Photo: Mazda Motorsports

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

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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.”

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).