Mk1 takes to the stages
Forget the notion that MX-5S aren’t roughty-toughty enough for rallying, because this mk1 is a motorsport star
It’s perhaps not the first car you’d think of to go rallying in, but as Lee Champion (far left) and Lee Claydon have discovered, the allegedly fragile mk1 MX-5 is remarkably robust and joyously entertaining on the special stages Words: Brett Fraser, Photographs Antony Fraser
Mk1 MX-5S: they’re frail little things. Best suited to gentle cruising on a warm summer’s day. Only, that’s not actually true. Not even slightly. At least, not in the case of the pretty much standard mk1 owned by Lee Champion and shared with his mate Lee Claydon: this is the car that they use to go rallying.
In fact, this is the car that they use for all sorts of motorsport for which standard cars are eligible. Sprints, hillclimbs, autosolos and also trackdays. Not to mention European tours to locations where the roads are vertiginous and snaking. H442 BGF isn’t abused – well, sometimes it is – but it certainly is used, hard and long and happily. And at the same time, it’s well loved and maintained.
Says owner Lee Champion:‘not so long ago this car did 150 laps of Brands Hatch on a trackday, which is roughly seven times a race distance. And in the couple of years that I’ve owned it, it has also done hillclimbs, sprints, autosolos and a couple of Targa Rallies, and I haven’t even changed the brake pads.
‘There have been a few problems: a fan belt snapped, one of the coolant hoses had a tiny leak because the rubber was so old it had perished, and the alternator has been replaced twice because consistent high speeds cause it to overheat. Otherwise, though, the MX-5 has been amazing and shrugged off its high-speed adventures through the forests and on the gravel stages. If it has a handicap, it’s the crew!’
The story of H442 BGF is all the more remarkable because, as Champion describes, the car should have been sent
off to the breaker’s yard back in 2007.‘It was a Cat D write-off after a rear-end shunt rendered it beyond economic repair. Its saving grace was a nearconcours paint job in a unique metallic burgundy: it was like glass when polished.’
In around 2010 the mk1 was bought by Stephen Thompson, a member of the Sevenoaks & District Motor Club, and used for club-level autotest and autosolo competitions. It was then sold to other club members Matt and Sue Endean, who campaigned it in various road rallies. A third club member, Andy Elcomb – a Brands Hatch rally instructor, successful driver/navigator on historic road rallies and serial MX-5 owner – then took it on before selling it to yet another club member, Paul Sales.
An old school friend of Champion, Sales entered the roadster in the 1600cc production class for sprinting and hillclimbing and achieved many overall and class wins against on-paper superior front-wheel drive rivals. He also loaned the car to Champion and
Claydon to ‘double-drive’ on such events. when Sales moved up to the production 2.0-litre class, Claydon – who already owned a Eunos VR Limited, and still does – bought the mk1 from him to use for autosolo, autotests, sprints, hillclimbs and trackdays.
A period of inactivity over the winter prompted Claydon to sell it to his pal Champion, on the understanding he’d prepare the car for class A1 1600cc production sprinting, so they could jointly have a crack at the championship. In went a TR Lane rear cage, Sabelt fourpoint harnesses, better seats (from an elderly Mazda RX-7 and bought for £100 off ebay), fire extinguisher system, and uprated pads and tyres. H442 BGF also received a (remarkably good) home spray-job in BMC Almond Green, the colour it is today.
Personal circumstances meant that Claydon then had to step back from the action for several months, so Champion tackled the season alone. But despite stiff opposition, he won the A1 class and tied for first place points in the overall Sevenoaks Speed League
The following season was a quiet one, at the end of which the two Lees decided to try their hand at a relatively new sport, Targa Rallying. Although you can compete in a totally standard road car – and looking at pictures from some of the events, it appears that many competitors do – it seemed sensible to carry out some of the few modifications permitted within the regulations, namely beefing up the suspension, fitting auxiliary lighting, a sump guard, rally trip meter and Msa-legal rallying kit. But the engine, gearbox and brakes are standard items, and the regs insist that the interior remains so, too, bar safety equipment.
As Claydon remarks:‘this is entrylevel fun. Just two normal guys who want to enjoy themselves on a rally. And it’s so cheap – I think that the chunky tyres that are on the car cost us £25 a corner, while entry to a Targa Rally starts from 40 quid. So much motorsport these days requires big spending to be in with a chance of any sort of silverware, but this is genuinely affordable, especially in the
MX-5 which just doesn’t seem to go wrong in any major way.’
Champion has previously tried stage rallying – having started racing aged 15 while still at school, progressing through hot rods, karting, sprints, hillclimbs, autotests, autosolos and 12-car rallies – in a Peugeot 106 rally car, but found it an expensive sport.‘targa Rallying is a comparatively new sport and a nice sort of halfway house towards stage rallying,’ explains Champion,‘and is a helluva lot of fun for not much money.
‘You do first have to belong to a motor club – Lee and I are members of the Sevenoaks and District Motor Club – but the membership fees are paltry. The Targa events are all about average speed and not necessarily setting the fastest time through a stage. And the events are varied – our first event was the Festival Targa Rally which took place on the Longleat Safari Park estate, through the woods at night. Our second was the Bustard Targa Rally, a multivenue event where the tests and stages were held on gravel and concrete surfaces, including Glastonbury!
‘It has been a steep learning curve for us both, particularly having to get to grips with reading and understanding the Tulip navigational directions: as Lee points out, it would help if we learnt to slow down a little bit! And it’s easy to get disheartened – our second run out didn’t go nearly so well as our first. But other teams have assured us that it can take a couple of years or more to become really competitive, so now we can’t wait to crack on with the other two Targa events we’ve signed up for before the end of the year.’
And what of the MX-5, how’s that coping? ‘The front-wheel drive cars are faster but not as much fun,’ replies Champion.‘the MX-5 is a lot like the mk2 Ford Escort to drive, and even Escort owners say that. In terms of preparation, I’d say the car is 80% there, but one thing we definitely need to do is raise the suspension. In third gear at 60mph we were getting airborne through the woods – the bouncing was so bad that if we hadn’t been so tightly harnessed in place then we’d have bust out through the hardtop.
‘To date this little car has won every discipline that its various owners have subjected it to, but Targa Rallies may be its undoing! But I think we’ll get it – and us – to the point where it is at least competitive. And considering what Lee and I have put it through in recent times, it’s not really damaged, it just has a few dents underneath.
‘Given that this car should have ‘died’ 11 years ago, it’s nice that it’s having such a good second life, such a great history, in several people’s hands.
‘Lee and I still use the car for many different kind of events, including trackdays, and it keeps going strong. We’ve even used it for a prize in a charity auction at our local pub – a day out in the MX-5 at a trackday with me acting as an instructor. we’re not precious about the car, we’ll let anyone drive it if they treat it with respect: it’s there to be enjoyed.
‘Some people say to us, “well, what if I blow it up?” Lee and I just laugh and tell them that between us we’ve been trying to break it for the last six years and haven’t managed it yet!’
Far right: with the exception of safety kit (and those seats) the cabin has to be kept standard.
Left: rallying regs insist the engine remains standard, even if the adjustable strut brace isn’t.
Below: hardtop has to be body coloured, say Targa Rally regs.
Right: plush sports seats are from an old RX-7 and were a £100 ebay find.
Clockwise from belowleft: auxiliary lights essential given how weedy a mk1’s headlights are; guidance for marshals in case of a crash; aids to rally timing and navigation; boot packed with rally essentials; our intrepid crew get namechecked; flexible torch for night rallies.