It’s not often we get a chance to drive a sports car from the 1990s at the request of a manufacturer. But that was exactly the case when we found ourselves behind the wheel of a race-winning 13B twin-turbo rotary Mazda RX-7 at Eastern Creek raceway at the recent World Time Attack challenge.
Although it was nothing more than a few demonstration laps and we were being consistently humiliated by a LeMans-worthy Mazda 767B 450kW race car, it was a timely reminder of how deep Mazda’s performance heritage runs.
The Japanese company won three straight Australian endurance championships in the 1980s and then followed it up with four consecutive 12-hour events in the 1990s. Not a bad feat considering its almost non-existent level of motorsport involvement today. But is that all about to change?
The arrival of the new driver-focused MX-5 will start the path to recovery next year, but Mazda will need more than just a sporty two-door if it’s serious about reclaiming its former glory.
“At the moment we don’t have an out-and-out sports car in our range that fits into a motorsport category in Australia,” admitted Mazda Australia’s public relations manager, Steve Maciver, in the Mazda tent at World Time Attack. “But are we looking to potentially get back into motorsport in some way? Yes we are.”
However that motorsport resurgence was to occur, the return of the rotary powerplant is at the forefront of that agenda.
Talk of a rotary resurgence is now the stuff of legends, with rumours of its death and reinvention floating around concurrently ever since the RX-8 went out of production in 2012.
Given Mazda is now posting consistently healthy profits, the bean counters are more than likely to give the go ahead for the brand’s sporting revival.
“If profits continue, we hope that gives Mazda the opportunity to develop some other products which may allow us get back into motorsport in a better way,” Maciver said.
“The MPS brand is in hibernation. Is there a concrete MPS plan? There’s not. [But] have we as Mazda Australia put our hand up to Japan and said ‘We would like an MPS’? Yes we have, so watch this space.”
But ask any Mazda fanatic and they will tell you the company’s heart and soul is in rotary, a technology Mazda successfully pursued after the Second World War to help it stand out from other Japanese manufacturers.
“The fact is, [work on rotary] is still ongoing, it’s still continuing and there’s definitely a passion for rotary inside Mazda.”
In this day and age of emissions- and fuel economy-obsessed marketing departments and regulatory bodies, it’s going to take a lot to get a rotary engine into a modern sports car, but if there’s ever been a company that can do it, it’s Mazda.
A fact worth remembering is the original Mazda MX-5, which was born from the work of a few engineers who refused to be told by the accounting department that there was no business case for a two-door sports convertible. Needless to say, it has gone on to become a very successful and iconic model for the brand.
Though it might not be as straightforward as that, as the problems with rotary engines in the modern world are largely of a technical nature. Mazda hopes to apply its recent learnings from SkyActiv technology to extract more torque and better fuel economy from its upcoming rotary powerplants, which are essential if they are to gain mass-production approval.
An obvious question is whether Australia’s third-best-selling brand would ever consider joining the V8 Supercars championship, which is currently under threat from local manufacturers pulling out.
“It’s not reflective of our brand, but if there was a category that was better reflective of what the customer could go buy off the showroom floor, we would look at it.”
The motorsport revival at Mazda is by no means something that will happen overnight, but all the early signs are there. Somewhere in Hiroshima, deep behind closed doors, passionate engineers are yelling at accountants and things are beginning to happen.
The thought of a modern-era rotary sports car ran through our minds as we came screaming down the main straight in the RX-7 racecar.
Instructions were to stay below 6500rpm – considering the car we were piloting had won its share of races then spent the majority of its life in storage - but let's be honest, it’s a rotary and it needs to be revved out.
It’s a beautiful thing, the RX7. A true sports car that demands the best from the driver without giving too much away in the process.
Like other cars of its era, it’s unlike any of the modern sports car, requiring a sense of driving ability lacking in plenty of new car enthusiasts.
No electronic aids, little regard for fuel economy and a very small chance of coming back if the car was to let go at high speed. All the things that made us fall in love with the RX7 all those years ago are still just as important today. Here’s hoping Mazda can bring some of it back to life in the next few years.