Mazda factory driver Tristan Nunez is confident that the years spent developing the team’s old Lola-based prototype will ease the learning curve with the introduction of its brace of new RT24-P DPis in 2017.
Mazda campaigned the venerable British chassis, the origins of which date back to 2008, through the end of the 2016 season under the ‘Mazda Prototype’ moniker, and routinely showed strong pace even when compared to newer Daytona Prototype and LMP2 machinery.
The final results in 2016, sixth and seventh in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship team points standings and a single podium finish between the two cars, were not indicative of the pace and potential Nunez and his fellow Mazda drivers displayed last year.
But while the SpeedSource-run team never found victory lane in the old car, Nunez said he believes the foundation for future success was laid in Mazda’s years of wringing speed out of their old warhorse.
“I think we’re definitely ahead of the game,” Nunez told Sportscar365 at the Roar Before the 24 earlier this month.
“We had so much time to develop the old P2 platform and we did so well with a car that was so old, and now that we have a brand new chassis, I think everything can roll over and we’re going to have that much more of an advantage.
“Even just testing the car [at Daytona], it just felt completely different, in a good way. The car performs like a new car.
“Everything feels together, and that was really without doing a lot of setup changes. Really applying what we learned from the old car to the new car, I think we’re going to be set.”
Aiding Mazda’s efforts in 2017 is the fact that the AER-built MZ-2.0T engine that will power Mazda’s WeatherTech Championship assault is essentially a carryover from the previous generation Mazda Prototype, but with some reliability-focused upgrades.
That consistency year-on-year, especially given the older Mazda’s single-lap pace in 2016, has the 21-year-old native of Boca Raton, Fla. invigorated for the on-track battles to come.
“Tons of hours of work have gone into making it reliable,” said Nunez.
“It was a huge effort from the guys at Mazda and the guys at AER for really working their tails off. I kid you not, it was a matter of sleepless hours to get that engine to perform the way it does.
“I’m excited to see what we can do with the new platform.”
With a field full of brand-new Prototype machinery set to contest the 2017 WeatherTech Championship, Nunez said it was an exciting time to be a part of the series as a driver, but also as a pure sports-car-racing fan at heart.
He admitted to sneaking a glimpse or two at the competition throughout testing, and said he is as enthralled with the new DPi and WEC-spec LMP2 challengers as anyone.
“You can’t help but have a quick peak!” said Nunez. “Our boss, John Doonan always says, ‘Keep your focus on our program.’ Which is a good point.
“There’s no point in looking over what everyone else has. Appreciate what you have, I guess, as you learn as a kid.
“But you can’t help but sneak a peak. It really gives me so much joy to see that the sport is going this direction.
“I think it’s going to just explode, and I’m excited for that. More so in the fan perspective, I’m looking at the cars and thinking, ‘Oh, this is gonna be cool!’”
There is perhaps no more fitting spokesman for the new RT24-P than Nunez.
The “RT24” designation is a direct reference to Mazda’s Road To 24 driver development ladder system, of which Nunez, the 2012 IMSA Prototype Lites champion, is a direct beneficiary.
“Ever since I started racing, Mazda’s always been there for us,” he said. “They’re the only brand that has a driver development ladder system.
“If you have talent, they support that. There’s no other brand that does that. I’m the type of person that, if I’m given something, I like to give back.
“And I have no problem giving Mazda my whole self for as ever long as they want me. It’s a complete honor to represent them.”