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Friday 7th September 2012


DRIVEN: MAZDA MX-5 GT4

It's now got wings, a turbo and genuine GT4 pretensions - and you can buy it too


"It's very easy to drive and you won't have any problems but whatever you do don't hit the kerbs on the chicane because you'll rip the front of the car off." So says Jota driver Owen Mildenhall of the MX-5 GT4 car he's hoping to race in the British GT championship this weekend.

GT4 car capable of podiums in Brit GT
GT4 car capable of podiums in Brit GT
Prophetic words that echo around my head - along with a few others - as cold brakes and tyres struggle to scrub off the considerable extra speed into Donington's Fogarty Esses 320hp, slick tyres and a full aero kit have given me compared with the near-standard production racer MX-5 I've swapped from. But then, I should have known that shouldn't I.

With more luck than judgement I manage to keep the wheels from locking up and though it doesn't show much enthusiasm to do so the nose just - just - turns in enough for me to miss those ominous red kerbs.

A close shave
There's the smallest opportunity to catch breath, let out a little sigh of relief, and then it's out of the chicane and a bwaaa-THUNK-bwaaaa-THUNK-bwaaaaaa-THUNK up the pit straight towards Redgate.

Lap with pit limiter = fouled plugs. Oops
Lap with pit limiter = fouled plugs. Oops
This car has changed a lot since I last drove it and feels a whole lot more serious than before. But it's undergone a very serious development programme, not least the addition of proper aero, a turbo and additional 50hp or so over the normally-aspirated version that competed last year. It's also now on sale as a customer car - yours for 125,000 plus VAT and a proven performer in British GT with podium finishes in GT4 at Snetterton and Brands to its name. As it would have to be if Jota expects people to lay down that kind of money on an MX-5 rather than an Aston Vantage GT4, Lotus Evora G4 or Ginetta G50.

Out on track I'm just glad to be under way properly, my first lap being perhaps the slowest ever circulation of Donington after my failure to locate the pitlane speed limiter button (yellow, with a 'P' next to it as it turns out...) sees me trundle a full lap at what feels like walking pace, fouling the plugs in the process. Not the best start.

Know your limits

Huge wing part of aero updates
Huge wing part of aero updates
Back out and up to speed as ever when swapping from a road car to a race car, not least one with double the power, aero, slicks and 20 per cent less weight, it takes a while to acclimatise. You'd think having scared myself silly the previous time around I'd have picked a more conservative braking point for my second lap too.

You'd think.

No, there we go again, those angry looking red kerbs once again licking their lips in anticipation of a chomp at the MX-5's carbon splitter. Once again they're denied, just. Sort it out Trent!

Like a 'real' MX-5, the race car's true talents aren't explosive speed but more about carrying it and using it well in the corners. OK, the pace has increased by a significant margin. And maybe it's the new turbocharged engine's more linear power delivery because that swell of revs and induction howl from the previous normally aspirated engine has been replaced with a savage monotone roar, punctuated by explosive pops with each tug of the dinky carbon shift paddles. But the acceleration doesn't strike you quite as much as the speed you can carry into and through the corners.

Get on it

Road car's handling traits still present
Road car's handling traits still present
I'm too tentative into Redgate, the still cold tyres missing the apex by miles as the nose pushes wide before settling as the corner opens out and I can feed the power back in with a rapid-fire staccato of gearshifts into the downhill run to the Craner Curves. Comfortably flat in the production car I've since had a huge tank slapper in the GT Concept road car, doubtless much to the amusement of the marshal at Old Hairpin, and even though the aero would probably allow it I'm a little more tentative now.

And again I'm not decisive enough with my turn-in, conscious of Mildenhall's warning to avoid even these more conventional rumble strip kerbs so as to avoid pad knock-off. It's a totally different mindset to the knockabout fun we've been having in the road and production cars - you need to drive this car with a racer's focus and accuracy.

Turbo ups power to 320hp - in an MX-5!
Turbo ups power to 320hp - in an MX-5!
Finally by lap four it's all coming together, my concentration is up, tyres and brakes are at full temperature and the car really feels like it's coming to me. A more decisive turn-in to Redgate hooks the tyres into the track surface, I can get earlier on the power and the corners start flowing into each other rather than appearing as obstacles to be contended with. Mildenhall's right too, it's a very easy car to drive and, though now (in Jota boss Sam Hignett's words) 90 per cent race car and 10 per cent road car, elements of the MX-5's character shine through, not least that inherent balance and friendliness.

Time's up
And then I'm flagged in as my time is up. "How was it?" asks Mildenhall's teammate Mark Ticehurst. "Brilliant, it was all coming together and I was really getting comfortable!" I gush. "Why do you think we're only giving you four laps," he grins. Ah.

Can an MX-5 really cut it as a viable GT4 car though? Hignett reckons yes, a bit more rubber on the ground among the upgrades on the way. Yes, a Ginetta will get you to the front of the grid for a lot less money, an Aston appeals to well-funded gentleman drivers and the Evora looks fabulous. Getting more serious has removed some of the MX-5 GT's underdog charm and puts a bit more pressure on a need to score some wins. But it's still an MX-5 at heart and to see it even with a shout in such company warms the heart.


MAZDA MX-5 GT4
Engine: 1,999cc 4-cyl turbocharged
Transmission: 6-speed pneumatically actuated Hewland sequential,rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 320@7,200rpm
Torque (lb ft): 258@6,200rpm
0-62mph: N/A
Top speed: N/A
Weight: 1,000kg (plus driver)
MPG: N/A
CO2: N/A
Price: 125,000 + VAT





Author: Dan Trent