On a frozen lake, putting pedal to the metal only sets you back
It started, as most things do, with the simplest of e-mails from Mazda, devoid of both overview and detail.
"Mate, Mazda's got an ice race in Sweden for journos. You want to come do it with us?"
The "us" of which they spoke turned out to be the Australian car - apart from Russia, we would be the sole non-European car in the field of 20 MX-5 roadsters, and thus representing the Rest of the World, which includes the UAE. So, in a roundabout way, The National was flying the flag for the entire Middle East. And Asia and Africa, too.
But with the thermometer struggling to lift its liquid over -30 Celsius, the MX-5s have been modded with roll cages, racing seats, racing suspension and a limited-slip differential. Curiously, the roof doesn't fit over the roll cage, so they will be left off. Oh yeah, this is not going to be warm.
Already, hopes for respectability appear dashed, especially when carsales.com.au editor Mike Sinclair has already had his first fall on the ice, and even his unfeasibly low centre of gravity didn't save him.
By now, I knew that the six of us would drive in two, two-hour races on ice, no one for more than half an hour, no one for less than 10 minutes. And the track is 5.9km long, carved out of the frozen surface of Lake Kallsjon in central Sweden.
My neighbour on the plane to Ostersund is a Norwegian with an enormous dossier on the Ice Race, and he's a sharer. I'm comforted that the Germans in the next row want to read it, too, because it seems nobody but this particular Norwegian knows anything about ice racing.
The driver's briefing adds a bit of knowledge, but talking to others adds more. There are 20 teams from all over Europe and Russia. There are two UK teams, two Austrian teams and three from Germany.
Whatever the ice race is, it's not run under the FIA banner, because this is the first polyester race suit I've ever seen. Still, the outfitting session supplied the life-changing vision of teammate and Sydney Morning Herald scribe, Toby Hagon, squeezing into a succession of ever-larger suits in search of the manufacturer's greatest ambitions.
Well, that's interesting. Our plan had been based around not embarrassing ourselves and maybe sneaking into the Top 10, yet our first driver puts us into P1 in the first practice. Through the course of the session, things ebb and flow, but we never leave the top three and end the session as we started it.
Driving an MX-5 on ice is like driving an MX-5 with 2,000hp on bicycle tyres. Any brush on the throttle is an exercise in sliding the back end, and the brakes are an invitation to slide the front end, even with 320 metal studs per chisel-narrow tyre. The car's balance, it turns out, is sublime for frenzied slides that change direction four or five times before any semblance of a straight.
But sideways isn't speed, and that's a trap a lot of our rivals fell into. The British are speechless after one Team Oz driver rounds their driver up on the outside of a long, long left-hander a full gear higher, then disappeared into the distance. Ice is that kind of surface.
Practice Two doubles as qualifying and again, after lurking in the top three all session, Team Australia sends John Stanford out late. His best lap is so blindingly fast and clean that the Russians, Norwegians, Finns and Swedes pull their guns, who had been belted up for a Banzai charge at pole, out of their cars.
The northern nations who have grown up on ice and played on it every winter, bow in stunned homage. It's a reverence that turns to laughter at dinner, when the big screen shows video of Hagon's attempts to quickly extricate himself from the MX-5's scaffolding.
Rumours abound that we're stacked with professional ice racers. Err, from which ice-covered bit of Australia would that be, exactly?
Maybe it's our familiarity with loose surfaces or rear-wheel drive, but the boys just seem comfortable going sideways, and so does the MX-5. As long as you're not looking out over the rear spoiler, the little car will save you. Mostly.
In an effort to match speed with character, we've worn board shorts over our race suits and the disturbed looks at breakfast prove we're onto a winner. It also makes our boys easier to spot on the crowded pitwall. It's the same with the boxing kangaroo Hagon taped to the roll bar. Everybody loves it, but it also makes our car the easiest to spot from afar.
We tweak the driver line-up for the race, with Hagon as the final driver (it's just faster if he doesn't have to get out of the car in a hurry).
Our lead driver, James Stanford, leads away with an easy opener. We saunter calmly through the rest of the race and win by nearly two minutes. It is, after all, just a qualifier for Race Two. The Russians have fought back from 13th to finish second ahead of Belgium, though there are some concerns about the legitimacy of how they did it.
In Race Two, Stanford again eases off into the distance and ekes out a 14-second gap at the last turn before his pit stop. That (mysteriously) shrinks to just four seconds in the length of the pitlane, but Mark "Syd" Hinchcliffe sets his best lap under pressure and hands over to Nathan Ponchard. Then the fireworks begin.
As he exits the pitlane, the Russians reverse out of their bay in front of him, forcing emergency avoidance, then shoot away to have a 50-metre gap by the time they join the track. Into that gap slot three lapped cars and the Russians stretch a 28-second lead. Then Ponchard tries to lap the British, only to find they think they're in leading and refuse to let him through, costing another 50 seconds.
Our best pit stop of the race flings the boxing kangaroo onto the track two minutes behind the Russians. The ruts are now inches deep in places and the little car is being spat out of them violently several times at every corner. It's a different track now, more like a third-stage rally pass, and a lot of the Europeans (former F1 driver Rene Arnoux included) admit the high speeds (up to 150kph) and rough bumps are scaring them. We have too much at stake, so I ignore such details, even when the repeated smashing against the cage in the rutted third-gear switchbacks has cracked my helmet like an eggshell.
With every lap, we're reeling the Russians in. From 145 seconds to 119, then, after a Russian stop and a more-brutal skewering of the recalcitrant British, it's 21 seconds and then, finally, the Russians are just six seconds ahead.
And then it's Hagon's turn. As he passes the pits for the first time the big fella closes on to the back of the Russian bear and the very pro-Australian crowd erupts as he feints at the inside line.
They touch as they head into the fast right hander, then touch again. Hagon lunges and they touch once more, both cars being thrown about in the ruts.
Then the Russian grabs too much throttle exiting a right hander and nearly spins. Hagon powers to the outside, with the line for the next bend, but the Russian overcorrects and pushes our MX-5 up into the snowbank, costing him seconds to free the nose of the dragging snow. And then with two laps left and hunting hard to close back up, our MX-5 slides wide in the desperate chase, buries in a bank, and that's that.
The pits - not just the our pits - are crestfallen. It's only then that we look past the fight to realise just how much our seemingly Quixotic little team, with its complete ignorance of ice-driving techniques and its cheery attitude and blazing speed had been taken to heart by the rest of Europe. They've all ridden this chase with us and it's us they congratulate when we cross the line in second
It's a gutted Hagon who pulls the battered MX-5 into victory lane, with every corner of it marked by Russian or English paint, but he receives no recriminations from his own team. And never will. His was a stirring fight that had blood boiling from Portugal to Poland, and we wouldn't have had it any other way.
So it's the Russians who top the podium and the Belgians who raced into third. Sinclair tells us that it was all in good fun and that's the real message, but he knows it's hollow.
But he also knows that we'll be back next year. And we'll be confident. And we'll have learnt. And we'll still fight fair. And we'll win.
Updated: March 17, 2011 04:00 AM