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.”