Russian ice racing: part two
After a shaky practice session on Mazda's frozen ice track, AOL reporter Daljinder Nagra now prepares to go into battle against competition from around the globe as we rejoin the action on race day itself.
> This is where things get serious. The laughing and joking from each team's pit tent has given way to intense concentration, as each crew puts its best driver forward for qualifying.
The plans are thus: one qualifying session in the Mazda 3 determines each team's position on the grid for the start of both the MX-5 and 3 race. After yesterday's shaky start, and our lack of experience on the ice, the UK team has collectively not decided to take things quite as seriously as some of the others, and to simply have a bit of fun.
That said, we do slot our quickest helmsman – the Press Association's Matt Joy – behind the wheel of the 3 to ensure we have the best possible start on the grid.
He doesn't disappoint. Despite the Russians being seriously quick – thanks to an extra day's practice over the rest of the teams – and the Australians following not far behind, Matt puts us in seventh on the grid. Objectively, not overly impressive, but given the mishaps that occurred yesterday, we're amazed that we haven't wound up at the rear of the pack in ninth position.
Spirits are high as our first driver, James Foxall, gets strapped into the 3, to line it up for the race. Those same spirits are then dashed seconds later when the stern-faced Russian race organisers then tell us we have to start the race from the pit lane after the rest of the pack has commenced, due to an unexplained penalty. Of course, being British, we take such things on the chin and are above accusing them of bias towards the home team, or at least openly...
Any chance of a respectable finish now seems dashed as the flag drops and the pack of hatchbacks race off in a blur of wheel-spin and snow spray. The pause between their departure and our car being allowed from the pits seems agonisingly long, but James wastes no time in getting down to business, erupting from his trap like a man on a mission.
And, as he rounds the course and roars past the pit lane, it's clear he has gained ground on his hard charging opponents, though is yet to seal the deal with an overtake.
The same continues with the next two drivers, the evenly matched performance of the cars making it frustratingly difficult to gain ground, unless you take your life in your hands on a banzai charge.
This is exactly what I consider as I watch the countdown clock on my entry to the race, through the visor of a claustrophobic race helmet. Do I ignore the lesson of yesterday's crash and disable the 3's ESP in the pursuit of race glory, or do I leave it on and guarantee returning this car back to Mazda in one piece?
Being a coward, I initially opt for the latter, and let the computer take the strain, quelling understeer and managing the power delivery to the tyres ensures that progress is consistent on the increasingly varied surface.
Consistent, but slow, and by the second lap I've already thumbed the ESP off switch in frustration. I'm feeling more confident now, with a sense of where the track is going and the lines to take to avoid the speed-sapping areas of loose snow, and the worrying puddles that are now forming on the lake surface.
However, things aren't all plain sailing. Through a couple of faster corners the 3's rear starts misbehaving, and I have images of splashing the contents of another radiator all over the pristine snow. However, with familiarity, the car is becoming easier to drive, and while my work rate behind the wheel is up, so is my speed, and the 3 and I are soon into a rhythm.
None of which stops us coming in stone dead last, much to the amusement of the Russian teams, which have dominated the top three spots. With the elation of having tackled the course in anger running through our team, however, not a single one of us cares, and we're looking forward to another go in the faster, more agile MX-5s.
But, there is yet more disappointment from our Russian overseers. Despite being allowed to wrestle the MX-5 freely during yesterday's practice sessions, they've decided that I'm not allowed to race the open-top car as my helmet protrudes above the roll-cage. In fairness, it's a matter of safety, but that doesn't make me feel any less hard done by.
It's up to Mazda's Graeme Fudge to step into the breach, and once he is installed into the MX-5, he doesn't disappoint, setting the fastest lap time of the race at 3min 53sec.
Towards the front of the pack, disaster has befallen the Australians, who were involved in some wheel-to-wheel scrapping with the leading Russian team for first place. They've left the track in spectacular style, and can do nothing but watch their position on the leaderboard slip south while they wait for a rescue tow from the four-wheel-drive safety car.
All-too-soon the chequered flag is dropped. We've come last again, but by the adrenaline-fuelled grins of the whole team, you wouldn't have thought it. The obligatory champagne-soaked podium scene commences, with the Russians taking all the silverware. The Aussies struggle to contain their seething rage as they go up to collect their runners-up prize.
And with that, another year's ice racing is finished. We're left with heads spinning, not only at the sheer excitement of competing on this unique stage, but by the confidence of Mazda at using near road-ready examples of its cars in this harsh environment. Despite the best efforts of nearly everyone here, both the 3s and the MX-5s have resolutely refused to stop working (except our one, which was my fault). It's an incredible display of the engineering integrity of cars that will be used mainly on the school run and on pleasant weekends away.
What more is there to say, but roll on next year!