Where road meets track

Mazda’s Global MX-5 Cup race car is a very close rel­a­tive of the stan­dard mk4: can any lessons from the track be ap­plied to the road car? Matt Stone finds out Pho­tographs: and courtesy

Total MX-5 - - CONTENTS - Kirk Ger­bracht Mazda Mo­tor­sports

MX-5 Global Cup rac­ers are closely based on the mk4 show­room model: could their track mods make for a bet­ter road car?

The MX-5 was never in­tended to be a racer, even though at its core were the key in­gre­di­ents of a great track car – light weight, ex­cel­lent re­sponses, rear-wheel drive, and a sense of fun. So it wasn’t long be­fore var­i­ous mem­bers of the de­sign team were playing with draw­ings that showed the mk1 in rac­ing trim with num­bers on the doors.

And the track was beck­on­ing within months of the MX-5’S launch at the 1989 Chicago Auto Show. There were three cars on Mazda’s stand for the un­veil­ing – a red one, a blue one and a white one – and the lat­ter was soon spir­ited away to be­gin a mo­tor­sport ca­reer. It raced in the Sports Car Club of Amer­ica (SCCA) Show­room Stock B (SSB) class and also did its share of rally work, on and off the road. That car lives to­day in the Mazda North Amer­i­can Op­er­a­tions col­lec­tion in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

Ever since then the MX-5 has raced the world over in nu­mer­ous se­ries and cham­pi­onships, earn­ing the Mazda the man­tle of ‘the world’s most raced sports car’. And an im­por­tant spin-off of all those fran­tic track miles has been a plethora of per­for­mance parts and a wealth of ex­pe­ri­ence in mak­ing the lit­tle road­ster go quicker and han­dle sharper out on the open road.

At least, that’s been the case with the first three gen­er­a­tions: what about the mk4? That’s what I’m about to find out from be­hind the wheel of Mazda North Amer­i­can Op­er­a­tions’ 2016–17 Mazda Global MX-5 Cup racer, devel­oped by the fac­tory pri­mar­ily for use in its own one-make cham­pi­onships in the US and Ja­pan. To en­sure close com­pe­ti­tion Mazda builds and sells iden­ti­cal cars, which are based very closely on the mk4 road car. But as MNAO doesn’t have its own race shop, it has con­tracted Long Road Rac­ing (LRR) to help spec and pro­duce the race ma­chines. Long Road is based in Statesville, North Carolina, USA, deep in the heart of NASCAR coun­try, an area of the south­ern United States with deep rac­ing roots, and a wealth of rac­ing en­gi­neers, fab­ri­ca­tors, tech­ni­cians and parts providers.

Mazda pro­vides this shop with com­pleted, iden­ti­cal pro­duc­tion line mk4 MX-5S, all fin­ished in Arc­tic White. LRR then strips them down and racepre­pares them all to ex­actly the same spec­i­fi­ca­tion. Crit­i­cally im­por­tant is that the 2.0-litre en­gine, six-speed man­ual trans­mis­sion, diff and en­tire en­gine man­age­ment sys­tem are fac­tory cal­i­brated and sealed to en­sure par­ity be­tween the cars. The only ar­eas in which the in­di­vid­ual teams have space to manouevre is in op­ti­mis­ing the car’s per­for­mance through set-up tweaks,

such as tyre pres­sures, wheel align­ment and damper ad­just­ments. And no mod­i­fi­ca­tions are al­lowed to the stan­dard fac­tory body pan­els.

Shorn of most non-func­tional pieces of in­te­rior trim, the MX-5 Cup’s in­te­rior feels far more spa­cious than the road car’s. And get­ting in and out is made eas­ier by the fact that the race car fea­tures a quick-re­lease steer­ing wheel. You’ll recog­nise the ba­sic struc­ture of the MX-5’S pro­duc­tion in­stru­ment panel and dash­board, but it’s much mod­i­fied for rac­ing. The AIM MXL2 digi­tised in­stru­men­ta­tion pod di­rectly ahead of you and fully vis­i­ble through the steer­ing wheel is a se­ri­ous bit of kit: it pro­vides all sorts of tem­per­a­ture and pres­sure read­outs, plus the all-im­por­tant rev counter with its yel­low and red warn­ing lights, as is de rigueur in race cars these days.you’ll also no­tice the manda­tory cen­tral power cut-off switch, and there’s an Fia-spec fire ex­tin­guisher sys­tem.

The Mazda Mo­tor­sports-spec seat cups you tightly, while the mul­ti­point safety har­ness firmly an­chors you to it, and thus the car. Fir­ing up the race car is lit­tle dif­fer­ent from start­ing the road ver­sion; tog­gle the ig­ni­tion to On, thumb the stan­dard starter but­ton and the car fires eas­ily, set­tling into a smooth, if some­what edgy idle. My drive to­day takes place at The Ther­mal Club, a very high-end, multi-course mo­tor­sports re­sort in the desert near Palm Springs, Cal­i­for­nia. I’ve driven at Ther­mal be­fore, al­though not this sec­tion of the track. Based on the pas­sen­ger seat laps I took with one of Mazda’s pro driv­ers, it’s a tech­ni­cal course with some very fast pas­sages, good sight-lines, plenty of grip and lots of gravel run-off.

Even as I take my first ten­ta­tive cir­cuits around the course, it’s ob­vi­ous to me that

the Cup car has con­sid­er­able speed po­ten­tial. And though it is ab­so­lutely a real race car, it could also be noth­ing other than an MX-5, it’s so very user­friendly. The en­gine, with its race-spec cal­i­bra­tion and zoomy ex­haust, sounds deep and throaty. The clutch is su­per­lin­ear, with a light pedal and smooth take-up. And, of course, the shift ac­tion of the trans­mis­sion is just mag­i­cal, as it is on the street ver­sion; a race-quick flick and you can prac­ti­cally think it be­tween gears. The ped­als are per­fect for hee­land-toe­ing, and the car loves and makes for per­fect rev-matched down­shifts.

The Cup is a race car even a novice driver gets 80 per cent to grips with im­me­di­ately.which al­lows you not to worry about what the car will or won’t do, but to con­cen­trate on your driv­ing, and learn­ing the track.with course fa­mil­iar­ity my speeds come up and lap times come down. I be­gan div­ing fur­ther into brak­ing zones, and car­ry­ing more speed through cor­ners. The up­rated sus­pen­sion com­po­nents al­low very flat cor­ner­ing, with prodi­gious grip and high lim­its. The chas­sis is also ex­tremely neu­tral: there’s a bit of ini­tial un­der­steer in the name of safety, but the MX-5 Cup oth­er­wise sets, grips and goes.

I’m sure if you over­cooked it enough you could over­steer the rear end around and lose it, but it would take some ham-fisted work to do so, and you can’t kick out the tail with the throt­tle alone. So quick, on line, smooth, fast and neu­tral is the way to make the most of any gath­ered mo­men­tum, and keep hon­ing tech­nique and lap times. It’s great fun to rev this mo­tor up and down the rev range and through the gear­box – again, it couldn’t be any­thing but an MX-5.

All too soon, my cou­ple of dozen laps are over, and al­though I don’t feel I have in any way mas­tered this chal­leng­ing track, I’ve re­ally got­ten to know the Cup bet­ter than this brief ex­pe­ri­ence would nor­mally al­low. It is with­out ques­tion the most trust­wor­thy and lin­ear race car I’ve ever driven: fast enough to be fun, but never scary.

What makes the Cup so rel­e­vant and re­lat­able to reg­u­lar MX-5 own­ers and en­thu­si­asts is that it’s built out of a real MX-5 – not some tube-framed, mon­ster-mo­tored, plas­tic-bod­ied special. It looks, feels and drives like an MX-5 you could buy from a show­room, al­beit one that’s in­gested a ton of pro­tein pow­der. Some of the track mods will cer­tainly in­spire own­ers who wish to tune their mk4 MX-5 road cars.

When an­nounced in 2015, a turn-key built Global MX-5 Cup cost $53,000; the first 70 or so or­ders came in quickly, and about the time the 100th ex­am­ple was fin­ished, the tech and spec were slightly up­graded, some op­tions were made stan­dard, and the price in­creased to $58,900. The home builder couldn’t repli­cate this car to this level for that money so, in that sense, it’s a bit of a bar­gain. How­ever, it’s still a nice pile of money. But you know the age-old say­ing: speed costs money – how fast do you want to go?

The MX-5 Cup car would make a su­perb track­day ma­chine for those with deep pock­ets. But sadly, as it doesn’t have a road-le­gal Vin-plate, it’s fruit­less to think of buy­ing one to con­vert for street use. And where can you race it? De­pend­ing upon your coun­try of choice, the car is el­i­gi­ble for a va­ri­ety of sanc­tioned in­ter­na­tional rac­ing se­ries: to date it has its own be­spoke se­ries only in the United States and Ja­pan. Mazda Mo­tor­sports spokesman Dean Case adds:‘we have sold cars in Europe and Aus­tralia.we are also about to launch a se­ries in Puerto Rico.’

Very few car mak­ers have the ca­pa­bil­ity or in­ter­est in de­vel­op­ing, mar­ket­ing and sell­ing a fac­to­ryau­tho­rised and built rac­ing car. But when you have a plat­form as suit­able to the han­dling and per­for­mance needs of the cir­cuit as the MX-5, with such an en­thu­si­as­tic owner group, then why not?

Left: cabin is stripped to save weight and to make space for a sub­stan­tial roll-cage Above: heavy-duty strut-brace gives ex­tra rigid­ity to the front end

Far right: light­weight race bat­tery

Right: tog­gle switches and a big, red fire ex­tin­guisher but­ton – it must be a race car…

Right: Total MX-5’S Matt Stone dons fire­proof over­alls and takes to the track to as­sess the MX-5 Global Cup race car Be­low: mk4 race cars have been com­pet­ing in the Bat­tery Ten­der Global Mazda MX-5 Cup in the US dur­ing 2017

Top: very close rac­ing in the MX-5 Cup cham­pi­onship Far left: Global Chal­lenge at­tracts rac­ers from all over the world

White car: hands up who thinks this would make an out­stand­ing fast road and track­day ma­chine

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