If you’re a motorsports fan or weekend warrior who takes your car to the track, you’ve undoubtedly heard the saying, “It’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow”. It’s tempting to write this off as a tired old cliché, but if you’ve ever driven a low-power but lightweight and nimble little sub-compact like the Mazda2, you’ll be familiar with the smile you tend to have on your face when you arrive at your destination.
FAST FACTS: 2013 Mazda2
|1. 1.5L 4-cylinder produces 100 hp and 98 lb-ft of torque
2. Curb weight is just 2,306 lbs
3. Fuel economy is 29 mpg city/ 35 mpg highway
That’s because there’s something inherently rewarding about fully wringing a car out, and if you’re driving a Porsche 911 or a Nissan GT-R, you simply can’t push it to its limit anywhere but at a race track. Hop behind the wheel of a plucky little hatchback like the Mazda2, though, and you can drive it like an utter hoon on public roads without exceeding the speed limit.
And if you want to take your shenanigans to the next level, for surprisingly little money you can prep it for road racing duty in the growingly popular B-Spec class and go rub shoulders (and maybe even trade a little paint) with pro drivers in the Pirelli World Challenge or Canadian Touring Car Championship.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of B-Spec racing, it’s a pretty simple formula: take inexpensive sub-compact or B-class cars like the Mazda2, Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta, Fiat 500, MINI Cooper, Kia Rio and Chevy Sonic, make a few simple, bolt-on suspension and wheel/tire upgrades for improved grip and handling, install a roll cage and a few other pieces of safety equipment including a racing seat, 6-point racing harness seat belt and window net, and then hit the track at select World Challenge or CTCC events for pro level racing glory on a ramen noodle budget.
FAST FACTS: Mazda2 B-Spec Race Car
|1. The B-Spec kit costs $2,575 and includes Bilstein shocks, race springs, front sway bar end links and camber bolts, an adjustable rear sway bar, Stop Tech brake lines and upgraded pads, a cat-back exhaust system, an air filter, oil cooler kit, and an a/c delete kit.
2. Safety equipment is also required to complete a B-Spec racecar, including a full roll cage, racing seat, racing harness (seat belt), window net and a fire extinguisher or fire suppression system
3. B-Spec class races in the Pirelli World Challenge and the Canadian Touring Car Championship under identical rules
With a full season of B-Spec competition having been completed last year, the formula has proven to be both popular and surprisingly engaging to watch or, better yet, participate in. Friend and fellow racer Alain Lauziere from Team Octane (who race a fleet of MINI’s in the CTCC) described B-Spec racing as extra-exciting if you’re in a good race with someone, because if you make the slightest mistake you’re going to get left behind. And since the B-Spec class shares the track with the faster Touring Car class, traffic management is also a big part of the game. As Alain explained, if you are following the lead B-Spec car closely but traffic splits you, it's game over because B-Spec cars are so evenly matched it’s very difficult to close the gap.
The reason the gap is so hard to close in a B-Spec race car is best explained by one of the most powerful laws in physics, the law of momentum conservation. As Alain alluded to, even the smallest mistake by the driver kills a little forward momentum, and unlike in a high-horsepower car where you can mask driving mistakes with a little more gas, in a 100-horsepower Mazda2 there are far fewer opportunities to recover the momentum lost from a blown braking point, a missed apex, or a misjudged gap in traffic.
As a result, driving the Mazda2 around our test track, be it the street car or the B-Spec racecar, requires smooth inputs, and as few of them as possible, along with absolute maximum use of available grip in the corners in order to maintain as much of that hard-earned momentum as you can. Scrub off too much speed in the braking zones or enter the corner too hot and induce some speed-robbing understeer and the lap timer will punish you. As a result, a B-Spec racecar will force even the most stubborn racing drivers to preserve momentum like their life depends on it.
But is preserving momentum like its some sort of endangered species fun? Surprisingly, it’s both fun and far more challenging that you might think, be it from behind the wheel of a stock Mazda2 road car or its edgier B-spec sibling. This ain’t hypermiling, after all, which is designed to suck your will to live while sucking a little less gasoline. We’re still racing here, or at least attacking time as aggressively as we possibly can without making any big momentum-robbing mistakes.
The experience is, as you might expect (given the limited modifications allowed by the B-Spec rules), quite similar in both versions of the Mazda2. In either car you’ve got Mazda’s trademark fast and responsive steering, along with a surprisingly precise 5-speed manual transmission given its $14,720 starting price. There’s also no sign of brake fade in either car, a rare thing around our test track, but fairly low straight away speeds and the Mazda’s paltry 2300-lb curb weight combine to put relatively little stress on binders. The Mazda2’s low mass also gives it great “tossability” into the corners, despite having a primitive torsion beam rear suspension typical of the sub-compact segment.[vs-comparsion-table]
Where the two 2’s diverge most is, of course, in the grip department. That’s because of the B-Spec’s suspension package, which includes race-valved Bilstein shock absorbers, race springs, and a larger diameter adjustable rear sway bar along with a very sticky set of Continental race tires (the spec rubber used in the CTCC; World Challenge B-Spec cars roll on Pirelli slicks). As a result, the B-Spec car is only marginally faster down the straight-aways, thanks to carrying more speed out of the corners, but is a totally different animal when it’s time to blitz the braking zone and attack corner entry.
When geeking out over the data collected in both cars using an AiM Solo data acquisition system (which uses both GPS and onboard accelerometers to record lap times, vehicle speed, g-forces, and much more), it was plain to see just how much faster the B-Spec car was in the turns. The cornering g-force data, as represented by the orange line for the B-Spec car and the blue line for the road car, shows big gaps in the corners, with the B-spec car consistently producing over 1g in the corners while the road car was operating more in the 0.85g range.
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Although the speed data for both cars is quite similar, the B-Spec package allows for later braking, which translates to slightly longer straight-aways and higher peak speeds. The B-Spec car’s grip advantage also means you can get back on the gas sooner, which also lengthens each straight. We’re talking incremental gains here, but that’s the name of the game in a momentum racecar. Small differences, like getting back on the gas a fraction of a second sooner or braking a fraction of a second less, is often the difference between standing on the podium… or the sidelines.
The B-Spec Mazda2 hit a maximum speed of 85.9 mph down the front straight, and that’s just barely fast enough to get a speeding ticket on the Interstate. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. If you get punted off the track, for example, chances are you’re going to have time to recover or at least scrub off enough speed that you make only light contact with the tire wall. So the risk to man and machine is significantly lower in a B-Spec car than in something seriously fast like a World Challenge Touring or GT car – think race-prepped Corvette or Audi R8.
And that’s a big part of B-Spec’s appeal. It’s as affordable as pro racing gets, not just because the cars themselves are inexpensive to buy and build but also because the cost to operate and repair them is far lower than faster and more heavily modified racecars. Having gone racing myself in everything from low-power Honda Civics to high-power Corvettes, I can tell you from years of cash-sucking experience that there is a strong correlation between speed and how much money you spend. But I’m not at all sure that buying more speed translates to greater enjoyment. In fact, the happiest racers I know are often the ones who are spending the least amount of money doing it.
It’s also important to remember that speed is relative. Our B-Spec Mazda2 may have only hit 85.9 mph down the front straight, but its best lap time of 1-minute 29-seconds flat was only a half second slower than the twice as powerful Honda Civic Si we tested last year. In fact, on the very same day as we tested both Mazda2’s, we also tested AutoGuide’s in-house Scion FR-S and I could only muster a 1-minute 28-second lap in a RWD sports coupe that’s quite possibly the best handling road car on the market today, at any price.
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I’m not sure if the saying “it’s more fun to go fast in a slow car than slow in a fast car” is a cliché or just common sense, but if our time in the Mazda2 and Mazda2 B-Spec racecar taught us anything, it’s that you can definitely have a ton of fun in a low-power but lightweight and agile sub-compact car. This is doubly true if it’s race prepared, and you’re prepared to embrace the law of momentum conservation and make it your mission to master this type of driving. Get good enough at it and you could even be standing on the podium at a pro race while spending a fraction of what the top Touring and GT teams have to do the same. Racing glory, giant sized prize money checks, umbrella girls, thousands of spectators, all without completely ruining your financial future. Sounds good to me!