Why is it that the Spec Miata has such huge followings? It’s the incisive handling, the cost-effective package, the tight fields, and, of course, the twitchiness. For if Miatas must bear the burden of being the least powerful widely-raced cars of today, they compensate with their snappiness and the commitment they require—only truly talented drivers shine in these gutless little Mazdas, which are willing to swap ends the second their drivers lose focus—especially in the rain.
Who better to show us how to handle a Spec Miata in adverse conditions than Matt Cresci, winner of the 2016 Mazda Road to Indy champion. There’s a supreme level of precision on display here. He has to contend with a lot more oversteer than some would expect, since little grip makes the 120 horsepower on-tap look more like 400. With so little grip available, a few reconnaissance laps were necessary:
“Every track can be completely different under wet weather conditions, so the most important part about going fast in the damp/wet is dedicating a few laps of experimentation; seeing where there is grip and where there is not. For example, after a few laps around the track, I noticed there were some corners that were treacherous, and some that still had lots of grip,” notes Cresci.
Cresci does have to avoid touching the curbs on this drying track, but quick hands and a little preemptive settling of the car keep everything in check. Note just how snappy the machine becomes when nudging some of the curbs in the Turn 8 esses; a lot of countersteering and some maintenance throttle are needed to keep the car from turning around. “I settled the car beforehand, only making delicate inputs, so when the car starts to slide, it doesn’t get too out of hand,” he adds.
Cresci adds, “The longer you take to find the grip on track, the more likely the session will be yellow flagged due to someone else spinning out or going off track, so you can’t take too long. The more comfortable you are with your car control, the quicker you will be able to determine grip levels in different parts of the track. So the next time you think about not going on track for a practice session simply because it’s raining, you should do just the opposite. Go and practice your car control in the safest areas of the track, so that in a worst case scenario, all you do is spin out, and learn some car control in the process!”
Yet, he shows no trepidation when sliding the car at high speeds. Off-camber curves like Turn 2 can be drifted through quickly, and quite spectacularly, the underpowered Miata still breaks away at through Turn 6 (1:25), where the pavement changes due to the road course overlapping with the drag strip.
Most incredibly, he holds a graceful, fearless slide through Turn 10, where there’s no room for error. Though it looks like just youthful exuberance and luck, getting through here safely isn’t a complete gamble, as Cresci describes: “By far the most dangerous part of the track in the damp; mid-corner had no grip whatsoever. However, I knew the grip would return by corner exit, so this corner required full-commitment to slide through the middle of the corner at high speed, and get the car back under control once the grip returned. This commitment is almost entirely due to confidence and experience with car control.”
This exquisite lap, which put Cresci on pole, is by-in-large a product of careful planning. Factor in a bit of adolescent courage, a well-setup machine, and a little luck, and not only did Cresci put his Miata on pole—but he snagged a time 3.8 seconds faster than anyone else!