Mazda riding wave of momentum to Road America
Mazda riding wave of momentum to Road America
Euphoria and relief visited IMSA victory lane on June 30, 2019.
After more than five years of trying and more than 50 IMSA-sanctioned races, Mazda’s top-level prototype program finally visited victory lane at Watkins Glen International.
The win set off a whirlwind of emotions for the Mazda Team Joest program. It’s been led consistently throughout occasionally rocky waters by Mazda Motorsports North America director John Doonan.
Several iterations of the program tried, valiantly, but were unable to reach the promised land of victory at this level.
The program tried nearly everything. There were different engines (first a diesel, then its 2.0-liter, 4-cylinder AER turbocharged powerplant), chassis designs and redesigns by technical partner Multimatic, and even a change in partner team when Joest was announced in the summer of 2017 to take over running the cars in 2018.
Doonan always remained. He wasn’t alone, though. He retained a pair of longtime Mazda drivers (Jonathan Bomarito and Tristan Nunez), and a core group of staff who’ve served Mazda well in both on- and off-track roles.
Mazda got closer than ever to winning in the second half of 2018 and the first half of 2019. The dam was always going to break, but it shifted to a question of when.
WATKINS GLEN 1-2 KICKS OFF THE STREAK
With his third qualifying record of the year, Oliver Jarvis took the No. 77 Mazda RT24-P to a time more than 2.7 seconds quicker than the 2018 pole.
Confident but focused, either Jarvis in the No. 77 car he shared with Tristan Nunez and Timo Bernhard or Jonathan Bomarito, Harry Tincknell and Olivier Pla in the No. 55 car sought the elusive maiden victory.
What followed on Sunday was a crushing performance. Mazdas led all but 28 of the 211 laps, and Pla set fastest lap by more 3.7 seconds compared to 2018.
The speed and leading didn’t matter without a win and fortunately Tincknell brought the No. 55 car home, thanks to a bold but determined pass of Juan Pablo Montoya’s No. 6 Acura Team Penske ARX-05 at Turn 8. Despite the engine cowling coming loose on the car, it wasn’t enough to hold back the car to the checkered flag.
Tincknell led home Jarvis in the sister No. 77 car by 0.353 of a second to secure the win. Doonan celebrated with his crew in victory lane, then brought the team’s lucky wooden rice spoon with Japanese characters that read “Certain Victory” and “Must Win,” with him as he rode into victory lane on the sidepod.
“I feel like this is a bit of a dream,” Doonan said. “I feel like someone is going to wake me up here in a second and tell me it’s time to go to the office.”
Tincknell said passing Montoya took the courage to ensure Mazda wouldn’t lose its best opportunity yet to break through.
“I knew it was going to have to be a super bold move,” Tincknell said. “I think in those circumstances you’re better off committing 100 percent and not 95 percent, which causes crashes. So I went 110 percent committed going into that corner. It was a little bit of rubbing is racing in the apex, and luckily we came out unscathed. And we could bring it home in a one-two and it was fantastic.”
Bomarito described the journey he’s witnessed through Mazda’s program history.
“The ups and downs have been crazy. I’ve seen how much time, blood, sweat, and tears have been put into this program over those years, seeing it from the beginning, the evolution of the program. To finally get the win is so gratifying on so many levels,” he said.
He called Tincknell’s pass for the lead “epic” as he was “stick to his stomach” watching from the No. 55 pit box.
DOUBLE DOUBLE IN CANADA
Canadian coffee store Tim Hortons’ is known for its “double-double.” This is a standard coffee with two creams and two sugars.
Mazda had its own “double-double” a week after Watkins Glen at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.
For the second week running, Mazda scored a 1-2 finish, and also with its second straight fastest race lap. They led all but eight of the 125 laps.
This time, Jarvis and Nunez brought the No. 77 car beat Tincknell and Bomarito, who were delayed on their final pit stop.
The Watkins Glen win brought relief. The CTMP win had a different feel.
Doonan left the team’s pit box during the race to check on the status of Mazda open-wheel alumnus and a Road to Indy series ladder champion, Victor Franzoni, who’d incurred a heavy accident at Turn 2. The Brazilian was OK and that came as a relief. Later, Doonan dedicated the victory to Shabrall Pruett, wife of veteran motorsports journalist Marshall Pruett, who is fighting through a significant health battle.
Nunez had the chance to let years worth of emotions out after the win here. He was in Bomarito’s shoes this race, watching from the pit stand as Jarvis finished off the race up front.
“I was freaking out to say the least,” Nunez laughed. “I was talking to some of the guys in the box. They were trying to calm me down. It was just excitement. You can see it coming. I was nervous, but not because I didn’t trust Oli. There’s no one I wouldn’t want in the car beside him. He’s quick, he has three poles, he’s consistent, and he doesn’t make mistakes. He was given the nick name ‘the rocket man’ last weekend!
“It’s nerve-wracking because I’ve wanted this victory for so long. Now having it, I don’t think it’s going to sink in until next week. It’s been a pleasure driving with Oli. I’m still young in my career, and I’m learning every single day. Thanks for teaching me new things and how to push. It’s been a great few years.”
REUNITING WITH MICHELIN
Mazda and Michelin have enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship in motorsports over the years. The chance to reunite in IMSA DPi this year comes following the series’ switch to Michelin as its new Official Tire of IMSA.
Doonan took the opportunity to thank Michelin first in a formal way, then a slightly more humorous way, at Watkins Glen.
“The people in the blue, white and yellow over here make an amazing tire. The Michelin family, we’re partnered with them on some other series. Absolutely fantastic tires,” he said.
Asked whether he thought the lap time improvement was possible, Doonan replied, “I blame it on you guys! Michelin plays such a key role in that happening. Multimatic has really transformed this race car. We knew we’d be quicker. We’ve been quicker at most of the tracks, mostly thanks to the Michelin tires, but between Multimatic and AER and everyone at Mazda Team Joest, it’s quicker.”
Jarvis, too, has made headlines with his three poles this year. His Daytona qualifying lap beat a 26-year-old mark, while Mid-Ohio and Watkins Glen saw him push to the ragged edge. The Englishman has also been complimentary throughout the year.
“I mean what an amazing 10 days for Mazda Team Joest,” Jarvis reflected after the CTMP win. “It’s been a dream come true. We’ve been waiting for that win so long. To do it at Watkins Glen and Mosport, two of the best tracks on the calendar.
“The car was amazing, tires held up unbelievably well. I can’t believe the times we were doing at the end. Huge credit to Michelin, they’ve come in this year and what a fantastic job they’ve done. They’ve really spiced up this championship. I’m loving being part of it.”
THREE IN A ROW AT ROAD AMERICA?
Doonan lives in Chicago, and Road America has always been a special venue for the brand.
“Road America is really a special place for me and my family. A win is a win anywhere, but to win there would be insanely special,” he said.
“I was at that track when I was six weeks old with my dad racing. So a win there would be incredible. We’re going to savor last weekend and this one. I can’t believe back to back, unreal. It’s going to be a great month until Road America.”