The first track day of the year is always an exciting affair. New cars, new modifications or just simply a chance to blow the cobwebs out, the heart always skips a beat as you drive through the entry gates for the first time.
First there’s the nervous wait for scrutineering, and then the ugly pause before the first session begins. It’s been four or five months since some of these cars have had a decent scoot, and the mind wanders to all of the little things that need re-checking. Everybody just wants to get on with it!
Garren is usually found behind the wheel of a Fiat, and was a longtime competitor for many years in his quick 124 BC. Life and family and kids etc got in the way and he was forced to give it up for a while, and this was his first event back in over 7 years. You couldn’t wipe the smile off his face!
Andrew Burnard’s Evo 8 MR tarmac rally car has recently been sold, and its new owner was putting it through its paces at Mallala. I suspect this was probably just a shakedown event, as this car is such a brilliantly prepared rally car that it would be a shame to see it anywhere other than the special stage.
It’s quite common now for the Porsche club to hold their motorkhana events on the Mallala skidpad on the same day as our Sprint’s. That’s certainly not a bad thing – the sound of a 997 GT3 being put through its paces is always welcome!
Back to the Supersprint, and this MX5 Speedster out on track caught my eye. This car has been around for a few years, but was painted in a garish silver/black scheme that didn’t quite work. A red re-spray has transformed it into one of my favorite MX5’s. With significant weight reduction and a potent supercharged motor, it set a 1.25.54.
It would be fun to develop this concept into a super cool little street sports car. Imagine how good this would look without the GT wing on the back and that big black roll bar removed. I’d then make a roll hoop behind the driver, and fair it back like a D-Type Jaguar without the fin.
For me, this supersprint was a little frustrating and to be honest, a little bittersweet. Back in December last year I set my goal to debut my Fiat X1/9, fresh from its 5 year restoration, at this event. My Dad, some good mates and I worked super long hours for months to finish it, and it really looked like it was going to make the event. I drove it for the first time with a few weeks to spare, and we spent that time ironing out some pretty major teething troubles. We had it running pretty nicely, and I was over the moon. And then on the Monday before the event, it lunched itself on the dyno. It came home on a tow truck, and I was crushed.
Plan B then turned to my Dad’s Alfa Sprint. He was half way through a gearbox rebuild to install a Quaife LSD, and kindly shelved the project to help me finish my X1/9. We decided to rush to finish the Alfa for the event, which meant building the gearbox back up, and then installing it in the car. He worked most evenings during the week on it, and on the Saturday before the event I helped him put the box back in. It wasn’t until 7pm when we tried to drive it and discovered that we’d made a mistake with the thrust bearing, and the clutch made crunching noises whenever operated. We weren’t about to do an all nighter to pull the box out again, so the Sprint was also shelved.
So at about 9pm I made the call for plan C; my daily driver 23 year old, 296,000km MX5. It’s not a patch on either of the other cars, but it beats spectating, right? A quick oil change using whatever oil I could scrounge from the shed and a change of wheels to some crusty old tyres I could destroy, and it was ready for a day of racing.
Dad decided to withdraw from the event and wave flags instead. His reasoning was that we both had broken cars, and that a third broken car would really suck. He was right, but I conveniently tried not to think about that particular outcome. It had been 8 months since my last track day, and I wasn’t about to miss this one.
And this is where the second part of the title comes into play. The old economy tyres howled and squealed and the soft suspension rolled through the turns and pitched under brakes. With a fastest time of 1.36.4 I certainly wasn’t going quickly, but I can honestly say that I learnt a huge amount. You learn more from driving a slow car fast, than a fast car slow.
For anyone wanting to learn the craft, I’d suggest they take a standard, nicely balanced but slow car out, and learn how to drive it quickly. At these speeds the car doesn’t mask anything, and it’s all down to you and how much speed you can maintain. The key to any sort of lap time comes with perfectly nailing braking points, turn in points, apex and exits. Nicely handling cars with lots of power actually mask poor driving to some extent, so if you can go quickly in a slow car, you’ll be much better placed for blistering times when you step up to a fast car.
Despite having driven Mallala regularly for the past 9 years, the MX5 showed me that I was actually very rusty and to begin with my lines were pretty shoddy. It took me a couple of sessions to get back in the groove, and I still don’t think I managed a perfect lap. I almost think I would be happy to keep sprinting this car in stock standard trim until I can consistently run perfect laps, and then look into modifications or switching to my X1/9 when it’s ready.
And kudos to the MX5. I can’t think of another car that blends such levels of dependability with such fun. It’s done nearly 300,000km, it’s 23 years old, it gets driven to work every day, it receives very little love, and at the drop of a hat takes a track day in its stride. As an Italian car fanatic, this reliability is almost a little unnerving. I’d lift the bonnet after each session, and nothing would have changed. Eerie.
Words and photos by Andrew Coles
Thanks to Mike Coles for the on-track photos of my MX5 – it’s hard to shoot and drive at the same time.