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Australia v Russia in Mazda MX-5 Challenge

We were driving cars that had no special preparations other than a racing seat, a harness, and a rollbar.

As the world’s best-selling sports-car, the Mazda MX-5 is a favourite among weekend warriors who like to test their mettle on a race track.

So what happens when you drive one on a Friday in a contrived competition among 26 motoring hacks from around the world? Well, 22 from Australia and four from Russia.

Countrymen from these two old foes got together on home turf -- the nation’s capital, no less -- after the Australians were beaten two years in a row on northern hemisphere ice. First in Sweden then in Russia.

To level the playing field the Russians came to Canberra last week to test their skills on dirt, and to get a taste of what it’s like to wrangle a car when the steering wheel is on the ‘wrong’ side of the cockpit.

In the full spirit of the role reversal, the Russians also got to sample what it’s like to drive fast while jet-lagged. The day’s events were due to start just as their bodies would be telling them to go to sleep. In their dreams the Russians may have had visions of the vast Australian desert, or majestic beaches. 

What they were greeted with was a group of friendly bearded fellows from the MG Car Club (which helped run the event), who cheerily told the assembled throng the first race of the day was in a car park around some flags positioned barely wide enough to fit a Mazda MX-5 through. It was like running a marathon around a barbecue.

After that and a couple of other exercises (racing against the clock on a skidpan, and a few laps of a perilously narrow course on the side of a hill) it was time for the main event: a 6km section of a national championship rally stage in the middle of dense forest.

It’s at this point the day took a serious turn (pun intended). Having sampled the course at slow speed, and noted with some interest the narrow dirt road’s close proximity to trees and cliff faces, I began to wonder if this was a good idea after all. How worried? When we got back to the regrouping point I made sure I told a couple of close colleagues how to divide my worldly possessions should the worst happen. I am not making this up.

The fear was reasonably well founded. We were driving cars that had no special preparations other than a racing seat, a harness, and a rollbar that seemed to be there for show. For starters, most drivers’ heads were taller than the protection it might offer in a rollover, and it would be little to no help in a side impact against a gum tree. Or a cliff face.

The cars also had no underbody protection, and no rally tyres. Mazda figured it would be cheaper to bring a truckload of spares rather than reboot every car with heavy-duty rubber. The company also calculated it would be cheaper to replace the bent bits afterwards, rather than add armour to the underside of every vehicle.

And so, one by one, the cars came back with buckled rims and grazed bumpers. Some cars returned with two wheels in the shape of a capital D. Some were lucky enough to come back only with a layer of dust over them. But more importantly all cars (and drivers) came back mostly in one piece -- against the odds, and many of our private expectations. Or should that be fear?

Apart from a lot of dirt behind my teeth, I came away from the experience with a new respect for the off-road ability, durability, balance and poise of the Mazda MX-5, and the gravel-grabbing ability of Bridgestone road tyres. I never want to come back to life as a tyre.

There was also a renewed respect for our comrades representing global superpower Russia, who adapted brilliantly well in trying conditions.

The Australians may have yielded an overdue victory but one of the Russian young guns was equal second-fastest over the perilous course, out of 26 motor noters -- 22 of which were from Australia. In other words, Australians may have outnumbered them but the Russians outpaced most of the locals.

Round four anyone, somewhere near the equator perhaps? That way we’re only half as jet-lagged as each other -- and both drowning in humidity. On second thoughts…

This reporter is on Twitter: @JoshuaDowling

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