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
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