Mazda Motorsports’ Spec MX-5 benefits from a structure that has been thought through so that participants are guaranteed close competition and a racing education to help drivers move forward in motorsports. However, even with its tight rules structure and the thoughtful organization behind it all, it wouldn’t be a truly modern series if it weren’t refined by data acquisition.

With the support of AiM Sportline, Spec MX-5 was designed with one ECU and a uniform and efficient way of gathering data with it. It has not been simple, but implementing series-wide data acquisition has made competition fiercer and tech inspections simpler.

For some, it’s made race weekends confusing — at least initially. As Mazda Motorsport’s Josh Smith pointed out, “This season, as car counts have grown and races are getting closer, we have gotten some words from concerned competitors on things like: ‘So and so is cheating because they are so much faster on the straightaway than everyone else on a particular part of the track,’ and ‘My engine is down on power compared to everyone else.’”

These concerns are all understandable, but data acquisition has proven that many of these claims are ultimately baseless, and how — as hard as it might be to accept — the differences in performance almost always come down to driving.

Some competitors would ask, “Why aren’t you guys doing any tech?” The reality is that it just isn’t necessary the way it once was due to data painting a detailed picture in such a short timeframe. The need to be invasive like in the past is just not required. The series will still implement physical tech at events, and data is just the first step in the tech process. The data can be collected every weekend.

There are numerous basic engine checks that the ECU performs: intake air temperature, water temperature, mass airflow in grams per second, the AFR lambda, ignition advance, and even ABS data. Tech compares all these values among the cars, and if there is a difference it is obvious. Water temps and intake air temps are fairly constant throughout, and the other values can vary within an acceptable band. Even fuel mixtures are monitored. All of this ECU data combined with acceleration traces and GPS data can really show how the performance of the cars are right on top of each other as one would expect with a spec series.

SMX competitors must upload their required AIM data for any official qualifying or race session within 30 minutes of parking their car. Within roughly 30 minutes of receiving the data, AIM will perform a comprehensive check on all cars for compliance issues and report it back to officials on site.

Mazda designed this series as an intermediate series to help young drivers and Spec Miata drivers climb the racing ladder. They wanted drivers to spend most of their time driving and, hopefully, the level playing field and rapid rate of driver development would ensure everyone was focused on driving and driving at their best. In simpler words, data has limited the complexity of the car so that drivers can dedicate themselves fully to the task of driving at the absolute limit — not struggling with setup or debating issues with the officials.

Making Weekends Easier

Immersed in the bumper-to-bumper battles that have come to define the series, drivers can’t always keep a close eye on their displays. Having a race control keeping tabs on every car on track gives an official the ability to relay critical information to a driver who might be distracted, so engines can be saved from negligence. To be clear: this is not real-time monitoring, but the post-session download can reveal problems before they become catastrophic.

“Not only can we find mechanical anomalies (non-compliance), but we can also assist with contact/crash investigations as well as share vehicle health with competitors who may be exhibiting a problem with the data, but are not aware their car may have issues,” said AiM’s Roger Caddell.

In addition to playing a safeguarding role, data can police the field to ensure close competition. It can detect driving infractions and suspicious bursts of speed, as well as simplify the tech process.

Not only can race control relay important data the drivers might not be aware of, but, when used in a carefully constructed category where mechanical parity is ensured, data can bring drivers up to speed much faster. Lines, braking points, rates of brake release and use of other inputs can be analyzed with the aid of an experienced coach to refine technique. Overall race pace can be assessed with individual sector times, and consistency can be determined with how widely these best sections fluctuate. This comprehensive look at all performance factors ensures the pack is tightened and nobody goes home without feeling that they’d improved in some measurable way.

Many of the aforementioned checks are automated for ease and speed of checking. If any anomalies in the data present themselves, then AiM personnel can always dig deeper.

Delving into Detail

This widespread control was done in large part to give the end user a turnkey product with virtually guaranteed parity. With a simple ECU connection relaying all the necessary information to the officials, nobody has to worry about any carburetor trickery to give the crafty veteran an advantage. The degree of detail visible in Race Studio 3, AiM’s free data analysis software, makes it virtually impossible to cheat.

In addition to keeping tabs on all competitors, series officials, with help from AiM specialists, will import each car’s data into Race Studio 3 in post-race tech for closer inspection.

There, all the drivers’ speed traces are overlaid and analyzed.  Looking at the plots on a multifaceted graph can be confusing at first, but the trained eye can spot glaring errors easily. Sure, there are some skill-related differences in the cornering speeds, but the acceleration and braking rates should be identical across the board.

But sometimes the speed trace doesn’t tell the whole story. For moments when a deeper dive is necessary, the gear ratios can be determined based on the known circumference of the spec tire, the engine rpm, and the vehicle speed. With this, they can calculate each transmission gear. If anyone were to tamper with transmission or rear-end gear ratios, it would only take tech inspectors five seconds to recognize something was amiss.

Race Studio 3 software has GPS Time Aligned Data. Generally, racing data is formatted on distance or on time on the x-axis. Race Studio 3 has a third method which is GPS time, which runs along the X-axis. This means the cars aren’t measured on the distance from the finish line, but the GPS time. This shows precisely where the cars are located at any given time, and when you have all the cars’ data from a particular session to analyze, the analyst can fully understand where each car is to better understand drafting behavior, contact, and even information related to race starts and yellow flags.

While the introduction of EFI and a strict ECU control made it harder to find those minute improvements that the old tinkerers thrived on, modernizing the powerplant and making parity easier to enforce has ensured that Spec MX-5 keeps butts in seats, keeps costs down, and ensures driving talent is the deciding factor.

Images courtesy of Mazda Motorsports and AiM

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