MX-5 CUP: from the cockpit
It could have ended in tears... And did
Save for a roll cage the Global MX-5 Cup car doesn't look all that different from the MX-5s on local roads. But the devil's in the detail -- details that turn Mazda's mild-mannered sportscar into a properly demanding -- and rewarding -- track car. Mazda wants the world to race its purpose-built Global MX-5 Cup Car and it's planning to spread the series across the globe. And as is the case with Porsche, the plans also extend to the extent of making sure the 'Cup cars' stay just a little bit special...
Peter Brock is supposed to have said of challenges: "Just take a big bite and chew like hell" ... Twelve laps or so into my 'career' at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, midway through the second practice session, I was chewing like hell and making no progress. In fact, I was going backwards – at that stage literally... Towards a wall!
The very same Aussie icon is also quoted as saying great racetracks have consequences. Laguna Seca (oops, sorry, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca) has them in spades – along with the nuances and insider trading titbits that make it a hard task master. It's not a racetrack you learn in ten laps – at least I couldn't... And didn't.
If this is reading like excuses for not going fast enough, I plead guilty. While the well-schooled US domestic MX-5 series were easily 7sec a lap faster, even the tenderfoot but race-hardened Europeans held a 3-5sec gap on yours truly.
Still it could have been worse... I could have been slowest!
At the conclusion of the weekend, I'd logged two DNFs (did not finishes); the second in a spectacular crash not of my making after a promising start from the second last row on the grid.
But did I have fun? Had I learned that racing an MX-5 could possibly be the best thing you can do with your clothes on? Hell yeah...
And did I come away with a new found respect for the capabilities of Mazda's iconic and diminutive roadster, its racer form and the skills required to get the very best from it? Absolutely!
Mazda's new Global MX-5 Cup car is a purpose-built racer. Just as Porsche builds its racers in a single facility, so too Mazda with the MX-5 Cup Car. It's a contractor for sure, but the chances are when the series extends globally, there will be just one maker around the world.
And those cars will come together for a global finale. At least they will if Mazda's plans come to fruition.
motoring.com.au got a taste of Mazda's vision at this year's inaugural Mazda Global MX-5 Cup Invitational. The first of its type since Mazda deemed its MX-5 a "global" racer, and a showcase for the turn-key car the company's North American branch has developed out of the world's most popular roadster.
As is the US's penchant, even the local series is called the Global MX-5 Cup (think World Series?). It runs around the US and uses identical racers build by Mazda's partner, Long Road Racing. In its first year, the US competition is already attracting 40-plus car grids and over 115 of the racers have been sold.
It's a model Mazda head office wants to replicate across the globe (hence the name). And yes, that means Australia. Indeed, Mazda 'Inc' is very keen to see the cars racing in all four corners. Japan will kick off in 2017 and Europe is looking at the potential of individual country series, if not a Pan-European championship.
As noted above, the cars will be identical and, a little like Porsche's practice with its racers, left-hand drive only. The intention is to have one 'tool' to do the job in every market.
The appeal to the local series in the USA is that Global MX-5 Cup makes up the first 'Pro' level of Mazda's 'Road to 24' (#mrt24) sports-car driver development scheme. Already successful with its long running open-wheeler Road to Indy program, Mazda USA sees #mrt24 as another important piece of its marketing strategy. Overall, the company devotes a substantial marketing budget to racing at both grass roots and professional levels.
The company's US motorsport boss, John Doonan, is one of the driving forces behind Mazda's global motorsport. He proudly boasts the brand's roughly two per cent US market share of road car sales increases 20-fold when you make the comparison 'regular' race participation. The MX-5 in its four generations is, he says, is the most raced car in the USA. It's easy to get the impression he wants that stat to be global!
The various 'Spec Miata' series that feature performance balanced NA and NB series MX-5 attract big fields in the USA and encompass everything from club sprints through to events like the Thunderhill 25-hour race that has appeared on my wishlist all of a sudden.
The US Global MX-5 Cup itself dangles a 'scholarship' of no less than $US200,000 to its series winner.
Outside of the open-wheeler and MX-5 ranks Mazda's US motorsport operation also successfully campaigns pukka LeMans style 2.0-litre turbocharged P2 prototype cars at the major US 24-hour races – so the MX-5 racers can readily see the end prize.
The first Invitational was a standalone event – no points for the US series runners here. It was also unashamedly a marketing exercise for the racer version of the MX-5 itself. Above all, it was a chance for us to experience the racer and 'test' it in the environment for which it was designed.
In its first running, ten of the fastest US drivers were invited along to the Invitational with a cadre of Europeans, Japanese and yours truly – one of a two-person Aussie contingent.
In the case of the Euros, Mazda Europe opted for a 'GT3 Academy style' shootout system that variously ceded national MX-5 racing champions, virtual racers and others. The result was at least two national title holders, a two-times FIA GT champ and a Polish fighter pilot.
Mazda Australia opted for two old blokes with big... circulations... Publicity was the goal after all.
Were we in over our depth? Certainly. But even after a visit to the medical centre, I'm pretty sure I didn't stop smiling for the whole three days at the track.
...in our case, Meathead Racing, based in Maryland, on America's east coast.
Take a cupie doll those who said it was a match made in heaven. We couldn't have been better placed. For a start, they understood an Aussie sense of humour.
Meathead team principal Michael Collins runs three of the new Global MX-5 Cup cars in the US series, but has a fleet of no less than 31 NA and NB model Spec Miatas back home in his race shop. In his spare time (ahem!), he's the recently installed President of the Sports Car Club of America, the US equivalent of CAMS.
Mike's a 200cm 130kg ex-Marine with a big heart and an even bigger laugh. Underneath there's a real passion for racing that saw him park lucrative business interests to pursue his race team dream. The end result was a big, but largely club-racer based operation. Meathead does grass roots racing with real polish.
Our tool men were the team engineer, Jonathon Bergeron; Esse White (who's been around Mazda rotaries since he was a baby); and Adam Crandell – whose job it was to get the impressive Meathead truck/motorhome and trailer the 4000km from home base to Monterey. Along with Michael's partner Wendy and friends and family, we were significantly outnumbered in the Meathead pit. If hospitality translated directly into lap times, however, we would have been on pole.
Our Global MX-5 Cup car was one of the car Mike and son-in-law Nick Bruni race in the US series. Left-hand drive, the little roadster racers are based on manual 2.0-litre ND series MX-5s but benefit from a range of modifications for added safety and racetrack durability.
The Brakes are upgraded using the same Brembo componenary Mazda offers as an option pack in the USA. The car is lower (although minimum ride height is mandated) and rides on track-ready, fully adjustable suspension.
The MX-5 Cup cars are kept very standard under the bonnet. There’s a race ECU and performance exhaust and extractors that liberated some extra horses.
The roll cage is substantial and based on an FIA-approved WRC design -- just as well!
Add racing seats, and strip away the road gear and traction and stability and traction
and essentially they are ready to go
Ahead of my Laguna Seca MX-5 competition debut I scored a shakedown drive of the MX-5 Global Cup Car at Victoria’s Winton circuit…
Rain, low track temperatures and zero traction meant our first few laps were on tippy toes, but it wasn’t that long before we were able to bolt on the US Series’ control BF Goodrich racing slicks and circulate a bit quicker.
The Global Mazda MX-5 Cup car is promoted as the best value in sports car racing and a turn-key price of around $59,000 US, it certainly delivered plenty of smiles on a lap of Winton.
What it missed out on in straight line speed it makes up for in the corners and at first seemed like a car you felt at home in quickly…
Of course things are different when there’s 25 MX-5s vying for the same piece of track!
They also came from the wider Mazda-fostered ranks; Mazda Prototype driver, Joel Miller and Mazda Motorsport ambassador, Kenton Koch.
Both guns cut their teeth on the Spec Miata series that predated the new Global MX-5 Cup.
Miller will be racing at this weekend's WEC round in Austin Texas in a Mazda prototype in the US support endurance event. Koch is a Daytona 24-hour winner in one of other prototype sports-car classes and is another well-respected member of the Mazda US motorsport family. Although just 21, he's one of the most polished and professional racers I've met.
Any improvements I was able to make (and there were some decent ones) should be sheeted home to Kenton's coaching and Joel's early insights on our track walk. The (many) mistakes I'm happy to claim as my own.
Although I've been to Laguna Seca before, there's a huge difference between driving a track and trying to race on it. The layout itself looks simple enough – the devil's in the detail. Almost every corner has a nuance that you must nail to get a decent lap time.
Luckily, we'd at least had a drive of the cars. But lack of track and car familiarity and my relative racing inexperience showed up pretty quickly after the first session times were dissected. I'd only need to find 5sec a lap to be competitive with the majority of the Euros!
Friday was practice and qualifying day. Two 30min practice sessions (the first cut in half due to fog) and a 30min qualifying session (eventually also cut) that would decide the grids for Saturday and Sunday 45min races.
Building a library of knowledge of these great little race cars would be invaluable too. In true race-car fashion these are well behaved and engaging to drive at 9/10ths. As you try and build some pace, however, they become a different animal – demanding and just a little cantankerous. If you're looking for a car that will allow true driver talent to shine through that's exactly the characteristics you want. In this respect, Mazda has nailed it with the Global MX-5 Cup car.
There's decent grip from the BF Goodrich racing slicks and the breakaway characteristics of the tyres aren't too aggressive. But you can only load the car up so far before the rear suspension geometry sees it bite back – it's a car you have to float sideways, not chuck, as found out.
My P1 was slow and ragged as I learned the track and got to know the left-hand drive MX-5 Cup car a little better. With some coaching from Kenton in P2 I went substantially quicker but was still well off the pace. I'd logged consistent laps in my comfortable place – still a good 7sec off pole (a lifetime), and 3sec from where I thought I should be (and could be) according to the data.
The time was all (effectively) in two corners; Turn Six up the hill towards the famous Corkscrew; and Turn Nine, the corner directly after the precipitous drop. Kenton delivered advice that changed aspects of my approach to Turn Six, which yielded results – but there was more needed.
On Turn Nine, his advice was simpler – pull the belts tighter and go faster. So I did... And spun on the first lap of qualifying...
It was going to be a long weekend...
In the end, the session was called early before I'd really got my nerve back to try a properly hard lap. The red flag came after one of the Japanese racers crashed avoiding a US driver who spun in the Corkscrew. The young female karter was shaken but uninjured. The MX-5 alas was a write-off. Not the last...
...with Kenton and I was looking forward to Saturday's Race One. I knew I wasn't going to trouble the fast guys but I felt I should be able to build on my times, make some decent progress and perhaps be more competitive for Sunday's race...
Well, that went pear-shaped quickly.
I was caught in the wrong gear at the green, managed to grab a place back in Turn Two, missed a gear in the run to Turn Four and lost touch with the next car by Turn Nine... Bloody hell – talk about a baptism of fire; and talk about hamfisted!
There's a left versus right-hand drive factor here but I've never mis-shifted as much. Perhaps it was nerves, perhaps a lack of mechanical sympathy. I do note that the updated Global MX-5 Cup racer now on sale (circa $US59K) has had a gearbox makeover. Stronger centring springs in the third/fourth gear plane would have helped me.
But the car brakes on a dime and using the Brembos I tried hard into the second-gear Turn 11 when a melee up front gave me back a couple of places. I was then able to settle and follow fast-charging pom and UK NA-series MX-5 champ, Oli Allwood, for a few laps before he gapped me and I was alone in clear air again.
By this stage I was into a rhythm and starting to actually enjoy my laps and watch the predictive lap timer on the LCD dash drop into the 50s and then into the 49s.
I finally got Turn Four, Five and Six stitched together just so, nailed The Corkscrew and as I short-shifted into fourth gear out of the famous complex, looked down and a predicted 1m47.3 flashed into view. Decent pace at last...
More turn-in speed, a bit of earlier throttle at Turn Nine, grabbed the apex perfectly and unwound my hands – but a little too far... The exit is off-camber and loose and I'd gone just 15cms too wide... The next thing I was watching the wall approach in the rear view mirror while the cockpit disappeared in dust.
No stall and as soon as the dust cleared and I could see, I was on the way. But the rear left wheel had taken the thump and both lower control arms were bent so it was back to the pits... To edit the 360 video – it's a ripper.
Can you take anything away from a poor performance like this? I guess at last I'd had a glimpse of the commitment required to get a laptime out of these cars and equally the sort of smile they can put on your face. My only regret at that stage – that there was only one race left to go... Sunday's.
...although anyone who tells you a rolling start is easier than our standing starts has never done one... Again this is another nuance that anyone racing in the US must master.
Over the hill and through Turn One, I'd picked up a couple of spots and then lost one as hard-charging German Max Blixt passed me around the outside into Turn Two.
Cut hard to the inside and I soon had three or four cars passed and then, dust, cars, and... BANG – I was up on the two left wheels as Texan-based Pommie oil exec Tim Probert's Alara Racing car cannoned into my right side after being hit himself. Invitational races, it seems are for sheep stations.
I was momentarily into the dirt but held a couple of the spots gained into Turn Three, had a reasonable run into Four and was well-placed and clear into the braking area for Five. Then the car slid full sideways into the left-hander and as I recovered it, went again after the apex...
Convinced I had a puncture or a breakage from the wheel to wheel contact in Two, I lifted, gave away all my places, floated the car gently through the fast Turn Six lest it slew sideways again and limped back to the pits.
Any chances of a position was out the window but I was keen to get back out on the lead lap if I could and at least try and set some better times. The team checked both right wheels; we couldn't straighten the steering; so out I went again to grab some laps.
Mind on too many things except the next corner, another mis-shift delivered a half spin into Turn Four (F@#$ me, clearly audible on the camera!) and I effectively shut it down, figuring I'd soon be caught by the leaders. When you relax and just drive, you go faster – it took them around five laps to make the 15secs. Ironically these were some of my best times...
As they approached I signalled eventual event winner and US series leader Nathanial 'Sparky' Sparks past at Nine, stayed off the apex to let a battle pack through at Turn 11, drafted down the straight, held my placing in the slow double apex Turn Two and let iRacing gun Glenn McGee and Oli through in Three.
A quick mirror check and I could see two cars edging up in the short straight... And then bang. And I mean BANG! I was Liberaced and immediately hit the wall hard!
The 360 video below shows clearly the #56 car of Swiss driver and two-times FIA GT champ, Gabriele Gardel, get into the #70 car of Polish fighter pilot Kamil Franczak and then the Meathead Racing MX-5 (with me onboard as a passenger) is toast.
There was a drive-through penalty handed out but I was seeing stars and my race was over. Meathead's little #76 racer was to quote the US vernacular, "trash".
In my car racing and rallying career I've had the grand total of three crashes – two this weekend at Laguna Seca. This was by far the biggest. It was a hell of a thump – but that I'm writing this is proof positive of the strength of the Global MX-5 Cup car. I found later in discussions with Mazda's motorsport boss John Doonan that the cage design chosen for the Cup car is in effect an application of the FIA WRC spec rally cage. I'm glad...
...of the weekend, US series leader 'Sparkie' took out the Race Two win and the first Invitational cup. A career long MX-5 racer, he was a popular winner.
The limp he sported all weekend sums up the sort of guy he is – he broke bones in his foot jumping off the podium after winning the previous US Global MX-5 Cup round after a five-car drag to the line that saw 1-5 separated by just 0.18sec. Based in Sebring (Florida), Sparkie's aim is to win the US series and use the scholarship to build his own Global MX-5 Cup operation.
Finishing in second was Sparks' teammate, John Dean II.
In third was Japanese driver Yuui Tsutsumi, the fastest of the nine international racers competing. Tsutsumi was impressive – not only had he never visited Laguna Seca previously, he'd only once before driven a left-hand drive car. Watch for his name as Mazda Japan gets more serious about MX-5 and, eventually, prototype racing...
It's clear Mazda is serious about the globalisation of its racing series. Privately the power brokers talk about a return for the brand to Le Mans. They'd like to do it with racers they've bred from MX-5 series across the globe. It's an achievable aim – but it's also a massive challenge.
Down Under Mazda Australia is "studying" the potential of a local arm of the series.
In my mind, there's a couple of impediments.
Left-hand drive only cars could potentially limit the appeal of the racers, some claim, but I'm not so sure. More of an issue is the ability to replicate a key part of the US series appeal – fostering talent to the next stage via a clear racing pathway and meaningful scholarship dollars. That's a harder ask Down Under, although the potential exists to plug any future Australian Mazda series winners into the US-based Mazda Road to 24 program if the funds are found.
And then there's the one-make series curse. The history of one-make series Down Under has been checkered. Countering this, Toyota's new 86 series appears to be off to a flying start. Fingers crossed.
Is there room for another? I'd like to think so. For even if you are not a hard charging teenage Le Mans or V8 Supercar wannabee, the Global MX-5 Cup holds appeal. The racing is close, the car looks like a pukka racer and sounds like it means business to boot... And isn't that half the fun?
And as I alluded to through this story, it is extremely engaging to drive. Break the code to going quick and it will deliver a real sense of achievement.
After a challenging baptism of fire at Laguna Seca, alas it's a reward I'm still searching for...