2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata: At Goodwood, This Mazda Thoroughbred's Badge History Runs Deep
Josh Jacquot, Senior Editor on December 2, 2015
This is not a Miata. Not even close.
In fact, if the Miata is a respected sports car with an undercurrent of charm, then this is a glory-covered, purpose-drenched period piece built for annihilating apexes. It makes downforce. It spits fire. Only wimps use its clutch pedal. Its powerplant, the best-sounding race engine ever built, produces 750 horsepower. That engine, Mazda's four-rotor R26B, is virtually identical to the mill that won the 24 Hours of LeMans in 1991.
This is the 1992 Mazda RX-792P, a prototype racecar built to compete in the International Motor Sports Association's GTP category.
Only two were ever completed and this one is worth a million bucks. Literally. We drove it up the hill climb at last summer's Goodwood Festival of Speed in West Sussex, England.
Here's a full account with video.
First, some obvious disclosure. This has virtually nothing to do with our long-term Miata. The only tangents connecting the RX-792P and the current Miata are that both share Mazda logos, Mazda powerplants and some distinctly Mazda DNA. It's that last part that matters here. Mazdas, both the current Miata and in a deeply distant but highly focused way, this GTP car, are machines built for driving.
By that I mean that the RX-792P's connection to the driver is one that can never be fully established in a road car. As a result, it stirs emotion like nothing else I've ever driven. Also, at first blush, the thing doesn't feel at all like it wants to kill me.
Even so, the reasons for caution are many. First, I've never driven the car or the road before. Second, the entirety of the 1.16-mile hill climb is a single-lane road — the driveway to the Goodwood House, in fact. Much of it is lined on both sides with unforgiving hay bales, too. And don't forget the 150,000 fans who'd love nothing more than to make me a YouTube hero.
It's all forgotten the first time the R26B fires to life. Even at idle it makes a Pro Mod V8 sound like a Lexus. I meant it when I said this is best-sounding race engine ever built. By the barely restricted standard of early '90s GTP race engines, it was far from the most powerful. But nothing before or since has offered such stunning aural appeal. Screaming down the Mulsanne straight, the R26B in the LeMans-winning 787B stands hairs on end three provinces away.
For all their inefficiencies, rotary engines offer a magical, intangible appeal that piston engines just can't muster. And that appeal increases exponentially as their intake ports increase in size. This is especially true in the ultra-rare, four-rotor versions which use a peripheral port to snorkel huge volumes of air into the combustion chamber. This engine's inertia-free response is unmatched in the world of internal combustion. It parts the Goodwood crowds with fireballs from its side exhaust and it free-revs with the same lag you'd expect from a good electrical shock.
I'm reminded of this as I prepare for the run up the hill. Weldon Munsey, Mazda's Manager of Partner Affairs and the car's primary driver, points to the wide swath on the tachometer between 5,500 and 8,500 rpm and notes stoically that it gets "real meaty" in there.
Rolling off the line, I realize the gears are intentionally tall to accommodate the sustained high-speed runs that its downforce allows, the kind where the car rarely dips below triple-digit speeds and where a driver trusts a machine well beyond the limits of pure mechanical grip.
In other words, nothing like this.
Here it's running grooved rain tires, which are stickier than slicks at low temperatures and should provide a wider margin of safety without warm up. Even so, when I drop the clutch at 3,000 rpm, there's palpable wheelspin in a car that was never designed for standing starts. Meaty indeed.
It's all over in 65 seconds, which by Goodwood standards is an eternity. But there are highlights. If you listen carefully you'll hear the engine run fat on downshift blips at 40 and 42 seconds. It belches up a few fireballs that reverberate through its giant muffler, adding to the theater of the thing. The surroundings blur most quickly at 1:08, which is the only time I find the cojones to summon full throttle. Seven hundred and fifty horsepower is a lot in a carbon-aluminum machine weighing only 1,800 or so pounds, remember.
There's a long coast down after the finish through a narrow corridor of hay bales leading to the turnaround. Flanked by bleachers full of spectators, the weight of the moment sets in. By any measure of automotive enthusiasm, it's surreal.
Looking back now, several memories stand out. First is the spectacle of Goodwood itself. Rally cars, F1 cars, endurance racers (like this one), motorcycles, exotics, hypercars, dragsters, drifters, and off-roaders: There's something for everyone, from every era and discipline.
Ever seen a 28-liter pre-war Fiat run up the same hill as BJ Baldwin's trophy truck? Goodwood is the place. It was an honor to be part of it.
Second: Few experiences in life measure up to driving a dedicated race car with impunity, especially one with a powertrain pedigreed by victory at the planet's most prestigious endurance race. And though I didn't go that quickly, several impressions are eternally etched into memory: The moment I first heard the R26B's lumpy high-speed idle. Looking down and noticing the patina of the VIN number (GTP 001) on the carbon tub. Crossing the finish line in a blur of checkers and hay bales.
Go to Goodwood. You don't need a Miata or a prototype endurance car to fully appreciate the place. But they certainly don't hurt.
Josh Jacquot, Senior Editor