x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A stripped-down Mazda MX-5 will have you addicted to speed

It's neither pretty nor comfortable, but a ride in a race-ready Mazda MX-5 has Kyle Fortune in a spin and begging for more.

This Mazda MX-5 has had all the niceties taken out to reduce weight and has had its engine output upped from 160hp to 275hp, making it a lightning fast racing car that has shaken up the class in Britcar. Gary Hawkins for The National
This Mazda MX-5 has had all the niceties taken out to reduce weight and has had its engine output upped from 160hp to 275hp, making it a lightning fast racing car that has shaken up the class in Britcar. Gary Hawkins for The National

Racing drivers are slim. They need to be to remain competitive. What's the point of the engineers meticulously stripping out any additional weight in the car only to put in a driver whose non-aversion to cake means all their work is wasted? I'm not a racing driver, so I have to squeeze myself through the tiny aperture in the roll cage. It requires yoga-style flexibility to do so - flexibility I've not got. So brute force bending my legs and folding my torso will have to do.

The harnesses are tight, stupidly so, but from experience I know that with the first tap of the brakes I'll want to tighten them up. Racing cars are extreme; forget everything you think you know about driving, as being strapped into a stripped-out machine that has one single focus is a stark reminder of how comfortable your road car is. Even racing cars based on cars such as the MX-5 turn into completely different animals with the niceties stripped out.

This car, a Mazda MX-5 built by Jota Sport to compete in Britcar (a UK race series), couldn't exhibit that any better. I'm strapped into its tight seat surrounded by a cage and looking at a simple digital display. The entire dashboard has been binned and replaced with carbon fibre - and not the polished trim pieces you'll find in anything trying to look a bit sporty, but a rough and ready one-piece carbon-fibre item that helps bring this car's kerb weight down to under 900kg. Before I embark, mind.

There are buttons on the steering wheel and I've no idea what they do. I'm talked through the start process, which requires a flipped switch here, my foot on the clutch and the pressing of one of those buttons. A colleague lends me some advice but I forget it all the second the engine fires, as the noise the little 2.0L four-cylinder makes is quite unlike any MX-5 I've ever sat in before. The entire car fizzes - not surprising given that the output of the small engine has been increased from 160hp to a more potent 275hp.

And then to the difficult bit: the worry of learner-school clumsiness and stalling. Racing cars aren't good at pulling away, needing revs due to tricky clutches. Even with the slight downhill pull-off at the twisting circuit in Anglesey, Wales, I need to dip the clutch and flare the revs after the engine teeters on the edge of stalling. I lift the clutch as the drivetrain jerks and the MX-5 chunters out of the pit lane slowly.

That dip of the clutch is the last I should need, as the MX-5's gearbox doesn't require it when it's at speed on track. The six-speed sequential gearbox uses pneumatics to punch through the ratios. A quick pull on the right paddle is all that's required to have the next ratio selected and the MX-5 devours that cog and asks for another. The first corner approaches and I tap the brakes. The usual scenario occurs. I'm too early on the brakes, I want the belts tightening up and I'm too early on turning in. My road car calibrations are out of kilter with the responses and immediacy that the focus of a race car brings.

Amateurishly, I'm back on the power to get it around the corner at anything approaching decent speed. The next corner I'm later, deeper and faster, the next more so and the MX-5 is revealing itself to be an enjoyable, exploitable racing car.

There's a slight moment when cresting a rise and getting on the power too quickly, that the tail steps out, but it's easily gathered and I push the MX-5 harder again. Though approaching the final hairpin in front of the pits I'm suddenly facing the wrong way. Whatever happened did so quickly that I've only time to dip the clutch and hang on. Thankfully, nothing's broken and I've hit nothing as I limp apologetically back into the pits to have the car checked out. It's fine, and amazingly Jota's boys send me out again to complete my allocated laps.

That spin is quickly forgotten, as I rejoin the track determined to get a couple of clean, fast laps in before my time's up. My confidence increases as the tyres and brakes gain heat. The speed and control you have are utterly addictive. It's easy to see why people spend ruinous amounts of money going racing and why the guys at Jota Sport describe their MX-5 as something of a giant-killer. It's quick and hugely competitive - in the hands of proper drivers Owen Mildenhall and Mark Ticehurst it's shaken up the class in Britcar. It'll get quicker too, with Mildenhall saying Jota Sport is developing an aerodynamic kit and repositioning weight by adding a proper saddle fuel tank inside.

The best repositioning of weight, though, is when I get out and hand it back. Pretty senior, indeed. I'll never look at an MX-5 in the same way again, as underneath that friendly, forgiving road car is a ridiculously quick and capable racer.