Racing Toward Disaster: How Tech Hubris Took Down Mazda and Nissan’s Boldest Motorsports Bets
Two global powers tried to go racing and lost—big time.
In the world of professional motorsports it's always risky to reinvent the wheel. And yet, when major auto industry players get involved in big-buck racing programs the urge to flex muscles beefed up elsewhere and carve out a unique path has often been too overwhelming to resist.
In justifying the untold millions spent propping up race teams both successful and otherwise, automakers often point to the trickle down effect that these go-fast technologies can have in products that eventually find their way to the showroom. It’s a compelling narrative, what with all manner of modern vehicle features (disc brakes, adaptive suspension systems, carbon fiber panels, precision engine controls) able trace their way back to pit lane.
Not every on-track experiment ends up paying marketable dividends, however. This is especially true when engineering teams and designers are given free rein to push untested ideas. There's a fine line between innovation and arrogance, and while a certain degree of organizational blindness is to be expected from mega-corps buoyed by decades of doing it their own way, should those confidence-induced cataracts eventually float their way to the center of the screen, it's easy to lose sight of the plot entirely.
So it goes with two major names who over the past 20 years have been blinded by their own past success on the way to losing millions and millions of dollars—not to mention the reputational damage—at the racetrack. Nissan, and Mazda, each brand resplendent with the laurels of checkered flags and championships gone by, found themselves completely out of their depth when attempting to parlay that success in a new and unfamiliar arena.
Whether it was an over-commitment to a technology that was far from ready for prime-time, or a misguided engineering effort that siphoned millions into a dead-end before alarmed executives pulled the plug, the common factor was surprisingly familiar: "we know what's best."
Except they didn't—and that became an extremely expensive lesson to learn for each member of this otherwise distinguished duo.
Mazda's Diesel Blues
When Mazda declared it was going to be taking its Skyactiv-D turbodiesel drivetrain racing in 2012, at first blush it seemed a reasonable promotional push for a brand-new market segment that the Japanese company was hoping would draw in new customers around the world.
Behind the scenes, it was a whole lot more. Mazda employees at the time paint the company as being in search of a second engineering holy grail that would replace the rotary in the minds of customers, and help differentiate the brand's products from competitors who were beginning to rapidly outpace the Hiroshima-based company in terms of market share. Diesel seemed to be 'it,' and Skyactiv-D was positioned as the reason to choose a Mazda over a Toyota, Honda, or Subaru.
Right from the beginning, however, there were problems. Mazda intended to race the upcoming Mazda 6 sedan shape in Grand Am's GX class (over a modified, rear-wheel drive RX-8 chassis), but despite making the official announcement in June of that year the car's design wasn't made public until November, only a few months before its debut during the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona in January 2013. This meant each of its three entries made the field with virtually no real-world testing—and it quickly became evident that all those hours on the engine dyno weren't enough.
Within hours, the trio dropped out of the marquee race with engine vibration issues so severe that they made the 6's virtually undriveable before damaging themselves past the point of no repair.
From an engineering perspective, the problem was clear: these motors were being pushed well past their design spec to output levels they simply couldn't handle. Mazda's standing policy to "race what it sold" meant that the very first engines off the Skyactiv-D assembly line were dedicated to the Grand Am program, and they shared over 60 percent of their components with the stock power plant. It was 150 horse design boosted to over 450, in a field where 600 ponies was the bare minimum needed to be competitive.
Despite these clear limitations, the edict came down that the show must go on; a source involved with the project told us it was the old sunk-cost fallacy. Too much money invested to stop now. So Mazda pushed forward with a sub-par racing effort that had no corresponding product in showrooms to promote, as a street version of the motor had yet to reach American shores. Yes, it managed to win the 2013 manufacturer's title in GX, but wasn't difficult to do given that the field often consisted of four cars or less, and three of them were Mazdas (the driver's title actually went to a privateer Porsche Cayman pilot).
Furthering the misery, this all played out in the shadow of the merger between American Le Mans and Grand Am that had been announced just prior to the season. It was a move that blindsided Mazda and forced them to field their underdeveloped car in a lame duck series that would see the GX class disappear entirely the following year.
Despite its Grand Am embarrassment, the engineering pride baked into the Mazda corporate ethos simply wouldn't let the diesel program die. The following year its ashes were disinterred so that the same 2.2-liter, four-cylinder power plants, which were barely reliable in touring car trim, could be pumped up with an additional 75 horsepower in an attempt to compete in the Tudor United Sports Car in Lola LMP2 form. This partnership with SpeedSource would further cement the Skyactiv-D's reputation as a race loser, and it wasn't long before it had been yanked in favor of a gas engine, thus ending Mazda's diesel motorsports experiment only a handful of years after it had begun.
The racetrack wasn't the only arena where Mazda's diesel dreams failed to take flight. Although sold in a number of global markets, Skyactiv-D struggled to meet American emissions regulations. "We can make power, or we can be efficient, but we can't be both. We have no idea how Volkswagen is managing to do it with their own diesel engines," lamented engineers, according to a source within the company familiar with the project’s long seven year slog to a 2019 model year appearance in American showrooms. This was, of course, before Dieselgate blew wide open.
By the end of the decade, VW's emissions testing cheating was no longer a secret, and the incredible scale of the fraud had gone a long way towards canceling diesel in the minds of most car buyers in the United States. It was largely a moot point for Mazda. By the time Skyactiv-D had stubbornly made it to America it was offered in a single vehicle—the CX-5, for the 2019 model year only—and delivered almost no fuel mileage advantage over a comparable Skyactiv gas engine. And last week, the automaker confirmed that's the end of it. Mazda's effort to bring diesel to the U.S. is officially, finally dead.
When Nissan Went FWD at Le Mans
Nissan's LMP debacle came a few years after Mazda's diesel woes, and traces its roots back to a previous motorsports program—the dramatic DeltaWing—rather than a road car.
The DeltaWing had begun as one of three potential replacements for the IndyCar chassis towards the end of the 2000s, a contract that eventually went to Dallara. So much time, effort, and cash had been invested in the DeltaWing, however, that it was shopped around the Nissan global empire in search of a backer, with renegades at Nissan Europe finally taking a flyer on the radical-looking racer in 2012.
Repurposed for Le Mans racing by Don Panoz and original designer Ben Bowlby as an experimental model, the not-so-competitive but definitely unusual car would go on to attract serious attention in American Le Mans competition. This made Nissan execs sit up and take notice. What would it take, they asked, to build on the DeltaWing's momentum with an in-house program?
Working together with designer Simon Marshall, Bowlby said he again had the answer. A hardcore engineer's engineer, according to sources inside the company, he was keen to again try something unorthodox and follow in the DeltaWing's ultra-weird slipstream. Still, it's difficult to understand the thought process that led to the 2015 Nissan GT-R LM Nismo, a front-engine, front-wheel-drive LMP car radically out of step with the established mid-engine orthodoxy. Or, frankly, why talented executives like Darren Cox (the man behind initiatives such as GT Academy and the original DeltaWing initiative) even signed off on the plan.
Everything about the GT-R LM flew in the face of conventional Le Mans prototype wisdom. Not only did Bowlby position the engine forward of the driver (as opposed to the rear-midships position used by all other competitors), but he also mandated a front-drive setup. Virtually unheard of at the upper echelons of racing, the team's technical director justified the design by claiming it provided maximum weight distribution over the drive axle while improving overall stability. This was achieved in part by relying on the pull of the wheels to erase any chance of oversteer, while also taking advantage of the greater downforce the rulebook allowed for the front half of the car, and then further reducing drag at the rear.
With close to 750 horsepower fed to the front axles from a twin-turbo V6/flywheel energy recapture system, and the driver sitting far back from the action as compared to a traditional LMP1 entry, the GT-R LM Nismo drove like no other vehicle in the field. It was an extreme, and untested approach to Le Mans competition, and yet, it had the full backing of NISMO, which placed a huge bet that disruption and innovation were the same thing. This official promo video for the project from 2015 gives a good sense of the pioneering spirit Nissan was trying to chase with the whole effort:
After all, hadn't the DeltaWing turned a contrarian approach to racing into marketing gold? Surely history was on the verge of repeating itself. And in a sense, it was.
After six months of testing, during which it was revealed that its Torotrak-sourced hybrid system was so problematic that Nissan was forced to remove it entirely, a trio of the cars limped to the starting grid of the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans. From the outset, it was clear that the down-on-power GT-R LM NISMO wasn't just a step and a half behind the Porsches and Audis in its class, but that it was not even quick enough to keep up with lesser lights from LMP2. Only one car would finish the race, and even then unofficially as it hadn't managed to meet the minimum distance requirements to qualify for the record books.
Predictably, this effort was viewed as a complete and total disaster by Nissan's leadership. The DeltaWing may not have won any races either, but that was done largely on Panoz's dime, and the GT-R LM Nismo had no Batman-esque profile on which to hang a publicity campaign. An immediate review was ordered, frightening sums were disclosed, and any and all possibility of the front-wheeler achieving parity with its peers, let alone winning, was cleared from the slate when further testing of a new energy recapture hybrid system failed to meaningfully improve the Nismo's performance.
Nissan lacked the stomach to spend any more money on a traditional three-year motorsport plan (one year to learn the series, the next year to pick up some wins, and the third to challenge for a championship, according to a Nissan insider), and the program was terminated before the GT-R LM ever saw another event. This was a one-and-done race car. Many careers at the company never recovered from this act of engineering hubris run amok, and a substantial percentage of those involved with the Le Mans program were cut loose (some by email), including Cox himself.
The Power Of Ideas
The power of an idea, especially one fully embraced by corporations that pride themselves on daring to be different, can grow strong enough to blot out even those most obvious real-world counter-evidence. It's not so much that Nissan and Mazda embraced a contrarian point of view for its own sake, but rather that critical parts of both organizations were so laser-focused on executing the agreed-upon plan that the wider context of why it had been drawn up in the first place was lost.
Did Mazda truly need Skyactiv-D to succeed as a brand both in the showroom and on the track? Did Nissan's against-the-grain LMP investment pay off in any meaningful manner, either in terms of competitive critical mass or street car tech? No to both, as evidenced by the dead-ends represented by both programs. And yet, millions of person-hours and even more dollars were sacrificed at their altar. Extremely intelligent people not only made objectively terrible bets, but doubled down despite a general industry framework that stood in stark contrast.
Organizational inertia is a powerful thing, and the group-think that comes with it can sometimes outsmart even the most brilliant of automotive luminaries. Sometimes, the line between an idea that's ahead of its time, and one whose time will never come, is so faint as to be imperceptible.