It finally happened, after years of trying so hard, Mazda scored its debut prototype win in IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship competition yesterday at Watkins Glen, after 54 starts in the unified North American series’ top class.
How long was the wait? It was the first overall sportscar race victory for Mazda since the American Le Mans Series Baltimore Grand Prix on September the 3rd 2011 when Humaid Al Masaood and Steven Kane steered the Oryx Dyson Racing Mazda-Lola to the top honours. It was also Mazda’s first IMSA win of any kind since Sylvain Tremblay and Tom Long co-drove the diesel-powered #70 Mazda 6 GX to the GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series GX class victory at Lime Rock Park in September 2013.
Yesterday’s win, a 1-2 for the RT24Ps, came with a dominant performance (on the pace at least). The #55 crossed the line first, its engine cover hanging loose, ahead of the #77, in a formation finish after both cars saw off challenges from Acura Team Penske in the second half of the race.
After so many close calls in recent years, and an incredible amount of hard work from those behind the scenes to improve the Mazda/ AER-powered, Multimatic-based cars, it was a special moment for everyone involved. Harry Tincknell, Olivier Pla and Jonathan Bomarito delivered the goods this time and hope that their victory is the first of many in IMSA’s highly-competitive WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
“It was unbelievable. I’m lost for words, I still can’t believe it,” team boss John Doonan told DSC this morning, in the aftermath of the victory. “I messaged all the drivers this morning to ask if they believed it, because it really still feels a bit surreal, like a dream. It’s also only just one race, there are so many teams, the Action Express’ of the world, the Wayne Taylors, the Penskes, that have won so many races. To be honest with you the journey that we have been on, this one feels like a championship, the greatest of all time.”
The race, while not a classic on track, was one which Mazda dominated on pace, the RT24-Ps suited to the Watkins Glen circuit. Even though Oliver Jarvis in the #77 broke the IMSA circuit record en route to pole on Saturday, the team still didn’t believe it would be able to control proceedings.
“It was a big surprise,” Doonan added when asked about the pace advantage Mazda had over the competition.
“We have a ton of respect for the IMSA BoP process, I truly believe that they certainly have added a ton of resources and have done a yeoman’s job of making it what it is. The show is unbelievable, at all levels. These race, 24 hours, 12, two, one hour 40, they’re coming down to the last minute, and you can’t ask for much more for the audience.
“We knew the cars would be good, we hope they’re just as good at CTMP, Road America, Laguna and Road Atlanta. I thought we were in for a big fight, based on how practice was trending, and qualifying. I thought we’d have our hands full in a major fight between any of the eight cars. Any of them can win any weekend now. So we were in a state of shock, we thought maybe they were all saving it for the end, maybe they expected things would befall us as they have done in the past.
“But thank the Lord the cars hung in there and were magnificent all day.”
There were two sequences which stick out in the story of how this race was one, the first was the Mazdas staying out of trouble despite Action Express driver Joao Barbosa’s best efforts to prevent his Cadillac from going two laps down when Tristan Nunez and Olivier Pla had hunted him down.
“Massive respect to Bob Johnson and the Action Express organisation, they’ve won so many races and championships and are there to battle,” reflected Doonan. “As frustrating as it is when you’re sort of dicing it up with a car that’s down a lap, you can’t fault anyone in this series for wanting to stay in the fight, especially in a six-hour race.
“Based on the way the regulations work you have the chance to get it back. Was it intense? Was it frustrating? Was Tristan and Olivier at the time getting frustrated? You bet, but I’ve got massive respect for everyone in that operation, they know what to do. It made for some dramatic moments.”
Thank the Lord the cars hung in there and were magnificent all day
The second was the battle that emerged between the two Mazdas and the #6 Acura Team Penske ARX 05, thanks to bold strategy calls from Penske’s and caution periods keeping the field bunched up. Juan Pablo Montoya was a man on a mission, and in the closing stages managed to make his way to the lead. But Harry Tincknell and Olivier Pla had other ideas and snatched back the lead, and second, with on-track passes.
“You can’t fault Penske for taking an opportunity during a yellow, they jumped in, jumped to the front and were doing everything they could. Fortunately, Harry and Olivier got by him and even then we had more tense moments. It was a wild day.”
After that, it was damage limitation for Tincknell in the #55 and Jarvis in the #77, the two Britons doing their best to bring the cars home. But, it being the Mazda DPi programme, it wasn’t as simple as letting the clock ran down, as the #55’s left-side engine cover came loose and for a moment gave the crew behind the wall a scare.
Thankfully, this race was different, a landmark result wasn’t stolen by bad luck or a mistake. On this occasion, the issue it didn’t cost the #55 a win or the brand a 1-2, and both cars crossed the line to take the win. There was no questions from either driver about which car would take the flag, the engine cover not resulting in a late-race switch.
“At the end when we were running 1-2 and Oliver was on Harry’s bumper nobody really asked about it (team orders), we just looked at the difference between us and the #6 car and there was no need to fight. Everyone was watching the clock tick down.
“Ironically, (in addition to having the engine cover as a piece of memorabilia from the race) we also had a souvenir from the #6 car, when Harry and JPM touched, we picked up part of their front side-pod, so the crew was joking about trying to get him to sign it, but I’m not so interested in that.
“I think there was also a slight touch with a GT car, but that touch on the left side when Harry was able to get by that caused the engine cover to loosen a bit. Looking at it at the end of the race it was almost like it was hinged and maybe we need to think about doing that to make it easier to work on the car!
“It was almost like an old Bugatti, or MG where you could hinge the hood up and work on it. It was all attached, it just flopped over.”
Everyone was watching the clock tick down
Doonan, who has worked as hard as anyone in motorsport in recent years to get this win,
“It’s a big relief without a doubt. At the beginning of this thing, we’d said we had been coming to win, and we had so many close moments and so many people, fans, friends, dealers and racers saying that the win will come. So many people in the paddock, OEM partners, other team members said they hoped we’d get one soon. So it’s a huge relief.
“We have wanted to deliver this result so badly for everyone at Mazda, whether it’s someone driving a Mazda up the motorway, or racing them, or selling them, or building them. It’s a special family, our brand is all about inspirations, and to see it all come together was very inspiring to me, I hope it’s inspiring for everyone in the community.”
“We’re going to have a really short turnaround. We’re rebuilding the cars today, everyone is scattering, but we’ll reunite in about 72 hours and hopefully, a track like CTMP caters to our package, and the remaining races too.
“The monkey is off the back, I can’t wait to share my thoughts with the team this morning in my post-weekend briefing. It’s going to be about holding our heads high but not having our chests puffed out. We know the level of competition is so high in IMSA, and everyone will come to the next one prepared.”