Mazda classics race at Wakefield

Herald Sun ·

23 September 2010

... in a 12-hour showroom shootout that has drawn entries from many major manufacturers. But it's Mazda that wins at Mount Panorama, with its RX-7. This is the third straight victory for the brand and the second in-a-row for the very same car.

Fast-forward now to 2010. The very same RX-7, almost untouched since it finished the Bathurst classic, is ready to go again on a special driving day for Mazda performance and heritage cars. The line-up includes a 1960s Mazda Cosmo, another race-winner RX-7 SP, a couple of pocket-rocket Mazda3 MPS turbo cars and even a tiny Mazda2 rally car.

They all share the same DNA, which has evolved into the Japanese brand's Zoom-Zoom showroom war cry, from the free-spinning rotary engine in the Cosmo through to the Targa Tasmania RX-8 SP that's already hot-lapping the Wakefield Park racetrack in the hands of rally ace Steve Glennie.

But there is another common connection to these cars and it's the real key to their success. His name is Allan Horsley - just plain H to his friends - and he is far more remarkable than the cars that have raced for him over the years.

H has done everything from reading to rules and setting the program to building the cars and choosing the drivers, finding technology - and loopholes - to make cars quicker and then signing aces including Mark Skaife, John Bowe, Alan Jones and Dick Johnson to ensure they win.

H is standing in the pit lane to keep an eye on his flock, with the familiar grumpy-old-man look that disguises a heart of gold alongside his racer's brain. He kissed race winner Gregg Hansford full on the lips after he won at Bathurst in '94 in a memorable celebration - I know because I was there - but is better known today for the tongue- lashing he delivers to drivers who step out of line.

"Go easy on the old girls. They're fast but they're a bit fragile these days," H says, in a reminder that there will be consequences for anyone who makes a mistake. Later he becomes the barbecue boss, but when the cars are running he is Team Manager with capital letters.

The cars are soon up and running, some fast and some slow - the Mazda2 is only a diesel and the Cosmo is dismally feebly by modern standards - with a couple of hotrod jockeys along to set the pace. Johnson is at Wakefield Park, laughing and joking with his old boss between hot laps in an MPS in full Targa kit. He was originally down to demonstrate his favourite from the Motorsport Heritage collection, the RX-7 SP he and Bowe drove to 12-hour victory in 1995, but a faulty fuel injector sidelines it.

"Can you believe how quick this thing is?" Johnson laughs, halfway through my passenger lap in the MPS. He might have turned 65, and running Jim Beam Racing in the V8 Supercar championship keeps him stresses, but I'm thinking the same thing about the driver. The cars are fun and fast but there is one that is just plain special. It's the '94 Bathurst winner and I know it well after standing beside H for the full 12 hours at Mount Panorama.

As I belt into the BP-liveried racer the memories come flooding back. It's everything from Horsley striding to the pit wall to separate his drivers from an early Mazda stoush, to Hansford - who died too soon in a race crash - hustling over the mountain, Skaife's look when his car's engine failed, and then the final celebration.

I'm not sure what to expect, but the RX-7 is quick and composed and far easier to drive than I expect. It is relatively cushy in the suspension, which was developed to handle the bumps at Mount Panorama, and not as punchy as many modern cars despite its turbo rotary.

We settle into a comfortable rhythm and we're both transported back to Bathurst, 1994. It's easy to see and feel how the car was so quick and trouble-free for a half-day of flat-out driving, as it's more like a well developed road car.

Then it's time for the RX-8 SP and it could not be more different.

Today's Mazda Motorsport headliner is an all-out race car, firing flames from the exhaust, lifting wheels through corners, and generally behaving like a custom-built competition machine. It's fast-fast-fast and fun-fun-fun, but not a car for amateurs.

So one car is about memories, and the other is making memories. But neither of them is my favourite from the Wakefield Park pack. It's actually a stock-looking Mazda3 MPS which H has breathed on. It has competition suspension, better brakes and a turbo engine with much bigger lungs than the regular road car.

I'm no fan of the regular MPS, which fights you through every turn and always wants to go feral, but this car is somehow both quicker in every way and yet more refined and easier to drive. It laps Wakefield Park with plenty of speed but surprising panache, and becomes one of my favourite drives of 2010.

It also reminds me of the genius of Allan Horsley, and I only wish he could wave his magic motorsport wand over more cars in the Mazda stable and get the Japanese to build them at the factory.

MAZDA MOTORSPORT HERITAGE COLLECTION

  • 1967 Cosmo Sports 110S rotary
  • 1994 RX-7 BP race car
  • 1995 Mazda RX-7 SP race car
  • 2007 Mazda2 rally car
  • 2009 Mazda3 Diesel rally car
  • 2010 Mazda3 MPS Targa Tasmania car
  • 2010 Mazda RX-8 SP Targa Tasmania car.

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Written by

Paul Gover

Published 23 September 2010