“If a red light comes on, or you see a trackside marshal with a red flag, you must stop the car immediately because that means there are kangaroos on the track,” the motor sport official instructs emphatically. Then, turning towards our four Russian friends, adds, “Bet you blokes haven’t seen that before.”
Welcome to our driver safety briefing before the 2013 Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge, held in and around Canberra. Seated around the room are 22 ‘motor noters’ – 18 Australians and the afore-mentioned Russian quartet.
We’re all here to pit ourselves and Mazda’s mighty, little roadster against each other and the clock in a carefully-controlled competition consisting of skid pan, motorkhana, hill climb and closed rally stage.
We’re told that points will be awarded, from first to last, for our fastest time in each of the four disciplines, then weighted — 1x for skid pan, 2x for motorkhana, 3x for hill climb and 4x for the rally stage.
We’re also told to enjoy ourselves, that it’s only meant to be a bit of fun, and not to damage body or car. Good, can’t be too serious then, except if that’s the case why have the Russians brought a driving coach? Hmm.
The NC-model MX-5s are standard, bar removal of folding top and the fitment of race-standard brake pads, driver’s race seat, six-point safety harness and CAMS (now Motorsport Australia)-approved roll bar.
Twenty-two drivers into 11 cars means we need to be paired, so I’m sharing True Red #5 with another Aussie ‘hack’.
The skid pan at the Sutton Road Driver Training Centre is first up, a discipline rewarding smooth throttle and measured steering inputs.
Five per cent attitude is what’s needed (20 per cent cannot be corrected) on the tight, wet course.
With my co-driver having driven from central Canberra out to the facility, my first feel of the car is venturing onto the skidpan.
I hedge bets on driving one of the timed runs conservatively and the second more aggressively. You guessed it; conservative is quicker.
The hill climb at adjacent Fairbairn Park is next. Unlike most such tracks, this one traverses the base of the hill, climbs, then runs across a crest and plunges downwards for a lap measuring about 700 metres.
Again, I try the ‘sweet and sour’ approach and, again, circumspect is quicker but exuberance is more fun.
The complete run (apart from the standing start) is made in 2nd gear, with not a complaint from the MX-5’s can-do, 2.0-litre four-pot.
Motorkhana layouts can be challenging to say the least, but luckily the organisers have decided to go easy on us with a configuration that even I can get my head around.
Which is just as well, as there’s a penalty of five seconds for each marker cone hit and a wrong direction (WD) results in being awarded the slowest time plus 10 seconds.
Not too many clean-sheet every run, myself included.
The rally stage is a fitting finale to the day.
Deep in the nearby Kowen State Forest and home to a round of Rally Australia, we run off one at time.
From the start on the crest of a high hill, the rough, gravel trail plunges into a fast right-hander, then a dizzying succession of full-bore, 2nd gear corners and curves and 3rd gear straightaways.
With the ABS disabled for the loose conditions, the MX-5 requires a delicate balance of finesse and hustling.
The trick is to keep the engine spinning freely but within 5000 rpm – the peak of its torque band.
Like most drivers, I manage to slice a chunk of seconds off my first time over the 6km course, but finish the second and final run knowing that more is possible.
Still, we fulfil Mazda’s directive of bringing ourselves and the cars home in one piece.
For the record, only one of the much-vaunted Russian drivers – their reflexes and car control skills finely honed driving/racing on ice and snow back home – finish in the top 10 with the other three keeping me and plenty others company in the bottom half of the field.
Bruised egos and some 16 damaged alloy wheels and tyres aside, what the challenge revealed was yet another string to the MX-5’s sturdy bow.
No one I know would be prepared to drive a $50,000 sports car of their own flat-out down a dusty, rough gravel road, but it’s nice to know that if you did, the world’s biggest-selling roadster of all time could do it. And do it well.