PH GOES SPRINTING. IN A 19-YEAR-OLD TOYOTA
What's it like to take your baggy MR2 for a spot of grass-roots motorsport? We find out...
Toyota isn't a brand presently associated with PH-type activity. Despite blowing inconceivable amounts of cash on an underperforming F1 challenge that seemed precariously short on passion, it's years since you could buy a new Celica or MR2, and even further back since the days of the MR2-Celica-Supra trio, TTE-fielded rally cars and sports prototypes such as the 89C-V and the GT-One.
Perhaps sensing the prevailing wind, Toyota UK is sponsoring both the 750MC MR2 Championship and the Toyota Sprint Series. The latter in particular is pitched as genuine, grass-roots motorsport, and when the invite came though to participate in the first round of the series, we jumped at the chance.
But what car to compete in? MR2 specialist Rogue Motorsport suggested a car of their own, but given the grass roots nature of the series we had a better idea: you can't get more 'grass roots' than turning up in a 19-year old Mk2 MR2 (UK Rev2 GT) that hasn't been on the road properly in seven years, mainly sitting outside rotting. It's my car - a sadly neglected family friend of many years that I've been trying to resurrect over recent months with limited success - time, money, motivation, work space: the usual excuses. Now there's just a week to sort it all out...
So far so good: nothing has fallen off. Brilliant.
Still nothing has fallen off, but it feels a bit weird on this ancient rubber - three different brands, one very slow puncture, and one on the markers - so what can you expect? Then I remember the raised eyebrow of the Rogue mechanic when discussing the health of my car's suspension. Note to self: don't expect miracles of handling and road holding - it's knackered.
Still don't have any tyres, and time is rapidly running out. The rear boots on an MR2 are unusual - 225/50 R15: wide, squat and plump, basically - so it really restricts the appropriate tyre manufacturers to choose from. In the end we settle on some A048s - Yokohama's sticky, semi-slick road/track tyre. We might be feeble in the engine room, but we won't be lacking in mechanical grip at the contact patch. Can't quite believe it, but this might actually happen after all...
Early start: check oil and pressures and get on the road. What a great feeling to be driving to a circuit with a day's competition ahead of you, it's an emotion worth the entry price alone.
Our plan has backfired. Far from giving us an unfair advantage, the sticky Yokos mean we've been bumped up to Class C Pro: against the opposition in that class, we might as well have entered a wheelbarrow...
It's time for a sighting lap of the course before the first of our eight runs of the day; a single lap of the banked circuit at Rockingham with chicanes, and both fast and slow corners artificially created with the help of cones. The start is just inside the pitlane facing the wrong way, followed by a 180-degree turn onto the start/finish straight. Can't help a slight tinge of disappointment that we're not using the infield circuit...
Pause for lunch and time to take stock, have an amble around and talk shop with fellow competitors. We've knocked whole seconds off our time so far, and aren't last. There's a terrific mix of sporting Toyotas here today: wildly modified Celicas with up to 700bhp, rapid MR2 Turbos with yelping dump valves, a gnarly ST165 Celica in TTE colours, Supras and even an IQ.
The biggest weakness isn't the engine, but the brakes: despite the new fluid it's like pushing your foot into a vat of mushy peas. The only really fast corner turns against the outer concrete wall of the banking, and it takes a while to build the resolve for taking it flat in the top of 'third'. Lose it here and you'll need a skip and a broom ...
It also possesses perhaps the finest V6 induction note I've ever heard in a car, which drills through the Arai and makes all your bones rattle. It's quick, too, at 300bhp/ton, with beautifully sensitive and direct steering to rival an Elise's. This time the course really is too short, but it's a tantalising taste of a fascinating car.
Nothing helps you bond with your car like competition, even more so than a track day. The drive home is a happy one.