. Post event I discovered this was due to a buckled wheel so whilst I’ll likely need to throw a few dollar bills around to fix it I’m happy the issue wasn’t something more serious.

The Event

The relay was extremely well organised by the Alfa Romeo Club and a big thanks goes out to all those who were involved in setting up the weekend. I’m certain there would have been people working tirelessly behind the scenes for the benefit of all the teams and drivers as there usually are. There was a great level of comradery between all of the teams throughout the weekend which made the event even more enjoyable and there was a few stories flying around the paddock of some teams helping others to repair cars overnight. It was also good to see no major incidents during the event with a few safety cars only be required for break downs.

A big shout out must also go to my Clubs sponsors Essendon Mazda, Barwon Tyres & Auto Centre, Open Road Roaders and most of all the team volunteers. Without their help the teams would have struggled to put the weekend together and the drivers would have been blindly circling the track. Whilst they’re unlikely to see this, I’d also like to say thanks to all those club members that gave me their time to lend advice and guidance without which I wouldn’t have achieved the results I ended up with. If it wasn’t for them I’m not sure this new hobby would be anywhere near as enjoyable as it currently is.

With all that being said, focus will now turn back to the Sprint days with the next event being the Interstate Challenge in NSW. It should be a bit of fun to drive on a new track and will be a challenge to learn it quick enough on the day to put the local drivers to the fire. The final event for the year will see a return to Phillip Island in December.

www.facebook.com/gazbagmx5/

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