Mazda has a new, big team running them next year. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Winning pursuit fuels Mazda Motorsports’ move to Joest in 2018

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Mazda Motorsports’ prototype program since it came back to being in 2014 has been defined by several staples: a Soul Red livery, an evolution of chassis platform and gut-wrenching heartbreak.

It has not, to this stage, been defined by winning – which goes against Mazda’s otherwise sterling record in North American sports car racing of winning regularly, with 155 major sports car wins in North America (third among all manufacturers) and 11 major sports car championships.

But with podiums the best result since Mazda evolved from its SKYACTIV-D diesel prototype effort, abandoned after 2015, to the gasoline-powered MZ-2.0T in the back of its Lola Multimatic based chassis in 2016 and then to the new Riley Multimatic chassis and KODO design inspired Mazda RT24-P that’s debuted this year, something had to change.

It’s a harsh reality of the motorsports world that sometimes loyalty loses out to performance gains and Mazda, which has maintained an incredible relationship with SpeedSource, can’t be accused of lacking loyalty to the Florida-based outfit run by Sylvain Tremblay. But when a team of Joest Racing’s caliber becomes available, it proves incredibly hard to overlook.

“I answer to the executive team at Mazda, and that executive team answers to a brand… and it’s our process to put the brand in the highest position as possible,” John Doonan, director of motorsports for Mazda North American Operations, told NBC Sports.

“For a while we’ve continued to look at ways to do that. There’s no question, that Sylvain and his organization gave every ounce of effort in their personal tanks to this program.

“At the same time, we also looked at every aspect of the chassis, with Larry Holt and Multimatic, the powerplant from AER, to the drivers, and we had to look at every element of the program to put our best foot forward.

“Working with one of the greatest teams of all-time doesn’t happen very often, if ever. And I’m not sure this will ever happen again.”

LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 15: Winners of the 2014 Le Mans 24 Hour, Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Marcel Fassler, André Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer celebrate on the podium with Wolfgang Ullrich of Austria, Head of Audi Motorsport on June 15, 2014 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)

The process to bring Joest Racing, a 16-time Le Mans winner and prior factory team for Audi, Porsche and Opel, began almost from the off at the Rolex 24 at Daytona when Joest officials – including managing director Ralf Juttner – were on site at the season-opening round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

Joest needed a manufacturer and Mazda needed results to prove to the brass the competitiveness and winning potential of the program. From that standpoint it was a match made in heaven and things moved quickly in relative terms, through the various processes, to make it happen.

“We had a list of teams… and initially, they weren’t on it or available!” Doonan said. “When they did become available, when it even became possible to sit down with them, we thought, ‘Well that’ll never work. We won’t be good enough for them.’

“But quite the contrary! The chemistry was there from the first minute. It set in, and holy cow, this could be possible… you compare notes, objectives, the business means to you, and someone who has represented premium manufacturer brands in the past. It became reality.”

That this was kept a secret though was almost the bigger shocker. Certainly Joest made DPi rumblings, but a VAG brand – perhaps Audi again, Bentley or Volkswagen itself – made more theoretical sense than Joest and Mazda coming together.

With SpeedSource personnel informed earlier this week of the change, Doonan admitted the challenges that come with the nature of a buildup to this announcement, and how fast this all went down.

“It was difficult to know what was going on the background, but out of sheer respect for processes and agreements, who were signing up with next, we had to do it right,” Doonan said. “I am shocked we kept it quiet! That’s exciting; we did it not to be sneaky in the industry, but to respect our partners and the right people all the time.

“It was a relatively short time frame. We’ve worked for six to seven months, but in our business, that’s all happened relatively quickly. You bring up peoples lives and that’s a consideration for the process, for the existing partner, and for the future partner. That’s the internal processes with Japan, America, finance, legal departments and all the steps it takes.”

Both Mazdas racing a Nissan Onroak DPi at COTA. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Now that the announcement of the program is out the natural questions are about where the program goes from here.

Per Juttner, the testing will begin in the next month, with the existing Mazda RT24-Ps sent to Europe. The quartet of full-season drivers (Jonathan Bomarito, Tristan Nunez, Tom Long, Joel Miller) will undertake the testing duties but as a result this means the Mazdas won’t be on the WeatherTech Championship Prototype class grid for the final three races of the year.

“We expect to be starting with the testing as soon as August, without going into detail on the test program. But in the next month we expect to have the car rolling,” he said.

Given the limits on what can be changed to the car per IMSA’s homologation process, the car will not need a full rehomologation under the Joest team banner, but the two outfits will be working in tandem to improve what they can.

“There is, for sure, some discussions with IMSA about the homologation. It’s not a complete re-homologation, for sure. Homologation processes is anyway not completely closed,” Juttner said.

“The testing will be done with a car that does already have some modifications in it. We expect more to come throughout the remainder of this year until then we have a version that we think is the right one to start the season in 2018.”

Doonan reiterated there was “never really a doubt” in continuing with Multimatic and AER.

“Larry and his people are so committed to making this one work,” Doonan explained. “We invested heavily. We’re counting on Larry and his people to see this car succeed.

“We’re really excited for to continue work to together with AER; we’ve been with them 11 years and they’ve ramped up their game on reliability in eight to 10 months. Let’s put all the pieces together and have people standing on the top step.”

Nunez, Bomarito and Miller are three of the four who’ll test this fall, along with Long. Photo courtesy of IMSA

A decision on the 2018 driver lineup is expected by the end of the IMSA regular season, and it’s hard to foresee the Mazda and Joest partnership keeping all four existing drivers on the books next year. Long, whose Long Road Racing family operation builds the Global MX-5 Cup cars and Miller, who also works within the Mazda Road to Indy as a driver coach and steward, are active within other areas of the company.

For the quartet of drivers who have been so integral to Mazda’s development over the last six or seven years, if not longer, they’re now in the position of helping to develop this car over the next couple months while not entirely knowing their status driving-wise, without having the chance to race. Doonan said championship position made no bearing on the status to withdraw, although neither pairing is higher than sixth in the points.

“After looking at all the options and understanding the timeline to get ready for Daytona, we made this decision,” Doonan said. “The vision was to try to finish the season, but we had to make a tough decision to stop. I wanted to finish it. But there’s a laser focus on testing. That’s what we’ll go do.”

The exciting and perhaps surprising part – just like Penske and Acura’s official union announced last week – is that two more sparring partners from the ALMS prototype heyday of 2006 through 2008 have again come together.

Whereas in 2008 there was Joest with two LMP1 Audis, Mazda with a privateer LMP2 Lola Mazda, and then Penske’s two Porsche RS Spyders and Acura’s handful of ARX-01s making up the field, now all four are back in the game to create a fascinating potential rivalry, while also battling the Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPis and trio of Cadillac DPi-V.Rs, thus far the dominant force in 2017.

Winning now will mean more because of the competition level, and that’s the only goal here for this new partnership.

“We all know that with announcements like today and announcements like a few days ago, the competition level and the quality and the racing will get even better. So we are really looking forward to the task that’s ahead. We know it’s a difficult one, but we are ready for it,” Juttner said.

MONTEREY, CA – OCTOBER 17: Raphael Matos drives the #8 LMP2 BK Motorsports Lola B08 during practice for the American Le Mans Series Monterey Sports Car Championship on October 17, 2008 at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, California. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

Doonan added, “It’s interesting because we talk about the our Le Mans victory in 1991 as a key notch on our brand timeline. I love that, and Mazda in GTO and GTU, but that is the past. It’s a foundation of our company.

“But we’re in the process of selling great road cars. And we’re in the business of writing the next chapter of motorsports history. With things like the rotary RX-8 that won Daytona, the MAZDASPEED6 with SKYACTIV-D and others, we tried to write the new chapter.

“We’ve been like a caged animal waiting to announce this. I’ll be on a plane to Germany soon for our next technical group meeting.

“We’re doing all this to create success. I am thrilled. We did participate in the Joest, Acura, Porsche, Mazda era in ALMS – and whether you call it version ‘2.0 or 3.0,’ now we’re in it again thanks to the France family.”

MONTEREY, CA – OCTOBER 18: David Brabham driving the #9 LMP2 Patron Highcroft Racing Acura ARX-01B leads Gil de Ferran in the #66 de Ferran Motorsports Acura ARX-01B into turn 1 at the start of the American Le Mans Series Monterey Sports Car Championship on October 18, 2008 at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, California. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

Spencer Pigot ready for full-season IndyCar effort with ECR

Photo: IndyCar
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After spending the last two years in a part-time role with Ed Carpenter Racing, contesting the road and street course races in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, Spencer Pigot now gets a long-awaited chance at a full-season effort in 2018.

Moving over to the No. 21 entry, which has featured ECR’s full-season driver since 2016, Pigot has seen slight differences in his off-season prep ahead of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“We were one of the teams that got to a handful of days testing the aero kit, so I obviously did all the running on the road courses, but I was able to do a few laps on the ovals when Ed was testing. So, that wouldn’t have happened (if I was part-time still),” he told NBC Sports.

However, outside of that increase in testing and a little learning some new tracks – he has not raced at ISM Raceway, Gateway Motorsports Park, Pocono Raceway, or Iowa Speedway in an IndyCar – the changes to Pigot’s off-season program have not been dramatic.

“There’s definitely some things I’ll need to learn, but as far as off-season prep: nothing too dramatic, nothing too different.”

Pigot’s first full-season campaign saw its first official outing of the 2018 season last weekend during the open test at ISM Raceway. While he and the ECR team struggled to find speed much of the weekend – they languished outside of the top ten in the results of the first three sessions – things took a turn for the better during the final session of the weekend on Saturday night, when Pigot ended up ninth on the speed charts.

He ended up 14th in the combined results for the weekend, noting that he and the team still want to find more outright speed.

“I thought throughout the test that our average long run pace was okay, but we were still missing the outright pace to be where we need to be come qualifying time,” he revealed. “I think that we definitely made a step forward Saturday night and definitely have a much better idea of a direction we can head and go with when we go back.”

In terms of long-run practice, Pigot noted that tire degradation became much more prevalent, which made running with others cars around you somewhat of a challenge. Though, he emphasized that tire degradation could be beneficial for racing.

“Talking to some of the other guys, it seems a little bit harder to run behind people as the tires go off because the tires are degrading pretty quick with the lack of downforce as well,” he explained. “So, it’s going to be tricky, it’s going to be sliding around a little bit more than what guys have experienced in the past. But, I think everyone’s under the same kind of idea that it’s going to be better racing, and especially at (ISM Raceway) it should be exciting.”

Pigot did get some practice at overtaking at ISM and got a feel for what he may be able to expect when IndyCar returns in April for the Phoenix Grand Prix, and while he acknowledged it was difficult to judge during testing, he did feel like he could run around other cars without much of an issue.

“It’s not like a race when everyone comes in the pits at the same time and you’re all on similar tires, so it’s kind of hard to know exactly. But, I thought we were pretty good,” he detailed. “I thought I was able to run pretty close to guys in front of me and was able to make a few passes when other guys made mistakes or might have gone a little high.”

The test also served as Pigot’s first IndyCar venture on a short oval – he last ran on a short oval in 2015 during his Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship season.

“The corners definitely come up quick. There’s not much time to really relax or think about too much,” Pigot quipped when describing his first time on a short oval.

He continued, “You’ve got to concentrate pretty hard on being precise because the line there is very narrow so you have to make sure that you’re where the grip is at all points throughout the corner. And then, when everyone’s out there and you run in traffic, it’s just like you’re constantly in a corner, so it’s a little more difficult to get big runs and drafts off people. But I think it’ll definitely play into the hands of guys that have their cars set up well and can be easier on the tires.”

And in becoming the team’s full-time driver, Pigot is seeing a slight increase in his leadership role within the team, especially as it relates to testing and development, with Pigot doing the lion’s share of testing during the winter on road courses.

But, he also emphasized the oval prowess of teammate, and team owner, Ed Carpenter as something he will lean on when he ventures out on other ovals for the first time this year.

“Especially as we’re trying to learn this new aero kit, I was the one that pretty much did all the testing on the road and street courses. It was kind of me and the engineers trying to develop the car and work towards the setup that’s going to work for us. So, there’s definitely a little more responsibility in that. But, then on the ovals, obviously Ed’s there and he’s a great teammate to have and to learn from and bounce ideas off of. But, yeah, it’s definitely a more involved role within the team,” Pigot explained.

Pigot and ECR will test two more times, at Barber Motorsports Park and Sebring International Raceway, in the month of February prior to the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11.