Driven: Mazda MX-5 GT race car

Everybody loves a plucky underdog. Well, not quite. People who’ve spent a six-figure sum on a fancy racing car complete with matching overalls and motorhome aren’t so keen, especially when said underdog looks more or less like a standard MX-5. And in a world where wallets are big and egos fragile this little Mazda has been upsetting a few folk.

Especially when you learn that its giant killing pace doesn’t come from some V8 transplant or bolt-on supercharger kit. Taking Mazda’s ‘gram strategy’ to extremes, the MX-5 GT strips weight out of the standard road car, tunes up the normally aspirated 2.0-litre engine and uses pluck and guile to run rings round ostensibly much more serious race machinery.

Okay, 275hp isn’t shy. And, to be fair, with manufacturer funding and the expertise of race team Jota Sport, nor is the MX-5 GT exactly much of an underdog when it comes to its backing. A have-a-go hero with a donor MX-5, a Demon Tweeks catalogue and a can-do attitude this is not.

Nobody outside the team has driven it before, so as a paid-up MX-5 nerd I leapt at the invitation to do so, this off the back of racing the GT’s sister production car at Rockingham earlier this year.

These identically liveried cars are little more than slick shod, stripped’n’caged road cars prepared for hacks to get a taste of racing alongside the GT in the Britcar MSA Endurance Championship. The GT is, it’s clear, a much more serious deal, though.

“You’ll find it has tons of grip,” says GT driver Owen Mildenhall as we skim Anglesey’s kerbs, Snowdonia looming across a narrow strip of iridescent Irish Sea ahead. Bedford this is not. “You do need to settle it before you turn in though,” he warns. “If you don’t you’ll suddenly find it gets a bit lively.”

A few laps in the production racer bridge the gap between regular road car and the GT, slicks and a racy chassis set-up throwing in a ton more grip and cornering speed. Still not that fast, but inherently chuckable and huge fun to drive.

Outwardly, the production racer and GT car appear pretty much identical, but there’s more to it than that. A stripped standard car, acid dipped to remove 17kg worth of insulation and sound proofing, was the starting point, Jota’s weight saving strategy more about kilos rather than grams.

The 2.0-litre Mazda engine’s shared background with the familiar Duratec found in Caterhams and others means there’s a greater parts supply and knowledge base for tuning than many would realise. Cosworth internals and the engine-building expertise of Minister Power in Kent see 275hp, a tad more than Caterham gets out of the R500 and enough to be going on with given the GT’s 850kg.

Mounting the engine 50mm lower required modifying the subframe, Jota opting for a Quaife sequential six-speed gearbox driving through a beefed-up LSD from the same source.

The previous Sachs dampers have since been replaced with touring car spec Ohlins units, the pick-up points, wishbones and uprights all as per the road car but with additional adjustment built in.

While the trips out in the production racer were relatively chilled as I’m strapped into the GT there’s a much more serious air, the matey banter of the Jota boys seamlessly shifting to a more steely professionalism. Team driver Mark Ticehurst has already brandished a set of mole grips at the briefing, promising creative use of them on anyone who prangs it, and though it might look like ‘just’ an MX-5 it’s clear the car and the team behind it are as serious as they come.

The wheel is clipped in place and the engine fires into a truculent idle. Holding down the yellow N button on the wheel, clutch pedal down, first engages with a tug of the right paddle and a hefty thunk. Once away there’s no need to use the third pedal – just pull the paddle and the next cog bangs home with an accompanying PSSST-clack from the pneumatic shift mechanism.

The engine, unsurprisingly, has a similar unburstable enthusiasm to the tuned Duratecs familiar from hot Caterhams. But it’s twice the weight of a Superlight and though undoubtedly quick doesn’t punch you in the back with its acceleration, even though the power band is satisfyingly broad.

Where the MX-5 makes up the time is in the corners and the first one on this shortened Anglesey track is a long right-hander with a tricky dip halfway through and a late, late apex. Frankly, I mince through it but I get it slowed for the tight section at the top of the hill and try and assert myself on the throttle earlier on the exit. I’m still pottering but the 5 is on my side and with the blaring revs and rapid fire shifts my blood is up and by the time I reach the pits I’m really starting to enjoy myself.

And then get a bit too cocky. Mildenhall was right about not turning in on the brakes, a muddled entry to a right-hander demanding a fumbled dab of oppo to catch, late braking for the hairpin costing more time.

Like any racing car it’s a matter of tyres and learning how hard you can lean on them. Very, would appear to be the answer and, swallowing a big brave pill I hold more speed for that big right-hander. The Mazda thumps into the dip but, as promised, loaded and on a balanced throttle it doesn’t deviate one bit. This is fun. Lots of fun.

Like any MX-5, even one as potent as this, the pace (and fun) comes from carrying speed through the corners, but appreciating quite how much you have to play with would take a few more laps that, sadly, I don’t have.

Okay, the work that’s gone into this car is far and beyond what any amateur could achieve. But it does underline the potential of the MX-5. Bashing around in a one-make race series is one thing and, as I’ve found, heaps of fun. But mixing it with ‘proper’ racing cars in a grown-up championship and scoring podium places in its first season is a massive achievement. The Jota boys can see further potential in the GT, too, and it surely can’t be too long before the little Mazda scores its first class win.

Images: Mazda/Gary Hawkins

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Comments (28) Join the discussion on the forum

  • thewheelman 04 Aug 2011

    GroundEffect said:
    2.0 NA screamer

    Sounds like a bucket load of fun cloud9
    Hell Yeah!!!

  • ktm301p 31 Jul 2011

    So how much does it cost?

  • pw32 28 Jul 2011

    Fair point!

  • Dan Trent 28 Jul 2011

    Boxsey - I know what you mean. And, I reckon, for a trackday project you could do worse than look at the production car racer for inspiration. A cheap Mk3, stripped and caged with decent suspension and you're pretty much there. I wonder how much it would take to get a Cosworth crate Duratec engine to work with it? Hmm... Either way, those cars are huge fun on the track with no need to go anywhere near the six-figure sum.

    And PW32, I take your point too. If you're looking for a competitive off-the-shelf racer at a reasonable cost the Ginetta is the obvious choice. This car is all about making some waves and getting some column inches for the MX-5 (er, that'll be me playing my part there then!) by putting it somewhere folk wouldn't expect to see it. If winning races is your game you'd have to be pretty bloody minded to spend the money on this rather than a G55 but credit to Mazda for putting the cash up to get the car built. The world is richer for its presence!

  • pw32 27 Jul 2011

    Dan Trent said:
    Boxsey; to be entirely fair the giant-killing aspect stems more from the fact that it's a standard (ish) looking MX-5 rather than a cheap car built by an enterprising enthusiast but I hope the article got that across!

    In answer to the 'how much does it cost' thing nobody at Jota was prepared to put a number on it and it's an ongoing project with funding from Mazda. You can be sure it hasn't been cheap and you can do some rough totting up by looking at the hardware that's gone into it. I did ask Jota how much a customer car to this spec would cost, were it ever to happen, and they said it would have to be under six figures but by how much who can say. Hope that helps a bit!

    Now a Ginetta G50/G55 would probably be a more competitive and cost-effective off-the-shelf racer for comparable money but where's the satisfaction in getting a podium in that when you can do the same (and here we come full circle!) in an MX-5 that could, at a pinch, pass as a road car.
    I have to admit to not getting it. Why would you spend circa £100k when you could get something quicker and off the shelf. Massive respect for getting mazda to chip in, but if it was my money G55 every day of the week, and I have to say I'd be amazed if it gets anywhere near a G55 round a track. Ginetta did a load of giant killing in the g40 last year. Normally one car that shouldn't on paper get top 10-12 does...but I have to say the numbers (ie 1 car!) don't work in your favour and all the hype just means you get a good chance to have egg all over your face! still, you takes your chances, fair play.

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