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

  • Crunchy Nutter 25 Jul 2011

    Sounds brilliant! Shame they didn't give you more laps, but I suppose they don't want people to get too cocky with it. And time limitations, of course.

  • WMP 25 Jul 2011

    "this is not"

    Looks like a good package.

    The engine/box sounds like its been lifted off Caterham in it's entirety.

    A bit more info on the suspension/chassis would be great to see if a similar could be achieved by someone on a tight(ish) budget.

  • FWDRacer 25 Jul 2011

    Somehow a racing MX5 doesn't look authentic unless riddled with panel damage.

  • Dan Trent 25 Jul 2011

    WMP; I'll see if I can get some more details about exactly which Sachs dampers are fitted to the production racers and were, until recently, also on the GT. My man at Jota said they were road/track units whereas the Ohlins now on it are pure touring car spec stuff.

    To expand on what I said in the piece, the pick-up points are, as stated, as per the standard road car. Jota use the stock wishbones, uprights and other parts but modify them with threaded adjustment to increase track and allow other set-up changes. They say because the car is so light they do struggle with getting enough temperature into the tyres at times so need to run very aggressive camber - as much as -5deg rear - to really get them working.

    I made the point about it being beyond the scope of what most owners would tackle based on the amount of work that went into the cage and its integration into the body. It's a lot, lot more than a roll hoop and door bars! Ditto stuff like dropping the engine in the chassis and suchlike too. All pretty serious stuff but they are doing this for real and Jota is out there to be genuinely competitive. And have the funding to be so. Like I said, the production racers with their conventional cages, slicks, 'sensible' suspension mods and loud exhausts are probably closer to what most of us would consider as a project car and a ton of fun as a track toy. You could build something similar for sensible money but you'd need to be ready to open your cheque book and say 'aaaaaargh!' to even get close to what they've done to the GT. Which isn't to say Jota would turn you away...

  • mat205125 25 Jul 2011

    Saw this car at Castle Combe this weekend, and thought that it looked like an impressively engineered project. In particular, the carbon fibre tonneau/hood cover was a fantastic double-bubble piece of fabrication.

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