Mazda MX-5 – On track

Motoring writer Ian Lamming assesses the unsettling nature of modern day driving on the road and the track.

I’M in my discomfort zone, on the track.

My instructor Mark Hales asks me where I am looking; I haven’t a clue. Which direction is the next bend going; no idea. Add to that I’ve no grasp of how fast I’m going or how fast I should be going and don’t even mention to me where the braking points are.

That’s the track to me, a pointless asphalt hamster’s wheel with absolutely no points of reference – no street furniture, no trees, no walls, no lines – nothing to tell you where you are or how fast you are travelling. It’s a blank sheet of paper which I could circumnavigate a million times and still have no idea where I am.

Drop into this heady mix the fact I am not alone – I’m in a Mazda MX-5 and sharing the track with Ginetta, you know, those funny little sports cars that support Touring Cars on their annual circuit of the country –  and my abject discomfort is complete.

Mark indicates the circuit etiquette of always passing on the right and allowing faster traffic to pass you on the same side too. Just like the roads then, but with more fear. Well, of course they are going to pass. I’m in the lovely little Mazda MX-5 but I am the snail of the pack and it’s as embarrassing as it is intimidating.

Look, there goes another Ginetta with a seemingly 12-year-old racing driver at the wheel doing at least 50mph faster than me.

So what’s the point? Well no-one is asking that question more than me to the point that after just three laps – well I think it’s three laps, but who the hell can tell –  I jack it in. I’m done and relief sweeps over me as I refuse to go back out. Track has never been for me and it’s not for me now.

But, as brief as the experience is, it does provide food for thought on the long journey home. Mazda’s aim for the day (or half an hour in my case) is to consider the fact that general driving standards seem to have plummeted in the post-lockdown world.

The general driving public seem to have forgotten how to steer, brake, drive at an appropriate speed and, most importantly, actually look where they are supposed to be going. Add in the further distraction of the beauty of the Lake District and you are pretty much staring death in the face around every bend.

Mark’s words ring in my ear: “Look where you are going and the car will end up there.” To many errant motorists a starting point would be to look through the windscreen, not at their touchscreen dashboard or, in the worst instances, their flipping phones.

Driving local Lakeland roads and over to the North-East and North Yorkshire, I lose count of the times that I come face to face with cars on my side of the road – ‘hey, guys you are not on a racetrack and it’s not one way, your way’.

Road manners? Remember them? Well they are not in evidence at the moment. Drivers are so aggressive, so unforgiving, so darn rude. What is going on? And aggression begets aggression so it is only going to get worse. Chill for goodness sake.

Cars have never been more sophisticated, with more electronic safety devices than you can shake a gearstick at, yet smashes seem to be rising. How many times do you come across incidents, resulting traffic jams at best, complete road closures at worst, because of unnecessary crashes – I won’t say accidents because someone is always at fault.

And here again the track is invaluable. On the circuit, the aggression of other drivers as they harass from the rear then blast by your right ear is familiar and puts you on your guard. The lack of, well, pretty much anything, to help you gauge speed and direction means that you will hit bends too quickly. But this is a good thing as it reminds you that even super-safe cars have their limits and the MX-5 is peerless in feeding those back to the driver.

At one point, on a greasy track, the back end starts to twitch reminding me that grip is limited on this rear wheel drive sports car and I’ve hit the throttle too hard. Leave your braking too late and the ABS grates its merry way through the pedal – and guess what, you don’t actually stop. That’s a salutary reminder to the more-often-than-not-BMW drivers who happily tailgate you at 80mph in the wet, in murky conditions, looking no further ahead than your rear bumper. If and when that happens, it’s best to pull over and let them past so they can try and kill some other poor unsuspecting driver.

The Mazda MX-5 remains simply brilliant on track and road because it tells the driver what is going on at the tyre/road interface and how he or she is influencing that dynamic. It is the antidote to most modern cars which are numb to the point of making life a mere video game, wrapped in cotton wool, wearing a blindfold and ear-defenders. MX-5 still boasts feel, through the steering, suspension, wheels, throttle, brakes and the seat of your pants – and it makes the track session almost bearable.

So if lessons are to be learned – and we are never too old or jaded to learn, even if that is just a timely reminder – it is that life on the open road is very much like the bumper car antics of a racetrack where winning is at all cost, even if that cost is in lives. So forget who has right of way and drive like your life depends on it because most days it actually does.

Fact File

Mazda MX-5 2.0 184ps

Engine: 2.0 petrol

Power: 184PS

Top speed: 136mph

0-62mph: 6.5 secs

Combined MPG: 40.9

Transmission: Six-speed manual

CO2 g/km: 161

Price: £29,995.00