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Catching Up With John Doonan, Looking At Progress, Not Results

At first glance, you’d be tempted to say that it’s been a rough season for Mazda and their P2 program, but John Doonan, Director of Motorsports for Mazda in North America refuses to look at it that way. Instead of looking at the results, he’d rather look at the progress. At least for now anyway…

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“To be honest, we’re farther along than I had expected, I really thought we’d be further off the pace than where we currently are. All said, I’m happy with the progress.”

One of the major difficulties for the 2-liter, 4-cylinder SKYACTIV diesel motor has been heat buildup, which oddly enough is a problem that the rotaries also had back in the day when they ruled the track. It is this heat buildup that has given the SKYACTIV motors reliability issues since they debuted last season. But due to constant development, the reliability is coming along rather nicely for what is a program that has been pushed from the Grand Am GX ranks to P2 in rather quick order.

The GX entry was created as a way to give the SKYACTIV program an opportunity to race and effectively get a start, but unfortunately the merger between the Grand Am and the ALMS killed the class before it had a chance to grow out of a disappointing first season, entry wise. It also drastically hurt the chances Mazda had to make progress with the motor in the class before moving into P2. It effectively forced them into P2 earlier that they had intended.

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“In GX, we were racing with about 380 HP and to make the transition to P2, we were asking for 50 more HP right off the bat. We’re now up to 450 HP now, but we are still down on where we need to be,” according to Doonan.

The regulations state that the motor must be production based and Mazda is running a stock head and block. But that stock head comes with an integrated exhaust manifold, which makes it “hard to get the heat out.”

This season, modifications have helped, but Doonan said they have “not yet been able to turn up the boost yet. We have some off season upgrades planned, which should move us up the order, but we’re not sure it is enough.” In current tune, the Mazda has a 20-25 minute fuel efficiency advantage over the others in class, but you can be sure that once the power goes up, that advantage will be minimized.

A problem that John faces is that while Mazda North America and also Japan support this effort, it still has a budget that is limited when compared to many in the sport. It is just part the market – Mazda is not as big of a company as who they are competing against, but they make do with what they’ve got. And make do better than anyone else in the sport.

One of the reasons for the support is the accelerated feedback that the race program is able to give back to the company on our product. According to Speedsource team owner Sylvain Tremblay, “Mazda has been amazed at how we’re able to give feedback on the components in such an accerated manner – much more quickly than any other method that they’ve had before. That is why it is so important for us to be competing with what the company builds. It is something that gives back to our customers. They get a better product because of what we are doing on the race track.”

John added – “We’re asking this motor to do 3 times what it was designed to do. These are parts right off of the assembly line and we’re really pushing them, not just to eventually win races but to also ultimately make the Mazda that anyone can buy out of the showroom a better product.”

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Mazda is already prominent in the amateur ranks of the sport, where they are proud to proclaim that “on any given weekend, there are more Mazdas on the road-race tracks of America than any other brand of vehicle”. They have a true grass-roots organization that supports racers all the way from Karting through to their “Road to Indy” program, as well as offering a very strong support network for the road racing contingent that races their production cars.

It is because of this support and the ladder program that they already have in place that they have drivers in place that have all worked through the Mazda programs. Doonan stated, “when we looked at stepping into the P2 program, we saw that we already had a progression of drivers in place ready to step up to the plate. When we announced the P2 effort, we got responses from 80 drivers, all inquiring about a seat. But we stuck with the plan – it makes sense as we are already supporting 36 drivers in our ladder – why would we bring in anybody else?”

As an example, Tom Long was the 2005 Spec Miata champion and now in 2014, he finds himself with a seat in the P2 effort. “Tom is a rock star and has fully earned his seat, just like the rest of the drivers. Joel Miller and Tristan Nunez are also a part of the ladder and are doing a great job for the effort, which is led by Sylvain Tremblay and his Speedsource team. I have utmost respect for what they are doing and are very proud of their results.”

Another aspect of the program that has gone well is the association with Multimatic, through running the Lola chassis. Because they are the only team using a Lola this season, it is difficult to guage the chassis against the others, but Doonan hopes that soon others will see how good the chassis is. “They (Multimatic) have been a tremendous support this season and their simulator has been a great tool in which to develop the package.”

Looking back at the season so far, John said that the results at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca were a big step forward as were the results at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. “It was at these events that the progress has been really noticeable. We’re making steady progress and that is what we’re looking for.” John also added that the signing of Jeff Braun to the effort, starting at Detroit, is starting to pay dividends, some simply due to his wealth of experience.

While this season has been one of catch up, Doonan expects to continue with the same package in 2015, only improved. There had been indications that Mazda intended to homologate the Lola chassis as a Mazda, but that will wait, likely until 2017, when the new regulations come on line for the P2 category.

They’re in it for the long haul. Doonan stated that this is a “5-year program. Our obvious goal at this point is greater performance, but we hope to be at a level in which there will be customer interest and we will be able to supply motors to customers and be competing at Le Mans.”

Gary Horrocks