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Aussies iced again

Slick driving: The crack Russian contingent took out the title on their home turf... or should that be home ice?

Russia goes up 2-0 as Australian journalists fail to convert in Mazda MX-5 Ice Race

Mazda logo6 Mar 2012


RUSSIAN journalists have reinforced their reputation as the world’s finest ice drivers by defeating a team of Australians in the Mazda MX-5 Ice Race for the second consecutive year.

Billed as a grudge match between the two top teams at last year’s promotional event in Sweden, this year’s running again pitted six of Australia’s best automotive scribes against Russia’s top writers in identical race-prepared MX-5 convertibles.

However, unlike the 2011 event – in which the Australian team finished a close second to the crack Russian team in the final after outpacing the other 18 teams from 28 countries – the locals dominated the 2012 event on a more compact 1.3km track in central Russia.

This year the Russians leveraged their home turf advantage on a frozen artificial lake in Ekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city about 1600km east of Moscow – on street-legal Michelin winter tyres rather than the grippier narrow spiked racing tyres used last year in Sweden – to score resounding victories in both the team and individual finals.

The two-car, six-member Australian team, which was invited to the two-nation 2012 rematch by Mazda Russia after last year’s spirited competition between the two countries, was again led by last year’s stand-out performer and GoAuto contributor James Stanford, as well as Drive’s Toby Hagon, Carsales’ Mike Sinclair and Italy-based Australian Michael Taylor.

 center imageGlenn Butler and myself filled the final two spots and, after the fastest 12 Russian ‘pilots’ were announced after their series of elimination qualifying sessions, it was time for the Australians to qualify.

GoAuto was the quickest of the Australians after the first session, despite never having driven on ice before, let alone in a left-hand drive MX-5 on lightly studded winter tyres with limited visibility behind other cars and the temperature hovering around -8 degrees C.

After the last of three practice/qualifying sessions just 0.003 seconds separated Drive and GoAuto as the quickest of the Aussies, many of whom spent more time waiting to be towed out of the snow berms that surrounded the super-slippery 12-turn ice circuit by the BT-50 rescue vehicle than they did actually practicing.

However, the fastest visitors were still about a second slower than the best Russians.

While the Aussies revelled in the high-speed corners that rewarded brave sideways driving on last year’s much longer 5km course, what little grip there was on this year’s shorter and tighter track soon disappeared as temperatures rose in the afternoon and the racing line was swept clean of snow.

The 50-minute teams final, in which the two Aussie teams were pitted against three Russian teams, provided the opportunity to learn from the locals, the fastest of whom appeared to abandon any traditional racing lines in search of the traction offered by the snow at the verges of the track – and sometimes even beyond, using the snow banks for extra traction under both braking and acceleration.

While the Aussies last year called on every ounce of engine performance to power-oversteer their spikey-tyred, rear-drive roadsters to a near-victory on a much faster and longer 5km course in Sweden, they quickly learned that keeping the road-rubbered wheels in line was the order of the day this year.

In fact, the 2012 MX-5 Ice Race became a – some said boring – game of millimetres as we were forced to short-shift into a higher gear as early as possible out of every corner, riding every Newton-metre of torque to eke out what little grip was available on the slick surface, which was difficult to even walk on without being cautious and was been polished to black ice by the lightly studded road tyres.

“Forget the racing line and go for the white,” was the best advice provided to us by our professional Russian race trainers Boris Shulmeyster and Stanislav Gryazin.

But in the end none of us could learn the technique quickly enough and, after maintaining third place for most of the final, a late-race spin relegated Australia’s A-team of Hagon, Butler and yours truly to fourth, with ‘Australia B’ not far behind in fifth.

The event was completed by an Australia-versus-Russia ‘Super Final’, in which the three fastest Russians took on the three fastest Aussies (based on lap times from the three-driver teams endurance race – in our case Hagon, Taylor and myself) in a winner-takes-all 15-minute final.

This Super Final ultimately turned out to be far more exciting than our earlier pace suggested, with fastest Aussie Hagon holding sway in second for almost half the race until the Drive chief pushed too hard and was relegated to last after becoming wedged on a snow bank.

That saw GoAuto become the best-placed Aussie finisher but with points awarded down to sixth place, our third (Pettendy), fourth (Taylor) and fifth (Hagon) positions scored two fewer points than the home team’s first, second and sixth, handing another win to the Russians.

No, Australia didn’t make the same impact it did in last year’s race, but we didn’t disgrace the flag and Mazda Russia is already talking about a third icy MX-5 meeting between the two nations.

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