Here’s a stunner: Mazda is upping its motorsports program in 2014, fielding a two-car Le Mans Prototype team instead of a factory-backed Mazda 6 in the GT Daytona class. The diesel-powered Lola made its first venture onto an American racetrack during a secret test at Sebring International Raceway on Oct. 29-30, and only Autoweek was there as SpeedSource owner Sylvain Tremblay took some tentative, then some very fast, laps around the historic circuit.
The car will contest the entire 2014 Tudor United SportsCar Championship, returning in 2015 with one additional race: the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be such a surprise; it is, after all, simply fulfilling a forgotten promise Mazda made to its racers, fans and the company itself at Le Mans on June 16, 2012.
For a company as small as Mazda, it was a blockbuster announcement back then: With the rotary-engine Mazda RX-8 going out of production, the company needed something else to race. So at a press conference at the 80th 24 Hours of Le Mans in France — a race Mazda won outright in 1991 with its famous rotary-powered 787B prototype — the company said it would back not one, but two, major racing initiatives in 2013.
First, a racing version of the 2.2-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder Skyactiv-D clean diesel would power an LMP2 race car in the American Le Mans Series, as well as return to the 24 Hours. Actor/driver Patrick Dempsey and his group would lead the top team, and Mazda even trotted out a new Lola chassis that looked ready to roll. The company would sell the engine to other teams, too.
Second, Mazda would back a Grand-Am Rolex SportsCar Series car to replace the RX-8. Later it announced it would race a version of the Mazda 6 sedan, also 2.2-liter diesel powered; it would run in the all-new GX class Grand-Am created to attract entries that really didn’t fit into the sleeker GT class. Longtime Mazda partner SpeedSource would lead both the LMP2 and GX cars, as well as the engine program. Coral Springs, Fla.-based SpeedSource is owned by driver and team manager Tremblay. If that seems ambitious for a relatively small race team, you haven’t been to SpeedSource’s shop — it rivals a Roger Penske-built facility in size, scope and equipment. Even so, big problems emerged, including the unexpected ALMS/Grand-Am merger.
News of the merger shut down ALMS prototype development because no one knew what would be legal to race in 2014 when the merger went into effect. Plus, Lola went out of business. So overnight, Mazda’s LMP2 program was dead. Or so thought everyone outside Mazda’s top management.
Meanwhile, the GX program proceeded but was way behind schedule. SpeedSource didn’t even get body parts until a few weeks before the season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona, the car’s debut. Mazda’s Japanese performance engineers, busy with other projects, left almost all development to Mazda USA and Tremblay, and they had zero experience with diesels. Multiple Mazda 6s made the grid at the Rolex 24, but for various reasons — such as problems with harmonics, causing fuel rails to fail — every Mazda 6 was out of the race even before night fell.
This, Tremblay says now, “turned out to be a good thing. It showed Japan that we needed help. Had we finished seventh or eighth, they might have just left us alone to do the best we could. But Daytona really pushed them into action.”
And while the car had a few teething problems over the rest of the season, there were no more dedicated engine failures, and the Mazda 6 won the GX manufacturers’ championship. But then another detour: In combining the ALMS and Grand-Am grids, the new series — the Tudor United SportsCar Championship — was forced to eliminate two classes: LMP1 and GX. The GX Mazdas would be allowed to join the “GT Daytona” class, but Mazda would need to find about 50 additional hp beyond the GX’s 400. Not a problem, Tremblay said. During original development, he always anticipated the Mazda 6 would run in the GT class, before Grand-Am began the GX segment.
So that was the plan, publicly, for 2014: a more powerful Mazda 6 for United SportsCar’s GT Daytona class; but behind the scenes, Mazda never gave up on the prototype, and at the end of October, at the aforementioned exclusive test, Mazda rolled out a brand-new Lola prototype with a moderately modified 2.2-liter turbocharged diesel in the back. Mazda will offer the production version of this engine in the road-going 6 in the U.S., starting in March or April.
That original Lola-Mazda displayed at Le Mans in 2012 will become a show car. And when the green flag falls at the Rolex 24 in January, Mazda and SpeedSource will have two LMP2 cars on the grid. Mazda and Tremblay hope some customer teams might campaign the Mazda 6 in GT Daytona, too, but right now, the emphasis is on the LMP2 car.
The car being tested at Sebring was assembled by Multimatic, the Canadian company that took over the shuttered Lola. (John Doonan, Mazda’s motorsports director, says the plan is to eventually homologate the chassis as a Mazda, not a Lola.) With Tremblay behind the wheel, the car looked sinister and at full song sounded better than any other diesel we’ve heard, until a broken belt ended the day’s testing as sunset began. While output is about 450 hp, the light weight “really makes it blast out of the corners,” Tremblay offers. The six-speed Xtrac transmission is a bit balky, as is clutch action, but each just needs development — the company’s transmissions have worked quite well on Audi’s dominant LMP1 diesels over the years.
As for the engine, the twin Garrett compound turbochargers have been altered slightly. The engine sits marginally lower, too, resulting in a new billet bottom that SpeedSource cast. As with the Mazda 6, more than half the parts, including the block, are from the production bin. One major change, though: Steel pistons will replace the aluminum units used last year — steel simply holds up better during the longer endurance races. And while steel is heavier, Tremblay says the steel pistons are much smaller than the aluminum units.
So what will be the major challenge? Managing harmonics, according to Tremblay. Otherwise the car, the transaxle and the other parts are proven pieces other manufacturers use.
Still unconfirmed, though, are the drivers. Mazda has done a remarkable job with its ladder system in North America, recruiting young drivers. Tremblay will definitely drive and will likely oversee some of those graduates who have modest experience in prototype cars but have shown a level of talent that can’t be discounted. The full-season driver lineups will likely be two full-time Mazda drivers in each car, with an additional driver added for the endurance races. Mazda/SpeedSource’s 2013 GX-program driver roster included Tremblay, Tristan Nunez, Tom Long and Joel Miller.
Why prototype and why diesel? Doonan says competing at a top level using technology that translates to production cars “is critically important to our top management in Japan. It’s ambitious, but it’s the right thing to do.”
Mazda will keep testing the prototype privately, skipping the public November tests at Sebring and Daytona, but will be at the “Roar Before the 24,” United SportsCar’s official pre-Rolex 24 test at Daytona on Jan. 3-5, with the race taking the green flag on Jan. 25.
“We can’t wait to show what this little company can do,” Doonan says.
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