Perennial IMSA-underdog Mazda shocked the endurance racing world on Tuesday, revealing a potentially game-changing switch for who will run their Daytona Prototype International (DPi) challenger in the WeatherTech Sportscar Championship.
SpeedSource Race Engineering has been dropped and Joest Racing is being brought on in what can only be seen as a significant power play from the Japanese brand.
When IMSA president Scott Atherton recently said an announcement from two teams were “imminent,” no one expected Mazda to be one of them.
Side note: The other, Penske, announced a return to prototype competition with Honda earlier, proving true one of the rumor mill’s favorite predictions.
But it wasn’t the fact that the partnership was kept under wraps for so long that was surprising, but that a relatively small manufacturer like Mazda had managed to woo the juggernaut behind Audi’s disbanded LMP1 program to the other side of the Atlantic.
Founded in 1978 by former Porsche factory driver Reinhold Joest, Joest Racing tasted success almost immediately, winning throughout the 80s and 90s at the world’s most treacherous endurance races from Daytona to the Nordschleife.
Success would follow in various European championships and at marquee racing events. Then, a partnership with a certain Ingolstadt-based manufacturer would see the team go on a tear, swelling their record at the 24 Hours of Le Mans to include an incredible 15 wins.
Joest Racing is the team behind Audi’s near-bulletproof winning streak in the new millenium. The same team that replaced the entire rear end of their Audi R8 in under 5 minutes at Le Mans. The same team that always built a car strong enough to handle bumps from both their competition and over the course of twelve hours at Sebring International Raceway. The same team that always seemed to have an edge nearly every time they raced.
Perhaps more shocking than Mazda partnering with Joest is that no one else could put together an agreement sooner, after the Dieselgate scandal spelled the end of Audi’s Le Mans program in 2016.
For SpeedSource, it’s the end of being the premier partner of Mazda, and the end of numerous ambitious, but ultimately unsuccessful projects. Their higher profile came in the days of Grand-Am competition, where their RX-8 regularly fought at the front of the field, even winning the GT class of the Daytona 24 Hours in both 2008 and 2010.
Once the wail of the rotary engine sailed off to new pastures, the team transitioned to more experimental efforts with Mazda in IMSA competition, and that’s where success became muted and later, entirely out of reach.
The diesel-powered Mazda6 that debuted in the GX-class was marred by technical issues at launch and later found itself racing against only one other privateer competitor. That class was, perhaps fortunately, cast aside a few years later when the American Le Mans Series merged with the Grand-Am Rolex Series under the banner of the Tudor United SportsCar Championship (now the WeatherTech Sports Car Championship).
Mazda entrusted SpeedSource as they returned to prototype racing with various diesel and gas-powered iterations of the Lola B-series. In that stretch, only a 2016 podium in Detroit was worth celebrating, and it wasn’t a surprise the team went back to the drawing board for a new car in DPi spec for the 2017 season.
The new car, dubbed the Mazda RT24P, had shown pace over the 2017 season, with multiple podiums, and multiple chances at a win. However, it was the small mistakes, and the lack of being able to close the deal, that kept the team off the top step.
The lack of results should have put Mazda’s DPi program under intense scrutiny. Let’s face it, Mazda isn’t large on the world stage, and for a brand constantly dogged by rumors of sales struggles, many brands would see the years and millions spent without a victory as evidence to end their expensive racing excursion.
Maybe, it’s as their corporate tagline suggests, “Driving Matters,” or maybe it was the availability of another group that most likely swayed Mazda’s decision, doubling down on IMSA competition, and putting the right personnel and budget in place to win once again.
For Joest, it’s a chance to get back in the game with manufacturer support, and an already competitive package. Long-term, it might even lay the foundation for a future return to Le Mans, as the health of the FIA’s LMP1 class continues to be up in the air.
For Mazda, it’s the rare chance to see if their brand can truly move to the forefront of endurance racing, and I’m sure IMSA couldn’t be more pleased to see an influx of manufacturers willing to do everything in the spirit of competition and for the allure of victory.