Red cor­ners

Herald Sun - Motoring - - Car News -

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 . . .

JoshuaDowling

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