2016 Mazda MX-5 Cup Global Invitational: no podium, but at least a chequered flag

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Any hope of a top 10 finish at the inaugural 2016 Mazda MX-5 Cup Global Invitational were all but dashed the moment I read the bios – on the US drivers alone.

These were a mix of past champions, hard-charging rookies, seasoned teenage prodigies and retired Fortune 500 executives who had been competing in the MX-5 Cup series since its very inception.

Also lining up on the grid were seven other young guns from Europe and Japan who had been chosen to represent their countries after a gruelling driver selection process run over many months.

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These were some of the best MX-5 drivers on the planet.

Headlining the US entries was John Dean II, the defending Battery Tender MX-5 Cup Champion. He’s also the most successful driver in MX-5 Cup history, earning more pole positions and leading more laps than any other driver across the first eight races of 2016.

Nathaniel Sparks (Sparky) has been the one to beat this year and leads this year’s championship after eight of 12 races, with multiple podiums under his belt. He started racing in 2008 and became one of the top Teen Mazda Challenge spec Miata racers. He’s also a two-time Mazda Road to 24 Shootout finalist.

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Gamer, Glen McGee started his racing career in front of a computer screen, culminating in the 2015 iRacing Mazda MX-5 Cup, in which McGee tied for the most poles, most wins and most world record times – scoring himself a $100,000 Mazda Road to 24 Scholarship.

I could go on, suffice to say that almost every driver competing in this first ever invitational event was a serious racer with professional racing careers in their sights.

And best of all, gender didn’t have much to do with it. Four of the 19 racers were women, two each from the USA and Japan and they were just as fast as many of the guys – no surprise there.

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Take Sarah Montgomery, from Lafayette in Louisiana, she was another driver to watch and the only driver in the MX-5 Cup to be sponsored by her home city. She’d been racing for a decade – starting with karts and graduating to spec Miata where she honed her skills for four years before moving to the Skip Barber MAZDASPEED Pro Challenge in 2014, and MX-5 Cup in 2015.

And amongst this field of global, well-credentialled MX-5 racers? A couple of well-intentioned but, let’s be honest, inexperienced-at-this-level motoring hacks from Australia, including yours truly. In short, I was up against it.

The great thing about a one-make series like the MX-5 Cup is that all the cars are pretty-much identical – they all start out as spanking new ND series MX-5 road cars from the Mazda factory at Hiroshima, in Japan.

Once they roll off the assembly line the cars are shipped to MX-5 Cup Series engineering partner Long Road Racing in Statesville, North Carolina. It’s here where the cars are transformed into full-blown, left-hand drive MX-5 race cars.

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The process starts with the complete strip down of the production car before the welding and painting of a full race-spec roll cage and the interior. Once that’s completed, more than 250 motorsport parts are added to the MX-5 before its transformation into a fully-fledged Cup car.

Parts like the race-tuned ECU by General Engine Management Systems in the UK, stainless steel race exhaust header and exhaust system by Kooks Headers and Exhaust, and a cross brace upper strut bar designed and built by Long Road Racing.

While the engine and gearbox are essentially the same 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine and six-speed manual transmission out of the production car, special cooling measures are added to both components before both are sealed to prevent any unfair tampering.

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Suspension and brakes are also uprated to deal with race conditions and include adjustable dampers, race springs and lightweight forged wheels by Rays Wheels.

The brakes are by Brembo, though beefed up from the US spec Clubsport edition of the road car – adding grooved rotors and race-spec pads to the Cup car.

Standard road tyres are replaced by BFGoodrich racing slicks, the spec tyre for the US-based MX-5 Cup series and we got fresh rubber for each of the two races over the weekend.

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I wouldn’t call them overly sticky, just a robust control tyre that puts all drivers on equal footing. Push hard enough and the MX-5 Cup car will power slide out of the faster corners, and frankly, that’s the way this MX-5 Cup car needs to be driven if you’re going to be on the pace here at Mazda Raceway.

Thankfully, prior to being thrown in the deep end at Laguna Seca, Mazda Australia had imported a couple of the US-built MX-5 Cup cars for local evaluation, and one of those was made available to us over a couple of hours at Winton Raceway, in Victoria. Although seat time was limited to just over an hour, familiarity with the car proved invaluable.

While Winton is a technical track, for sure, it simply doesn’t prepare you for the challenging 3.6km Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, near Monterey, California. It’s a high-speed circuit featuring a 55-metre elevation change and plenty of thrills if you get it wrong.

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The signature turn is the heart-stopping, downhill-spiralling ‘corkscrew’ at turns 8 and 8A.

Dropping several stories in single left/right move, the corkscrew might be one of the most spectacular corners of any racetrack in the world, but it’s not the most difficult. All 11 turns at Mazda Raceway are technical, but turns 5, 6, 9 and 10 require a balls-out approach, along with a good degree of familiarity in order to achieve the quickest lap times.

Failure to do so means you probably won’t be carrying enough rolling speed towards the apex, or enough speed at the apex for the crucial corner exit, which generally leads into another straight section of the circuit.

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Pre-race track walks are essential for first time racers here, and our guy was Joel Miller, an LMP2-class pilot, but previously, an MX-5 Cup driver himself with loads of experience here at Mazda Raceway.

It takes a good hour to walk the 3.6km track, as Joel points out the ideal approach and exit lines to use depending on the ever-changing conditions on race day – which at this early stage proves invaluable.

Turn 2 is particularly important, as plenty of time can be lost here for those that brake too early (like me) and fail to carry enough rolling speed into turn 3, for instance.

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Turn 6 is very challenging, daunting even. It’s an early lift or light tap of the brake; roll on power halfway to the apex, committing to full power at the apex to carry enough speed up the hill towards the corkscrew. As Joel points out, you can do that because of the compression at this turn.

It’s the same kind of scenario as you take the plunge down the corkscrew; you need to get on the throttle early here before changing up to fourth before the challenging turn 9, which I found most difficult of all to get right, while carrying plenty of speed.

Like any professional race meet run by the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) – the sanctioning body that runs both professional and amateur races in the US, it’s a requirement to attend a driver’s briefing before practice and racing. In our case, given this was an inaugural event designed to promote the MX-5 Cup series globally, drivers were told that it was to be clean racing with no contact – oh, really?

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But even before that, drivers need to have their race equipment (helmet, fireproof underwear socks, overalls, gloves, balaclava, driving shoes) certified by the race stewards for compliance with current regulations.

Once you pass scrutineering, an SCCA sticker is placed on your helmet and you’re good to go.

The same goes for your race car, which is checked, measured, and weighed with driver in full race gear. Thankfully, your race director walks you through this process, and in our case that was Meathead Racing – a fully-fledged race team for hire out of the state of Washington DC in the United States.

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Mike Collins (a former US Marine – hence the name of the team) and his wife Wendy are the owners, and along with their crew provided a thoroughly professional team environment, commencing with the car’s set up.

In my case that proved more difficult, as car number 75 (my race car for the Mazda MX-5 Cup Global Invitational) had been previously raced by Mike himself, and given he is big guy with a super-size frame, his custom seat bracket needed to be replaced with another more standard version suitable for my 5’9” height – a fiddly and unusually time-consuming task.

There were two 30-minute practice sessions, which again, proved more than useful after the track walk, in preparation for qualifying. In my case, I was more than a few seconds off what was a furious pace set by much of the field.

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Like qualifying, race 1 was an eye-opening experience. The pace was astonishingly quick throughout the 45 min duration race – in fact, nine of the 18 drivers that lined up on the grid were clocking mid-to-low 1:42 sec laps – consistently, too. Whereas the best I could manage was a 1:51. At least I knew where I was losing valuable seconds. Braking way too early into turn 2, and basically, not carrying enough rolling speed into every other corner.

It was frustrating, to say the least, as I wanted to push, but felt I didn’t have enough laps under my belt at this circuit, or knew the car well enough to push any harder in the critical turns like 5, 6, 9 and 10.

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Help arrived with our coach for the weekend, Kenton Koch – a professional race driver with a 2016 Rolex 24 Hour Daytona win (LMPC), as well as too many other wins and podiums to list here.

Armed with video and data of each and every lap, Kenton analysed both and was able to clearly show where and how I was able to reduce my lap times – easier said than done, I’m afraid.

The other Aussie piloted car had crashed out on lap 6, and I was already on lap 20, with only a couple to go before the chequered flag – my goal now was simply to stay out of everyone’s way and finish the race. But then tragedy struck when I was hit right after turn 4, by a car that had lost control and eventually hit the wall. The damage to car 75 wasn’t severe, but with a bent rear control arm, race 1 was over for me.

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At least I had managed to go from a 1:53 in practice to a 1:51 in race 1 – but still tragically off the pace. Things just had to improve in race 2.

Rolling starts are difficult from the back of the grid, but at least I was afforded clean track for almost the entire race. I tried to push on in a few of the problematic turns, and managed to pull a 1:50.5 – but again, the top 10 were doing consistent 1:42s, or even quicker.

Again, my goal centred less on lap times and more on that so-far-elusive chequered flag. So far, so good, and five minutes later I was stoked to finish the race unscathed – and so was Meathead Racing.

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Much to my surprise, my cumulative points total of 57 had put me in 15th position out of 19 drivers – despite being well off the race pace.

The entire event, though, had been a massive success, with all the action streamed live and compered by the Radio Le Mans team.

It’s without doubt one the most affordable turnkey series racing on the planet, and we can only hope the series grows to incorporate not only Japan, but the entire Asia Pacific region, as there would be no shortage of buyers for the US$58,000 (drive away) Mazda MX-5 Cup car down under.

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