Mazda’s switch from diesel to gasoline power, coupled with further off-season developments to its prototype, has propelled Joel Miller to a career-best start in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.
Miller and co-driver Tom Long are coming off a fourth place overall finish at Long Beach — the Japanese manufacturer’s best-ever result in Prototype competition to date — and head into this weekend’s Continental Monterey Grand Prix with plenty of momentum.
Could a breakthrough podium, or perhaps win, be in the cards for the SpeedSource-run squad at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca?
“The Long Beach race was our best ever finish with the program, fantastic for the crew,” Miller told Sportscar365.
“They’ve been putting a lot of work into this. I think the best thing we can do is reward them with an even better finish.
“We’re prepared to do what we need to do. Like we talked this morning with our inner team meeting – we just need to go out and do our jobs.
“The car is probably the best it’s been and this track in particular suits a P2 style car. So we just gotta go out and do our jobs like we know how to do it.
“To steal one from Roger Penske, preparation means opportunity. We’re prepared and we’re just waiting for that opportunity to happen.”
Mazda spent the last two seasons in the WeatherTech Championship running its 2.0-liter turbodiesel SKYACTIV-D powerplant as part of an R&D program.
With the limits of the largely production engine reached, the pair of Lola-based prototypes ran near the back of the grid. Its best class finish was 7th, on numerous occasions.
Despite not getting the results they might have wanted, Miller found satisfaction in helping play a key role in the engine’s development.
“We knew what we needed to do for Mazda corporate,” he said. “They really used our program to help develop the next generation for the street car.
“We helped them through that with the race program which was awesome.
“Literally the pistons, the rods and the whole assembly went to Japan after the last race because they are going to use it for the next generation SKYACTIV diesel.”
The forthcoming 2017 DPi regulations do not allow diesels to compete, so the team elected to switch to the gasoline-powered Mazda MZ-2.0T for 2016.
After an extensive testing program, which saw the AER-tuned engine clock more than 5,000 miles prior to the start of the season, Mazda came out of the gates strong.
The No. 55 car of Jonathan Bomarito, Tristan Nunez and Spencer Pigot led on three occasions at the Rolex 24 at Daytona before suffering mechanical failure just prior to the halfway mark.
Last month’s Twelve Hours of Sebring saw both cars claim top-10 overall finishes for the first time, and had the No. 55 entry earn a 6th place result and finish on the lead lap.
Long Beach delivered further gains to the program, with Bomarito topping the time charts in opening practice, and both of the factory entries finishing inside the top-five, another first for the manufacturer.
“So far, the performance of it, the reliability of it that we saw at Sebring was really good; both cars crossed the line,” Miller said.
“It continues to get better and better. We are looking to peak here really soon and get both cars on the podium.”
Heading to Mazda’s home track, the team is reaching its peak.
A Win at Mazda Raceway would be big for the manufacturer and Miller has confidence in the car given the track’s high speed, flowing corners.
“The track is relatively smooth which helps us, we can run really low, we can run really still,” he said.
“Also, the average speed of the corners is high. All of the corners except for maybe 11 and 2, which again is really good for us.
“There is not a lot of start and stop corners like there was at Long Beach so that helps us – higher gears more flowing.”
While a Mazda winning at Mazda Raceway might seem like a perfect story, Miller would like a win wherever he can get it.
“I don’t want to chose where to win, we just want to win,” he said.