Mazda boldy strode where no other car company has dared to in recent years – letting motoring journalists loose in a fair-dinkum motor sport event.
The car was the latest third-generation Mazda MX-5 end the event was a ‘tussle’ between journalists from Australia and Russia following similar events held on ice in Europe in 2011 and 2012.
So 22 journalists (with varying degrees of racing experience) assembled in the Hyatt Hotel, Canberra, resplendent in shiny new fireproof overalls, helmets in-hand ready to tackle the chilly autumn weather in open-top MX-5s (the roofs removed to fit roll cages) and a day of competition which included a fast road course (Fairbairn Hillclimb), skid-pan and motorkhana at the Sutton Road Driver Training Centre and six kilometers of very fast dirt rally special stage (as used in Rally Canberra). All would measured against the clock.
As well as the roll cages, the Mazda MX-5s were fitted with six-point safety harnesses and competition brakes.
With its 118kW/188Nm 2.0-litre engine driving the rear wheels, the two-seat Mazda MX-5 is a pearler with more than enough power and a sensational chassis so really no performance modifications were called-for.
It was two per-car and CarShowroom shared our Mazda MX-5 with the eventual winner – Top Gear’s James Stamford (who dabbles in car club rallies). Unlike some, we didn’t stumble at the get-go – getting lost on the road drive to the start!
Our favourite was the hillclimb where the nimble Mazda MX-5 excelled – oversteer at the limit aiding turn-in and the wonderfully balanced chassis perfectly suited to the tight esses in front of the pits.
We completed the tight motorkana reasonably well - without incurring any penalties for touching a ‘gate’ - but we did run wide a couple of times while exploring the limits of grip over the skid-pan.
The high-speed dirt special stage rally section was right on the edge with loose gravel, a couple of jumps and some demanding high-speed third-gear sweepers. With two runs, our plan was a ‘banker’ for the first (a safe run to make sure we got to the finish unscathed) and then a ten-tenths second effort.
Between our runs, James did his (which was eventually the fastest time) but on his second run put a wheel into a gutter which bent it. He thought the MX-5’s steering may have been bent as well and advised caution for our second run.
Not so, the MX-5 seemed OK and after a cautious start to confirm everything was pointing in the right direction we went hard, improving our time substantially despite the front spoiler (damaged in James’ “off”) dragging and bottoming-out in the jumps and tight corners.
It really was a special day – even the most ‘hard-core’ of our group put their laptops away and ‘hunkered-down’ to test themselves and the MX-5s in a proper racing environment. In fact it was easily the best day of the year so far – pure driving enjoyment as we challenged the conditions in pedal-to-the-metal driving in the world’s best affordable two-seater.
We returned to the Hyatt with our Mazda MX-5s, helmets and overalls all covered in dust and the group was sledging and laughing to a degree we haven’t seen for years. Mazda scored ‘maximum’ PR points for being so brave in creating and executing this event – and really the MX-5 was the ‘uber’ car for this undertaking.
Your CarShowroom correspondent finished mid-field but did keep our MX-5 on the road. Thanks to Mazda’s excellent video coverage – which included a remarkable remote-control helicopter camera – we have seen images of some colleagues spearing off-road and the there was a spate of wheel-bending and flat tyres on the rally stage.
In fact at the end of the day we’d grown rather attached to our ‘baby’ – the red MX-5 number two. But then again Mazda MX5s are like that – cars you enjoy every time you drive them.