The Rolex 24 at Daytona the last two years has yielded little in terms of success for Mazda, as the respective first races for the Mazda6 GX car and Multimatic-built, Mazda SKYACTIV-D LMP2 cars.
But a new year for the SpeedSource operation and the Mazda LMP2 cars brings something that’s been absent for them from the Rolex 24 since 2012: hope.
While the Mazdas remain unlikely to factor into win or podium contention, at least at the outset, the organization has made major gains as part of its planned five-year development cycle with the SKYACTIV-D, diesel-powered engines it has adapted from street car technology.
In a year, the team has found anywhere from 7 to 10 seconds – almost unreal numbers year-to-year – and found itself within 2.5 to 3 seconds of the overall leaders this Roar.
“From a storytelling standpoint, we’re doing exactly what we set out to do,” said Mazda Motorsports North America director John Doonan. “We had to convert a road car engine from the assembly line into a road going diesel engine, and ask it to do three times more than what they designed it to do.
“It is a development program, and what we experienced yesterday (Friday of the Roar) versus 365 days ago doesn’t happen by accident.”
Strides have come primarily in the engine, finding more power and increasing reliability.
The car’s torque seems to stand out, as SpeedSource returnee Jonathan Bomarito noted on his first test in the car in November.
But even more than the torque, being in amidst the rest of the Prototype class is something Bomarito appreciates for the 2015 TUDOR United SportsCar Championship season.
Bomarito enters from the GT Le Mans category with the Dodge Viper GTS-R program, where the Mazdas were occasionally intermingled.
“Now, we’re in our class of cars,” Bomarito told Sportscar365. “We’re within a few seconds. We’re still trying to close that gap even further. We won’t rest until we’ve completely closed that gap.”
Bomarito returns to the SpeedSource fold after a three-year hiatus; he had been part of the team’s former Mazda RX-8 program in the GRAND-AM Rolex Series GT class.
His co-driver for the year is Tristan Nunez, who moves over from the sister No. 07 car to the No. 70 this season.
Nunez, only 19, has been part of the SKYACTIV-D development since the start, having joined the Sylvain Tremblay-led program with the GX car in 2013.
“You don’t know where the time went,” Nunez said. “It all happened so quickly.
“But you do have to think back and how realize how patient we were at the time. We couldn’t make mistakes. That focus helped brings the development curve up so quickly.”
The trying years of 2013 and 2014 have been replaced by optimism in 2015 with the performance gains.
Both drivers have matured as well, Bomarito from the young man to now the old sage, and Nunez from precocious rookie to key cog in the development program along with the full-season No. 07 drivers, Joel Miller and Tom Long.
“It’s really funny how it changes,” Bomarito said. “I remember when I was in his shoes, a bit older at the time, but I was the ‘young guy’ being mentored by Sylvain, Nick Ham and Dave Haskell helping me along.
“Now I feel a bit old, but next to Tristan I feel really old! The roles are reversed. But there are areas I can learn from him.
“He, Joel and Tom really brought this program to where it is now – those guys did the hard work. We have similar heights and personalities, and we’re matched up well.”
Nunez, who adjusts from driving with Miller for two years to now driving with the near-GTLM class champion of a year ago, described his maturation process.
“As far as maturing goes, it’s been hard,” he said. “In Prototype Lites and Skip Barber, winning was all that mattered, and that’s how you progress through the Mazda ladder.
“Then you go into a program like this where it isn’t about winning. It’s about what’s best for the team, and not best for yourself. You have to learn how to maximize teamwork, and that’s something you had to mature on.”
There were moments where Mazda stood out in 2014 – Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca stands out given it’s a downforce, not power-heavy track.
Given that, both Bomarito and Nunez are optimistic this year will see further gains throughout the year at every passing race, starting at Daytona.
“Mazda Raceway was the perfect example,” Nunez said. “We were right there until the unfortunate thing for Joel. Last year here versus now, it’s night and day. Seeing that and where we are now, it’s so satisfying.”
Added Bomarito, “I don’t want to wish the year away, but I can’t wait to see where we are a year from now.”