I was here last year for the 25th running of the four-hour MX-5 endurance race, held every year the Roadster (as it is here) has been on sale. I'm not the first Brit to do it either - checking back through the race programme I see a certain C Harris took part in the 2000 event! Last year was a biggie though, given it was also the debut of the newNDMX-5, project leader Nobuhiro Yamamoto leading the field round the track in it just hours after a simultaneous unveiling across the globe.
Now we'll be racing it, this being the motorsport debut of the new MX-5. Alas it's not the full Global Cup race car, based rather on the entry-level 1.5-litre stripped, caged and running about 20mm lower than standard on control Bridgestone RE11 tyres. All the cars are identical and absolutely factory fresh.
Our main sponsor is state broadcaster NHK's Samurai Wheels English language car show, presented by Australian journalist Peter Lyon, former F1 driver Ukyo Katayama and American-Japanese model Sarah Hannon. Note to PHTV producers - James is a nice lad and everything but we need to talk co-hosts...
As we prepare the car Peter and pal/crew chief Anton consider our plan of attack. The new engine is 20 per cent more efficient than the 2.0 in the NC we drove last year but the fuel quota has been slashed by 25 per cent. Katayama's presence on the team is a boost, even if his status means a one-minute handicap. Given he famously wrestled a Toyota GT-One back under control after a a 200mph blowout in the dying stages of the 1999 Le Mans 24-hour (handing the victory to BMW) he's clearly faced bigger challenges though! Fourth driver Izumi-san, meanwhile, is a bit of a Tsukuba hand and very quick.
Anton's number crunching says if we can maintain an indicated fuel consumption of 5.6 or better (I don't bother to ask how this is measured, turns out a bit of a blunder...) we'll get to the end. A conservative driving style and pace in the 1min 15sec region should see us with a decent result.
Trouble is the qualifying pace has people in the low 11s, Katayama's 12.1 putting us 17th on the grid. Racing is racing and there are clearly some quick boys and girls out there. The latter are a particular worry, considering many of them are serious hands with JGTC and Le Mans experience and, conservatively, weigh as much as 25kg less than your not especially powerfully built correspondent. Hm.
My heroics in the opening stint of last year's race mean I'm once again given the start and first run, the pressure very much on not to cock it up given the scrutiny of national telly support and an F1 driver on the team.
Six practice laps aren't really enough to get used to a new car but instantly it feels lighter and more agile, the 1.5 sweet and revvy if not especially powerful. Smoothness and intelligent use of revs and gearing are going to be needed to maintain both pace and fuel targets. The butterflies are well and truly kicking in as I line up for the parade lap and rolling start, Anton's calming voice on the headpiece my guide to how we're doing.
I get off to a good start, bagging a few places in the first turn melee while managing to keep my nose (mostly) clean as the pack spreads out. Driving standards vary considerably, cautious braking points and wide entries into the tighter corners by many making for rich pickings. Inevitably by the time I make it into the top 10 things are tougher though, the blue car of the consistently quick Engine team giving me a good old dice.
His dab of the brakes before the committed final sweeper is his weak spot though. On Peter's advice I'm just lifting at about 70 metres, taking a deep breath and holding the inside line, tyres howling as the inside kerb appears. The technique bags me a couple of car lengths per lap, lining me up for an easy pass into turn one.
Fumbling with the belts at the handover to Katayama costs us dearly though and then I get the really bad news from Anton. Japanese fuel consumption is measured in km per litre. And where I thought I was being clever and using less I've actually burned through more, ruining his projections for the rest of the race. There's a tense atmosphere as he tells Katayama he has to slow and save fuel. "I can't believe I've just told a Formula 1 driver he has to slow down to the 17s," he says darkly.
Previously elated I'm now horrified as we slip down to the back of the pack from the fifth I'd held at handover. Anton and the team look desperately at the screens and work the calculators. I decide I'd best keep out of their way.
As the race goes on we claw our way back to where we started in 17th place and the fuel use is in the 5.4 region. Still not good enough but, once again, Peter proves himself ultra consistent and claws us to second place and back on our fuel target before handing back to Katayama. My early glory hunting has cost us dear though and he's unable to attack those ahead, all of whom seem able to lap in the 13s and 14s. My glumness deepens.
Three laps to go and things are getting tense. Izumi says his tyres are shot, he's in the 13s but many up ahead have their hotshoes in the driving seat. But then start paying for their pace - the #55 car that's been pumping in low 11s for half a dozen laps is suddenly in the 28s and tumbling down the order. Another car comes to a halt by the pit wall out of fuel. Izumi crosses the line in 10th and the Samurai Wheels pit erupts. By the time he gets to the grid the news is better still - eighth! We pose for pictures with a P8 number board then, hang on, now we're seventh!
The car has been great too. The lack of weight over the NC is the most noticeable thing and with a bit less ride height it feels a lot more agile and fun, if still quite soft. That Global Cup car should be quite a step up. Wonder if we can bag a place at the Laguna Seca round?
Opening laps vid here.
Turns out the celebrations were a little premature - in a rather harsh interpretation of the passing under yellows rule Izumi got a one-lap penalty for overtaking a slow-moving car spluttering along on the remains of its fuel in the final run to the flag. The yellows were being waved for another - one of six - that had ground to a halt by the pit wall. The two cars he was battling to the line were also penalised, the Samurai Wheels/PistonHeads car eventually being classified 9th. Such is racing!
Photos: Yasushi Onishi/Dan