Mazda’s Prototype program has its best endurance race at Sebring

Photo: Mazda Motorsports

Let’s face facts: Mazda’s endurance race program the last few years since 2013 has been the embodiment of “development program” and not one that’s been properly able to contend for results.

But on Saturday in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh from Florida, Mazda finally nailed the mix of competitiveness, pace and reliability that has eluded it either with the GX class Mazda 6 and Prototype, both of which used the SKYACTIV Diesel engine that was fitted to the race car based on Mazda’s road cars.

With the new gasoline AER engine on board, the re-dubbed Mazda MZ-2.0T engine held up for all 12 hours as both the team’s No. 55 and 70 Prototypes finished in the top 10 overall, sixth and eighth, for the first time.

The No. 55 car was on the lead lap with Jonathan Bomarito, Tristan Nunez and Spencer Pigot, ending sixth after Nunez did well to qualify the car fifth. A speeding penalty in the second hour and a very minor off for Pigot in the sixth hour were the lone setbacks, and neither one proved damning.

Nunez, who’s been through the last few years of heartache in endurance races, said this result was all the sweeter given the past trials and tribulations.

“It’s an emotional finish. It’s been such a tough three years and to have a finish like that on the lead lap is a dream come true for me,” he said.

“Being in the top class and finishing that well against guys like [Christian] Fittipaldi and [Rubens] Barrichello. It’s surreal. It was chess match to decide dry or wet [tires]. It’s crucial to have a good relationship between the engineer and driver so that you can make decisions like that on the fly. We did a good job making the right choices.”

The No. 70 car’s race was a little more eventful, particularly during Keiko Ihara’s maiden stint in the car in the second hour. She had a spin at Turn 17, reversed out, then had the wheels running on a pit stop and that triggered a pit lane penalty.

Nonetheless, as she co-drove with that car’s full-season drivers Tom Long and Joel Miller and endurance race regular Ben Devlin, the car managed to keep on progressing and end eighth – just one lap down to the overall leader.

Long qualified and started the car and reflected on the team’s progress.

“I had a lot of fun at the start. It was exciting in the dry and amazing to think that we were going to go through so much adversity in the wet soon after,” he said.

“Managing the heat is something that all race car drivers are working toward. Knowing Sebring is traditionally a very hot race, the physical training that all of our drivers do is all high-intensity, high heart-rate with extended time in the heat to train these conditions. It certainly paid off, and I felt very fresh coming out of the car once I cooled down a bit. Overall, an exciting day, and we overcame a lot of adversity.”

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH IN GTPRolex 24 at Daytona kicks off new golden era for sports cars

But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds