evo goes Mazda MX-5 ice racing
evo's John Simister goes ice racing in a Mazda MX-5 roadster. Fun and slides aplenty
In a world now dominated by front-wheel drive, the skills of power oversteer control need to be kept honed. I have never been as flamboyant, nor indeed as confident, a powerslider as the likes of, say, Harris or Meaden, but the pleasures of a good slide are undeniable. And what better way to refine the technique than an ice race in the right sort of rear-drive cars? It's the Mazda MX-5 Ice Race, held near Are, Sweden. What a brilliant idea, you think for half a second. Then the fear sets in. It's one thing sliding through yet another low-friction bend on mid-friction studded tyres, but quite another doing so with another 19 MX-5s slithering all around you on their own subtly different but similarly committed lines. But it will be the same for everyone. Won't it? Wednesday, February 23, Lake Kallsjön. We're halfway up the west side of Sweden, 45 minutes from Are (pronounced aura). Twenty teams got through yesterday's practice with surprisingly little damage, including UK1 which is my team in car number 5. There's a second UK team, its drivers probably quicker than ours on aggregate, especially as one of them is special guest Ikuo 'Speedy' Maeda, Mazda design chief and part-time MX-5 racer in Japan. Other teams come from all over Europe, six drivers per team who are mainly fellow motoring scribes with a few more 'special guests' in the mix. And Australia has also joined us, its journo-team unused to snow but all dab hands at gravel rallying. The Russians are looking very strong. It makes me realise that an event like this couldn't have been the same when the MX-5 breed was launched, because 1989 was the year the Wall came down and Russia wasn't quite on the international motor-journalist stage back then. They've made up for it since – 45 journalists applied to take part, all had to take an ice-driving ability test and the final few were psychologically profiled to make sure they could take the pressure of the race. Next to this, we're amateurs. It's seriously cold - 23 degrees Celsius below freezing. There's no heating in the pits because the ice would melt and we'd be in the drink. The track is a 4.5km nest of snakes cut into the snow, and it's time for the first practice session. I'm first out for my team, we're released at worryingly close intervals and where does the track go? The problem is that the snow kicked up by the cars ahead makes it almost impossible to see past them, so what the race start will be like doesn't bear thinking about. If we avoid all piling into the snow banks it will be a miracle. First dab of throttle, feel the tail snake. (There's a limited-slip diff for optimum traction, the rear damping is set soft and the front hard, and each tyre has 200 tungsten carbide studs.) First bend, touch the brakes, feel the tail swing out, steer into the skid and accelerate. If I get it right, the nose will point beautifully into the apex and the slide will gradually ease into the next bit of straight. Sounds easy. It isn't, as the video of my first efforts shows. There are 23 left-handers and 20 right-handers in one lap, and you have to hold slides through all of them. All in our team manage to avoid the banks. Then it's qualifying, I'm out first again but my time isn't the one that gets us on the grid. That honour goes to Matt Joy from the Press Association, who's got in the groove with a 4.49.177 time. But that still puts us just 16th on the grid. Unbelievably the Aussies are on pole with a stunning 4.41.412, nearly six seconds quicker than the second-place Hungary/Slovenia/Turkey team. Russia is third, UK2 is fourth thanks to a banzai effort by Jethro Bovingdon who sadly doesn't live here any more. Next day, the race. It's in two two-hour parts, and I'm starting neither of them because it would be a shame to scupper our chances at the first corner. End of Race One's first lap, and the entire field is hidden by snow spray. End of second lap, where's our car no5? It's in the bank and has to be towed out, so we've now got it all to do. My turn, fifth UK1 driver to join the fray and the car is miraculously undamaged unlike many of the others. Portugal is missing its entire front bumper, others are dented or have pieces hanging off. The track is more slippery yet curiously it’s faster, because there's less snow to drag you down if you take too wide an exit line. In fact the track has become wider and the esses straighter as the cars nibble away at the snow. Concentrate, concentrate… try not to over-drive, keep it tidy and smooth and you'll be quicker… someone overtakes but he – probably a he, there are just two ladies in the race – spins a couple of corners later so I get the position back. Now Finland/Ireland/Romania/Serbia is on my tail, I go in too wide, hit the snow bank on the tight right-hander's exit and I'm beached on the bank in full view of the pits. I just feel numb with the helplessness and the awfulness of letting the team down and, increasingly, with the cold as the ice forms on the inside of the windscreen. After what seems like forever (it's actually just a few minutes) I'm hauled out and I scoot straight into the pits for the last driver change. We finish 18th, with just Germany 2 and Portugal behind us. Not good. Race 2 has to go better, and it does. We claw back a couple of places, which I do my best not to lose. The track is yet wider now, and quite rutted in places especially on the long left-hander where the fastest drifts are to be had. Hook the front wheels into the ruts and it's like being in a slot racer. Fall out of them and there's a lot of bouncing and banging. I overtake a car joining from the pits, nearly losing it during the first attempt but nailing it on the second try just before the tight left. Now there's another car close behind, getting ever closer till he spins off. Now, uncannily, there's no traffic, I'm on my own and I finally manage to put in three decent, tidy laps before my stint is over. Finally it came together and the buzz was beyond description. We finished 15th on aggregate, beating two of the three German teams plus Switzerland, Portugal and the much-fancied Hungary/Slovenia/Turkey collaboration which had clearly run into trouble. Our car was unmarked apart from a shredded undertray, our fingers were numb and bleeding but we didn't care. We never got beyond third gear. UK2 came fifth, having led for one glorious lap in Race 1; Mazda UK MD Jeremy Thompson got engulfed on Race Two's first lap and ended up in the bank, then Speedy-san spun exactly where I got beached, with much the same result. The winners? Russia, whose car's paint job featured a claw-baring bear spreadeagled over the entire body and Cold War rockets along the side. The Australians were just over a minute behind, despite scoring the fastest lap at a barely-credible 4.38.875 – an average lap speed of 38.4mph. Well, it feels fast when you're doing it.