Starting in Sweden in 2011, the Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge has seen Australia's quickest motoring journalists take on their colleagues from Russia twice before in two ice races: the inaugural event and then again in Russia in 2012.
This year saw Mazda invite not only 18 local journalists to Canberra for national bragging rights, but also four of Russia’s top motoring writers – Vladimir Melnikov, Vadim Gagarin, Sergey Voskresenskiy and Peter Yastrebov – in a challenge spread across four disciplines: Skid pan, Motorkhana, Hillclimb, and Rally.
Mazda Australia’s Steve Maciver told CarAdvice that with the Russians up 2-0, he hoped the Australian media could start to get some runs on the board in 2013.
“The MX-5 Media Challenge presents a great opportunity to continue some friendly rivalry between Australia and Russia," Maciver said.
“Our Russian friends have had the better of us at a couple of ice races over the past couple of years, and it’ll be interesting to see how the local conditions of tarmac and gravel will play out over the next couple of days. But I guess only time will tell...”
Arriving in Canberra the night before the one-day main event, the locals and imports gather for the first drivers’ briefing at 7pm.
The weapons of choice are standard 2013 Mazda MX-5s – the same cars used at the car’s official launch in October last year – with the only ‘racing’ modifications being a CAMS-approved roll bar, a race seat and six-point harness, and upgraded brake pads. The folding hard-top roofs have all been removed.
Twenty-two drivers are split between 11 cars with each car being shared between two journalists. Apart from necessitating brisk driver changes, this also means if one driver bins the car, both lose out. CarAdvice is teamed with Motor’s James Cleary in the Stormy Blue Car #6.
The drivers’ briefing lays out the format for Friday’s challenge.
The Skid pan will comprise one practice lap of the wet track at the Sutton Road Driver Training Centre, followed by two timed laps.
Motorkhana will entail one practice run of a 76m-long course marked out with flags, which if clipped incur a five-second penalty, followed by four timed runs.
Hillclimb, one sighting lap, one practice lap and two timed laps of the near-on one-kilometre Southern District Motorsports Association Hillclimb Facility at the Fairbairn Park Motorsport complex.
And the Rally. A six-kilometre gravel rally stage through Kowen Forest that featured in the Australian Rally Championship only a week before our event. We get one reconnaissance pass and two timed runs. No pressure.
Points will be awarded to individual drivers at each event relative to finishing position, starting with 24 points for first and descending by one point down the order. Points will then be multiplied specifically to each challenge based on difficulty – x1 for Skid pan, x2 for Motorkhana, x3 for Hillclimb and x4 for the Rally.
The briefing concludes, we inhale dinner and head to our respective slumber pads for the night, comforted by the knowledge that no matter what happens at tomorrow’s main event, they’re not our cars.
Up at 6:10am and it’s breakfast, race suit and boots on, and outside into the crisp -1 degree Canberra air.
First up is the Skid pan. The tight and slippery circuit proves to be a good test for provoking the rear-wheel-drive MX-5’s natural oversteer tendencies but also its propensity to understeer. Arrive at a corner too quickly or turn in too sharply and the front end will push wide resulting in an untidy moment and a slow time.
With power from the MX-5’s 2.0-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine being more mild than wild at
118kW and 188Nm, a squirt of the throttle can also easily accentuate this front-end push rather than cure it with a dose of rear-end wheel spin.
Our practice lap is informative and fun, with the best of the two timed runs being enough for second-fastest for the day.
Next we head to the Hillclimb and are presented with a short 700m-odd track that has a genuine climb between turns six and eight. Flowing, and with a different position for the start and finish lines, we get a guided sighting lap of the course before one practice lap and two two-lap timed runs.
A great little circuit that rewards patience more than bravery or blind courage, the Hillclimb is entertaining but, unfortunately, the former is lacking from our two attempts. Particularly on the second lap of both runs, the urge to push harder than necessary results in CarAdvice placing 10th fastest overall.
We arrive at the Motorkhana – set up next door to the Skid pan – and try to make sense of the clusters of flags marking out our loop.
Initially appearing compact but straightforward, the Motorkhana, which only requires the first of the MX-5’s six available gears, catches many out by being trickier than first thought.
Getting the layout wrong on the practice lap isn’t the best start but with four timed laps on offer, redemption is possible. And it appears close at hand too when a time of 18.76 shows up on the marshals’ stopwatches, until a light clipping of the second-last flag sees it wobble, topple over and add five seconds to the time that would’ve been the day’s fastest.
It turns out Harry Hogge was wrong: rubbin’ is in fact not racin’. We finish ninth.
The morning’s challenges are done and all drivers are gathered together for our briefing ahead of the day’s main event, the six-kilometre gravel rally stage through Kowen Forest.
Teammate Cleary heads out for his reconnaissance pass and first timed run. Car #6 returns a short time later, a little dusty but in one piece – so far, so good.
Driver change done, belts tight, we head to the competition stage via a three-kilometre gravel transport stage at a strictly enforced 40km/h speed limit.
Thick pines, clear skies and bright sunshine do their best to make this feel like a calming experience, though, never having raced on a gravel road before, the situation is anything but.
A downhill start flows quickly into fast, sweeping, tree-lined roads, with small red arrows the only indication of upcoming corners – no co-drivers here.
First gear is traded quickly for second, then third, and then into fourth. Fourth?! On a gravel road? In a street car with standard tyres and standard suspension? Many of the journalists openly express their surprise at Mazda’s boldness to hold the challenge on such a stage, but indeed it had – no doubt the two spare cars on hand are proof enough that less than positive outcomes have also been considered.
All 22 drivers make it through without incident – some significantly faster than others – with the only damage being eight buckled wheels, several punctured tyres, and one solely damaged Mazda MX-5 with a broken rear left lower control arm, damaged radiator and air conditioning compressor, and a somewhat ‘restyled’ front bumper.
Which car? The Stormy Blue Car #6. But CarAdvice isn’t to blame. Our two timed runs are already in the books when Motor’s James Cleary makes his way back into the rally stage’s base camp behind the wheel of a slightly dishevelled-looking Mazda MX-5. His little ‘incident’ forces us into one of the spare cars for the return to our Canberra HQ.
Our best time through the gravel rally stage is 4min34sec, 24 seconds off the day’s best, a 4min08sec by freelance writer – and CarAdvice contributor – James Stanford. Stanford also claims top spot on the overall podium ahead of Motor’s Glenn Butler and Drive’s Toby Hagon, with CarAdvice ending the day in eighth place. The highest-placed Russian was Vladimir
Melnikov in sixth.
A huge thank you to all the staff and volunteers who helped put the event together.
The 2013 Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge proved not only rewarding and educational, it showed just how capable and fun a genuine sports car can be. If history is any measure, the next-generation Mazda MX-5 – that will be developed in collaboration with the Alfa Romeo 4C Spider – is sure to put smiles on faces once it hits showrooms around 2015.