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Russian ice racing with a Mazda3 and MX-5

Toby Hagon races Mazdas on a frozen Siberian lake against journo's from around the world.

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Our 2014 trip to Russia for some ice racing included the usual array of Mazda MX-5 roadsters; I’ve been lucky enough to compete in two previous ice races, one in Sweden, the other in Russia.

Driving the rear wheels the diminutive two-seater is a fun companion on the slippery surfaces – and not the logical choice with the roof down in sub-zero temperatures.

But for this year half the racing was done in something very different to the iconic roadster - a Mazda3. As one of Australia's top selling cars the 3 is popular as a family vehicle, city runabout and getaway machine. Not a race car.

Drive takes on the Russians on the frozen tundra during an ice race in a front-wheel-drive Mazda3 and rear-wheel-drive Mazda MX-5. Click for more photos

Ice-racing in Siberia

Drive takes on the Russians on the frozen tundra during an ice race in a front-wheel-drive Mazda3 and rear-wheel-drive Mazda MX-5.

On the slippery frozen Siberian lake – a mix of hard-packed snow and black ice bordered by soft, car-bogging snow – each car would wheelspin easily (we had electronic traction and stability systems switched off to allow some sliding and higher speeds). And that wheelspin could occur in almost any gear, something that meant gentle applications of the throttle were crucial.

Each car was running studded tyres, but those on the MX-5 had longer studs that would better bite into the ice for more grip. It also meant those tyres were better when running on the ludicrously slippery black ice, scraping over it and partially digging into it.

The Mazda3’s tyres, on the other hand, were road-ready winter tyres with tiny studs. They would slide much sooner and polish the ice after repeated laps, so the track would eventually yield less grip.

But it was the handling characteristics of the cars that most differentiated the two.

Driving the front wheels, the 3 would slide wide under acceleration, or understeer (where the car doesn’t track as aggressively as the steering inputs). It can be frustrating turning into a corner at 30km/h and watch the steering have almost no effect on where the car is heading.

But that’s ice racing, and the trick with the 3s was to drive them smoothly, building and maintaining momentum and gently guiding them where you want them in the slower corners.

When braking the Mazda3 would get light in the tail, something that could help in sliding the car at the rear and directing it into a corner; it’s a good way to point the car.

Being a regular passenger car, the 3 was also softer in its suspension and the electric power steering system not as communicative in what was going on at ground level.

The MX-5, on the other hand, was a more raw experience, helped partially because you were closer to the ice road and had the wind rushing past your helmet. By its very nature you felt you were closer to the action.

But the MX-5’s steering is also ultra precise, something that helps give it that sports car feel.

Driving the rear wheels, the MX-5 is also more engaging on the slippery ice surface. Gentle applications of the throttle in tight corners was enough to induce some wheelspin and have the tail slide wide, better preparing you for the next burst of acceleration.

The MX-5 was also more adjustable in corners – a great fun little car perfectly suited to the challenges of driving fast on ice.

Top speeds we reached were something like 130km/h.

While it’s possible to damage a car by hitting a snow bank (one car suffered a holed radiator) you have to hit it very hard. Even then, the chances of injury are slim, at best, such is the forgiving nature of snow.

Sometimes, though, those snow banks are your friend. Once I braked a fraction too late into a slow hairpin. Realising the car was not going to stop I guided it towards the inside bank, grazing it to further slow the car and help point it towards the bend.

Indeed it’s the inside snow banks you often have to graze in the quest for a quick lap. Positioning the car is vital and with so little grip you’d rather be too tight than too wide, something that is difficult to recover from if you’re pushing hard.

As for which car is best for ice racing, it’s no contest – the MX-5 wins comprehensively. Its adjustability, driver feedback and forgiving yet challenging nature make it a fantastically fun car to punt around on ice.

Ice racing 2014: The cars

Mazda3

Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder

Power: 114kW at 6000rpm

Torque: 200Nm at 4000rpm

Transmission: 6-speed auto

Tyres: Nokian 18-inch studded, 215/45

Mazda MX-5

Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder

Power: 118kW at 7000rpm

Torque: 188Nm at 5000rpm

Transmission: 6-speed auto

Tyres: Michelin 17-inch studded, 205/45

Top tips for racing on ice

  • black patches are almost pure ice and have almost no grip. Avoid them as much as possible, even if it means taking an odd line through a corner
  • stay tight on corners as much as possible, particularly slow ones
  • some sliding is good
  • stability control will help keep the car straight but it is slower because it cuts power to keep the car from sliding
  • don't be afraid to use the snow banks; on the inside of corners glancing a snow bank can help slow and/or steer the car. On the outside of corners they can stop you from running too wide; just don't hit them too hard or you could damage the car or get bogged
  • use taller gears to minimise wheelspin; rely on the engine's torque rather than power
  • look where you want the car to go, not necessarily where it's trying to go
  • when braking, hit the pedal hard to get the anti-lock function operating on all four wheels