BOWMANVILLE, ON — A different kind of test this time around, one completely unrestricted by the constraints of speed limits or, for that matter, turn signals, defensive driving or anything resembling polite behaviour behind the wheel. The occasion was the opening round of the 2012 Canadian Touring Car Championship (CTCC) at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and yours truly was invited to drive the media car in the series, a fully kitted-out Mazda2.
Now, if the idea of racing a 100-horsepower subcompact car seems a little mundane, here’s a newsflash: The B-Spec class, specifically designed to enable a less-expensive entrée into the very expensive sport of car racing, is a very serious affair.
Launched back in late 2010 by the motorsports divisions of Mazda and Honda working in unison, this class is also designed to create a common set of rules and regulations across different race sanctioning organizations. Thus, the B-Spec cars that race in the CTCC are essentially identical to those that are eligible to race in similar series south of the border.
The list of modifications to the Mazda2 race car is brief and the total cost of the parts is surprisingly inexpensive, proof positive that racing doesn’t necessarily have to burn through money like Kim and Kanye on a shopping spree.
The race car has a different suspension system, exhaust system, brake lines and air filter as compared to the showroom-spec Mazda2, plus a few other modifications thrown in for good measure. All told, the kit needed to convert this subcompact into a motorsports superstar costs just $2,575 US. The required safety equipment, including a full roll cage, race seat and seat belts, represents an additional line item.
The base Mazda2, as it stands, is already a formidable little car that offers plenty of bang for the buck, so it was little surprise that the race version would prove to be so much fun to drive. Around the fast and flowing turns of the track formerly known as Mosport, the little five-door displayed very neutral handling and a truly prodigious amount of cornering grip.
As a B-Spec car is not imbued with a great deal of power, the key to success is maintaining as much momentum as possible through the corners. The brakes, as powerful they were, were to be avoided as much as possible — an aspect of racing these cars that took some time to appreciate.
In the CTCC, there are three different classes of cars: Super, Touring and B-Spec. The engines in the B-Spec cars are the least powerful of the bunch by some margin. I was the rawest of rookies in the class, so I was the slowest driver in the slowest class — in other words, I was 35th out of 35 cars, dead last after the Saturday morning qualifying session.
Ugh: My pride was taking a beating early on.
I later learned that the transponder used to record lap times for my car was not properly set up. I was still the slowest of the slow, but I was also probably not as far off the pace as it seemed. The first race of the weekend bore this out: For the entire 17-lap affair, I was bumper-to-bumper with a racer in another Mazda2. We swapped positions and swapped paint before finishing sixth and seventh in class, my car crossing the line just 0.6 seconds behind the other Mazda.
The following day’s activities went even better. My experience from the first day taught me that it was highly unlikely that I would suddenly become the fastest B-Spec driver out there, so I decided to focus solely on making the biggest gains possible in a proverbial race against myself.
On the first day of competition, my best lap was a mammoth 4.5 seconds slower than the B-Spec class leader, who was driving an immaculately prepared Honda Fit. In the Sunday morning practice session, I shaved 0.6 seconds off my best time — a big improvement. Then, in the second race of the weekend, the Mazda2 and I sprung a little bit of a surprise.
As the green flag fell on the race, I stayed close to the Mini Cooper immediately in front. Three Honda Fits and another Mini eased off into the distance, but I was hanging on to the orange car ahead of me like there was no tomorrow. Then, a bigger surprise: On the third lap, down the long back straight — which didn’t play to the Mazda’s strengths — I managed to draft past the Mini
I was re-passed a mere two corners later and I didn’t get past the orange Mini again, but I did stay within striking distance for another seven laps. At that point in the race, I nearly got caught up in someone else’s accident and was forced to hit the brakes at one of the fastest parts of the track, losing all that cherished momentum I had worked so hard to maintain.
In the end, I finished last in the race once again. But this time around, I had shed another 1.5 seconds off my lap time, an eternity in the world of motorsport. My best lap in the final race was less than two seconds slower than that of the B-Spec class leader, so I’d slashed half the deficit from the previous race. All in all, I considered this a victory — and one of the most entertaining race experiences I’ve ever had.