How Mazda Snatched Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

What a great, terrible weekend it was at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

Mazda

If you had choreographed it – and plenty of people did – the weekend could not have been going better for Mazda.

The fourth race in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was taking place at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, and it was called the Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix Presented by Mazda.

For nearly two and a half years – the entire tenure of the WeatherTech series – the two Mazda Prototypes had struggled, the first two seasons saddled with uncompetitive, unreliable diesel engines because the brain trust in Japan kept telling us Americans that a diesel-powered Mazda 6 was only weeks away.

We’re still waiting. Meaning the Mazda team basically spent two years practicing pit stops.

At the first race of 2016, the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Mazda finally rolled out its Christmas present from Japan: A two-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that runs on gasoline. Yes, it is by far the smallest engine in the Prototype class, but it’s something the SpeedSource team could work with, and the cars kept getting faster and faster.

The Mazdas are P2 Prototypes, which is a newer, more nimble design than the older Daytona Prototypes which haven’t changed much since they were introduced in the Grand-Am years. Next year, the Daytona Prototypes are gone for good, replaced by a mix of grandfathered-in P2-type cars like the Mazdas and the Honda-powered Ligier that Michael Shank Racing fields.

But on some courses, like the long tracks at Daytona and Sebring, and maybe even on little street courses like Long Beach, the DPs are strong. But on a relatively tight, short road course like Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, the P2 cars come alive. So Mazda was hoping for the best.

It appeared they were getting it. The two Mazdas were the fastest cars in the first, second and third practice sessions, then qualified first and second – Tristan Nunez put the number 55 on the pole with a new track record, and Tom Long was right behind him in the number 70.

As Mazda awaited the Prototype race Sunday afternoon, other good things were happening: The Battery Tender MX-5 Cup series ran two races with the brand-new Mazda MX-5 Miata – 40 of them turned up for this inaugural weekend for the new car, and both races were absolute nail-biters. Then Mazda finished first and second in the ST class in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge race, thanks to a solid performance by the Freedom Autosport team.

Then, the big one: The Prototype cars and the GT Le Mans cars lined up for their race, and the two Mazdas simply took off – in the first 40 minutes, Nunez and Long ran nose to tail, opening a full straightaway lead over the rest of the pack. Long logged the fastest lap of the race.  

Then – well, crap. Bad pit stops for both cars, especially the number 55, which wouldn’t take fuel, left them back in the back. Soon the number 70 retired with an oil pump failure, which had never happened before. And the number 55 was just never able to get back to the front, and driver Jonathan Bomarito uncharacteristically spun while tryong, which left them with a fourth-place finish.

And some tough tracks ahead configured in a way that may not be as kind to the Mazdas as Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca was. The team is still looking for a podium finish, and it will come sooner rather than later.

By the way, the other P2 car in the class, the Shank Honda-Ligier, won easily after Ozz Negri took over from co-driver John Pew, who kept the car in the hunt.

The Mazda crew was disappointed, but encouraged by the fact that, for the first time, they know what it’s like to run up front. “I think we can take away positives, we certainly can run up front and we have great pace,” said John Doonan, director of Mazda Motorsports North America “Now we head on to Detroit and see what we can do there. It’s a tough street circuit.”