THE world’s best-selling sports car, the Mazda MX-5 is a favourite among weekend warriors testing their mettle on a race track. It was also the roadster of choice in an international competition among motoring hacks, 22 from Australia and four from Russia.
The Australians were beaten previously two years in a row on northern hemisphere ice, first in Sweden then in Russia.
To level the playing field, the Russians came to Canberra to test their skills on dirt and to get a taste of what it’s like to wrangle a car when the steering wheel is on the ‘‘ wrong’’ side of the cockpit. In the full spirit of the role reversal, the Russians also got to sample driving fast while jet-lagged. The day’s events were to start just as their bodies would be telling them to sleep.
In their dreams the Russians may have had visions of the vast Australian desert or majestic beaches. Greeting them was a group of friendly bearded fellows from theMGCar Club (which helped run the event), who cheerily told them the first race of the day was in a carpark around flags positioned barely wide enough to fit an MX-5. It was like running a marathon around a barbecue. After that and other exercises (racing against the clock on a skidpan, and a few laps of a perilously narrow hillside course), it was time for the main event: a 6km section of a national championship rally stage through dense forest.
It’s at this point the day took a serious turn (pun intended). Having sampled the course at slow speed, and noted with some interest the narrow dirt road’s proximity to trees and cliffs, I began to wonder if this was a good idea after all.
How worried? Back at the regrouping point, I made sure to tell close colleagues how to divide my worldly possessions should the worst happen. I amnot making this up. The fear was reasonably well-founded. We were driving cars that had no special preparations other than a racing seat, harness and what seemed to be a low-ish rollbar that was there for show and which would be of little or no help in a side impact against a gum tree or cliff face.
The cars also lacked underbody protection and rally tyres. Mazda figured it would be cheaper to bring a truckload of spares rather than refit every car with heavy-duty rubber. The company also calculated it would be cheaper to replace any bent bits, rather than add armour to the underside.
And so, one by one, the cars came back with buckled rims and grazed bumpers. Some returned with two wheels in the shape of a capital D. Some drivers came back only with a layer of dust. But more importantly all involved came back mostly in one piece contrary to many of our fears.
Apart from a lot of grit in my teeth, I came away with a new respect for the off-road ability, durability, balance and poise of the MX-5, and the gravelgrabbing ability of Bridgestone road tyres.
There was also a renewed respect for our comrades, who adapted brilliantly in trying conditions.
The Australians may have taken an overdue victory but one of the Russian young guns was equal second-fastest over the perilous course.
Round four anyone? Somewhere near the equator perhaps? That way all parties will be only half as jet-lagged — and drowning in humidity. On second thoughts . . .