Against all odds: How Mazda earned its perfect IMSA swansong
The Mazda RT24-P came from three laps down to win its last IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race, the 2021 Petit Le Mans. Harry Tincknell, Oliver Jarvis and Jonathan Bomarito reflect on a thrilling race and the end of a chapter in their careers. By David Malsher-Lopez.
Last Saturday, the beautiful #55, bedecked with slogans reading “Thank You Mazda Fans” a the signatures of well-wishers, crossed the finish line just three seconds ahead of its nearest competitor after 10 hours around Road Atlanta, one of the world’s most daunting tracks. The result clinched third in the championship for Jarvis and Tincknell, ensured their endurance driver Bomarito has now won all four of IMSA’s endurance classics, and claimed a seventh DPi win for the Mazda brand.
No, it never did achieve a championship or a Rolex 24 Hours, so it doesn’t truly belong with the Cadillac DPi-V.R and Acura ARX-05 in terms of reputation. But from where it started to where it ended up, largely thanks to the work of Multimatic Motorsports, it will be remembered with fondness by all who witnessed it in action.
Tincknell started from the front row, just 0.015sec slower in qualifying than the pole-winning Action Express Racing Cadillac, and made his first pitstop from second place before his rivals – and just before a first full-course caution, so he was able to return to the pits with the rest of the DPi cars and take on a splash of fuel and return to the fray while the others were getting a full service. Thus he emerged in front, and that was arguably the last slice of good fortune the team would receive.
Until just past the three-hour mark, the Mazda was in the thick of the action – indeed, the whole DPi class was rarely covered by more than 18sec – but just after the third hour, when Bomarito pitted from the lead and handed over to Jarvis, the little two-liter four-cylinder turbo started misfiring. From the pitwall, the team diagnosed the problem over the next three laps so that when Jarvis pitted, the team knew how to remedy the issue – replace a faulty spark plug. With the race being under green conditions and the lap being just 2.54-miles long – around 72sec – the team had still lost three laps, and the position looked hopeless.
But the next full course yellow came barely 30mins later, and the Mazda remained out while its rivals pitted, thereby claiming back one lap before pitting and getting back on strategy… albeit two laps down. The restart was a mess thanks to a seven-car shunt in the GT classes, so Multimatic called Jarvis in again, to clear out debris from the front splitter.
Then, responding to an incident soon after half-distance, Jarvis was called in again before the track went yellow, so Tincknell was able to emerge just ahead of the class leader who had been slowed by the Safety Car, and so he cruised around to the back of the field and gained back another lap. Then when the pits opened for the Prototypes and they all pitted, the Mazda was back on the lead lap.
IMSA then split the field by class as usual for the restart, so with approximately 4h30m to go Tincknell was seventh and onto the tail of the #48 Cadillac which he out accelerated on the restart, and soon followed this with a pass on the #10 Wayne Taylor Racing Acura, then on the #5 JDC Miller Motorsports Cadillac.
Multimatic short-filled the Mazda at the next stop so that Bomarito emerged in third, before handing over to Jarvis who dropped to fifth as others short-filled, before climbing back up to third with 1h15m left. That’s when Jarvis handed back to Tincknell for the final two stints. The Briton appeared able to match the #31 AXR Caddy for pace, but getting close enough to pass appeared another matter, especially with ex-F1 driver Felipe Nasr in the cockpit. The Brazilian knows how to hold off other cars without blatantly blocking.
Due to earlier short-fills, Tincknell had to take on more fuel than the Cadillac so left pitlane five seconds behind and also just behind the #10 WTR Acura, but Ricky Taylor made a minor error that allowed the Mazda through, and Tincknell pulled onto the tail of the leader once more. As they approached traffic in Turn 6, with 22mins remaining, Nasr had to hesitate, Tincknell fired the #55 down the inside and Nasr couldn’t get back on the throttle quick enough on corner exit to defend as there was now a Porsche 911 in his way. The Mazda was into the lead.
Despite more nail-biting moments in traffic over the closing laps, with Nasr occasionally drawing almost within half a second of the Mazda, Tincknell held on, survived a rub with the #4 Corvette, and won. Nasr fended off Taylor to win the championship for AXR, despite a brave last-ditch lunge by the WTR driver at Turn 10 on the final lap.
Multimatic Motorsports boss, Larry Holt said afterward: “It’s not often that I’m lost for words but I don’t really know what to say. I’m feeling quite emotional as it’s the last time we’ll campaign the Mazda and it just won a legendary endurance race. It’s hard to take in.
“We wear the Mazda “Never Stop Challenging” reference on our T-shirts and it has never been realized stronger than here in Atlanta. It looked pretty bleak when we were almost four laps down just three hours in but not one member of the team thought that it wasn’t still possible to challenge for a win, and so it was.
Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images
“The pit stops were outstanding, the engineering and strategy calls were impeccable and our drivers got their heads down and dealt with the traffic and endless restarts with calm and calculated aggression.
“Our pace never faltered and Harry’s last stint will go down in the Multimatic Motorsports history books as a top-five drive. I would also suggest that this win just went to the top of our all-time biggest accomplishments list.
“Thanks Charlie [Cadieux, principal], Leena [Gade, race engineer/dynamics manager], Stephen Charsley [manager] and every single member of the organization. You guys made that magic happen.
“And finally, thank you to our partners, Mazda, for the trust and support you have given us over the past years. It’s why we have always been so motivated to win with the RT24-P.”
Tincknell, 30, is a Multimatic driver and will doubtless find plenty of work next year, even if none of it can be confirmed yet. Jarvis, 37, and Bomarito, 39, will be full-time IMSA drivers in 2022 – watch this space! – but all three brought something special to the Mazda team. Still tired, still jubilant but in reflective mood on the Monday morning, each spoke to Motorsport.com.
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images
“Mazda’s slogan is “Never Stop Challenging” and we definitely came good on that promise in the race. It was a heart-in-mouth moment when Oli went out and said it’s not got any power. You think, ‘Oh no, this could be all over,’ and obviously it’s not the way you want the program to close out.
“But as much as the race was billed as Mazda’s last race at this level, within the team there wasn’t any chat about that. Everyone was just treating it like another race which is ideal because you really don’t want to be adding any extra pressure to yourselves. And it was clear thinking by the team to make Oli stay out – albeit seven or eight seconds off the pace – while they worked out what the problem was and get the tools ready to fix it, that ultimately save our race. It meant he came in and ‘only’ lost three laps, which with six hours to go is still tough. But they did a fantastic job on the engineering stand to navigate the strategy and get those laps back in record time.
“We had some luck with the timing of our first stop, because we pitted with damage to our left-rear tire just before the first caution, because that move ultimately put us in the lead after everyone else pitted, and so after the restart we could pull away in the clean air, which made a difference to everyone I think. Anyone who hit the front benefited from the clean air and could pull a bit of a gap.
“The #31 Cadillac was super-strong, but we closed on him in the penultimate stint, and I wasn’t aware of our relative fuel situation – that we needed quite a bit more – and so I came in right behind him but I was still stationary when I saw him leaving the pits! I was thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got it all to do again now.’ I was taking big risks on my out laps, an area where we’re a bit weaker than the Cadillacs because we’re gentler on tires but it takes us a while to warm them up.
“This time we’d set the car up to be very fast but by the end of the stint, I wouldn’t say we were just hanging on but whereas we’re normally super-strong at the end of a stint, this time we were using the juice of the tire a bit earlier, so I had no option but just to go flat out from the start of the stint and hope the tire holds on.
“The whole week I’d been thinking about where do you make passes around this track? In a DPi car, it’s very hard at Road Atlanta, and at Turn 7 it’s actually hard to even pass a GT car there because you’ve taken so much speed off for Turn 6, and then you have to make a big lunge to get it done into T7. You have to go for it 110 percent, because if you go in at only 90 percent, it results in a crash every single time.
“Once I caught Felipe, I knew in the back of his mind was fighting for the championship, beating the #10 [Wayne Taylor Racing Acura]. We’d had a conversation on the grid beforehand, talking about the start, so I knew his goal was the title and he knew I had a lot less to lose than he did, just going for the victory. So although it was a big lunge, I knew he’d give me just enough room, and after that it was just a case of navigating the traffic, the ebbs and flows.
“I love Road Atlanta for that, the traffic can go with you and against you. But once I was past I was confident I could hold on and was just willing myself for the last 10 laps not to think about anything else except the next corner, not believe it’s won until the checkered flag, and just keep concentrating. You know how it is, you can pull a two- or three-second gap and then catch a GT battle at the wrong parts of the track and suddenly your advantage is all gone.
“But I was ultra-focused all weekend and I was just determined to go out on a high. Jonathan and I have been in the same car for four years now, we’ve come a long way together, and so has the team, from when I did my first straight-line test in the UK. It’s gone from uncompetitive and unreliable to winning three of the biggest races in America in the space of 12 months – Sebring 12 Hours, Watkins Glen 6 Hours and Petit Le Mans. It was mega, a real culmination of all that effort from Multimatic, AER and Mazda. Like I say, we didn’t put extra pressure on ourselves from it being our last race together, but looking back now it’s nice that we had that ultimate high.
“It was satisfying personally for me because I’d been so laser-focused all week, and because Felipe is one of the best drivers I’ve ever raced against. To go toe-to-toe with him and win Petit in the last 20 minutes after 10 hours of racing is great. But obviously it’s down to the team, Olly and JB to have got me in that position to go for it.
“And it was another classic close finish that we’ve got used to seeing in IMSA, even at the end of these really long races, like at Sebring this year [where the Mazda finished second in a cluster of four cars covered by 5.3sec]. But this one was very different for us as a team. We led so much of Sebring and were at the sharp end all the way through but never really had the best pace – we were just smart tactically on the engineering stand and on track. But at Road Atlanta, we had really good pace but were coming from so far behind. I’d say Sebring we were on the defensive but had good track position, whereas at Petit we didn’t have track position for the middle portion of the race but we were very much on the attack, with everything to gain and nothing much to lose.
“Just as the cool temperatures seem to help the naturally aspirated engines in the Cadillacs, we also gain speed – it seems to suit our turbo. JB did two or three days in the simulator, and we put some of his findings to work in the test we ran at Road Atlanta three weeks ago. Certainly we came with a better package than we had at that track last year, and better than we had at Sebring. We were down compared to the Caddys and Acuras off Turn 7 and T10b in terms of traction and driveability, but we were so fast in other parts of the track it kinda of made up for that. It did mean that we were vulnerable in traffic situations, but that’s always been a slight weakness of the Mazda.
“So that’s the challenge, trying to time where you catch the GT and LMP3 cars. I love handling traffic, using it to make the difference, and that’s how I got from seventh to fourth in my second stint, using traffic to time my passes on our rivals. But of course there are also plenty of heart-in-mouth moments wondering if the guys in the other classes have seen you and recognized it’s a faster car coming through.
"I definitely think my experience in GTs is a huge positive in understanding where the drivers are putting their cars on the track to let you past, and knowing roughly what their cars are capable of. And obviously there are a lot of very good drivers in the GTs that know exactly how to let you through without losing time themselves.
“But at the end of the day, it’s always going to be super-intense having 42 other cars on a 2.5-mile track, even though quite a few of them had gone by the end. So it was such a relief, coming out of Turn 7 on the last lap and seeing nothing but darkness ahead. Perfect. I said to Leena, ‘Confirm last lap?’ and she said, ‘Copy last lap.’ And it’s one of the most beautiful radio messages I’ve ever received! Clear track ahead, two-second lead, two corners to go…”
Bomarito and Tincknell have raced together and won together for four years.
Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images
“It says a lot that Petit Le Mans has reached such a level of prestige after ‘only’ 24 years that we think of it as one of the big events you absolutely want to win as a sportscar driver. The others that you think of like that have a heritage that goes back to the 1950s and ’60s, whereas the first Petit was as recent as 1998. I’m sure part of the cachet is the name – including ‘Le Mans’ in it was genius! – and part of it, of course, is the fact it’s 10 hours long. And then another part is the nature of Road Atlanta: it’s so satisfying to drive around flat out and so intense when you’re lapping cars – especially when you have as many as we had last weekend.
“Anyway, it all meant that I really wanted to get this one on my résumé. We won the GT class in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2010 driving the Mazda RX-8, and then with the RT24-P I’ve been lucky enough to be in the winning car at two Watkins Glen 6 Hours, a Sebring 12 Hours and now Petit Le Mans. So it’s nice to nail the four big ones all with Mazda.
“The circumstances of this one though… Man, I was bummed getting out of the car after my first stint, handing over to Olly and then he immediately radios that he’s got a misfire and he’s losing power. Everything had been fine in my stint. So that was a punch in the stomach. But the team were great – they got it fixed way quicker than I thought they would – so we only lost three laps despite it being green flag conditions. And then they also called it right with how to play the yellows so we got all three laps back in about two hours! I could hardly believe it. Great strategic thinking from the pitwall.
“Harry’s right, though: the cool air benefits us as well as the Cadillacs – our car has never liked to run hot. But actually, I think all the cars benefited from it being so cold – they all make more power and downforce the cooler it gets, so I don’t think we saw a real shift in who had the upper hand over the 10 hours. So for our car, I wouldn’t say there’s one part of the track where we really stood out, but I think we were right up there everywhere, except maybe exiting Turn 7, but what we lost there we could gain on Turns 3 and 5. The car handled well in the high-speed stuff and we were stable under braking, so overall, the crucial thing was that the car was better than it had been the last time we raced at Road Atlanta.
“The new Multimatic simulator in Detroit was a big help. We tested at the track three weeks before the race and it was around 80degF, and we were all saying to each other, ‘Well, how useful is this gonna be? It’s going to be cooler than this – and much cooler than normal at Petit, because it ran so late this year, the clocks will have gone back an hour, so a lot of the race will be held after sunset this year…’
“So we went back to the sim and you can program in the ambient temperature – we started off at 80degF – and then we gradually decreased it, and monitored how that affected the engine, and figured out how much you want to then adjust downforce levels, ride heights, tire pressures and so on. You aren’t looking to optimize it for one lap, because you want to take into account fuel weight at start, middle and end of a stint, tire deg from the start of a stint to the end, so you’re looking for the best balance across a stint length – you optimize the compromise, as it were.
“As things turned out, the last few hours of the race were even cooler than the predicted temperatures we’d programed into the sim, but by then we had a fair idea of what needed to be done for every few degrees the temperature dropped, so we were able to keep the car in the window, and the ride-height and downforce package we ran was actually very similar to what we’d figured out in Multimatic’s sim. Pretty remarkable how well the virtual world can help in the real world.
“But nothing you do on the sim can accurately represent the intensity level of racing at Road Atlanta with 40 other cars there. You’ll have seen after a yellow, whoever the leader was – including us – would pull a five, six, seven second gap at the front because for once he actually had clean air. And then after five laps he’d just be in the thick of the GTD traffic and picking his places to make a pass. It’s amazing how rare it is to actually get a chance to lay down your ideal lap, on such a fast but short track. There’s always someone to pass, usually multiple people. It’s just so mentally demanding.
“Pulling onto the back straight, where you think you might give your mind a rest for two seconds, you’re weaving through traffic at times, and you’re having to watch so carefully because the closing rate on the GTDs is huge. There’s also a wide spread of talent in the Pro-Am categories like GTD, LMP3, LMP2 and you don’t know if it’s the Am or the Pro in the car at the time, so they don’t all react to your approach in the same way, they don’t all move over at the same place. You’re constantly thinking about ways to avoid a situation if the car you’re passing suddenly doesn’t behave in the way you expected it to.
“Well as you know Road Atlanta isn’t wide like Sebring or Daytona and doesn’t have as many straights, so if you’re committed to charging flat-out because that’s the only way you’re going to win because the battle’s so tight, but you’re also trying to leave a bit of margin for errors from much slower cars… I think that probably makes it the most challenging IMSA race of the year.
“And I think the raceability of our car makes it just that little bit harder in terms of timing our lapping maneuvers. Harry and Olly probably mentioned it too. Turn 7 is just tight enough to drop us outside our torque band, so if we get held up going into the corner and there’s a Caddy right behind us so it’s just a straight-up drag race out of the corner down to Turn 10, then we’re going down a position. But that’s just a quirk of the car, and it had other strong points like how gentle it could be on tires, so we’d be fast at the end of stints.
“Honestly, looking back on the whole RT24-P project, looking at what it was and what it became from SpeedSource, to Team Joest and now Multimatic, I think we saw it become a really good car. I think that the upheavals, the tough times, those two winless seasons in 2017 and ’18, they all made the wins, the happy times, taste that bit sweeter.
“I’m super-thankful for the 11 years I did with Mazda as a factory driver, because that’s a great position to be in. I got to race alongside some great drivers, worked with some incredible people, and I liked playing my part in helping them keep evolving the car. Racing with Harry, Olly and before that Tristan [Nunez] was great fun and so harmonious. We really did all feel we were racing for a manufacturer and that we were working toward a common goal.
“Sure, I wish we could have run the RT24-P for the final year of DPi because it was a genuine championship contender. But it wasn’t to be, and we move on, and for the time we all had working together, I can only say I’m honestly very grateful.”
Jarvis was unlucky not to win more than one race for Mazda over 2019 and 2020, but was exceptionally consistent and quick this year, and his third place in the championship was well earned.
Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images
“When you look at how close the DPi cars are in overall pace – notwithstanding their characteristics that give them strengths and weaknesses in various areas at various tracks – you have to say it’s quite incredible to go three laps down, and come back and win the race. I was exiting Turn 7 on my first lap of the race when it misfired and wasn’t pulling properly, and it felt very similar to an issue we had in 2019 that cost us a win then. But the team did the smart thing of leaving me a out a couple of laps while they diagnosed the problem so we didn’t lose even more time on pit road, and then they called me in, and it was a failed electrode on one of the spark plugs.
“We’ve had our fair share of engine issues over the last four years, and also been unlucky – like getting that puncture at Sebring last year while we were leading with 20 minutes to go. We had a brake issue in the short Road Atlanta race last year, got taken out of the race exiting pitlane last year at Petit… so yeah, this time I was thinking, ‘Oh no, not again!’ But this time the problem was a curable one, the team did well to not only fix it but also get us back on the lead lap in record time, and the rest is history.
“I stand by that quote from back in April, when I said that I’d be happy with just collecting podiums all year if it meant we won the championship. But given that we weren’t quite able to do that and that we went into last weekend knowing that we couldn’t win the championship, I’d say that being able to look back at victories in the Watkins Glen 6 Hours and Petit Le Mans was pretty sweet compensation. Petit is such a big race, not just for us as drivers but also for Mazda – it’s one of the major endurance races in the world, and you want to have that win on your CV. It was an amazing feeling, I must say.
“It would have been great to pick up the championship trophy too, but unfortunately although the car has a lot of strengths, throughout a season there are areas where it lacks a bit of speed. It certainly struggles on certain types of track and that’s ultimately what cost us the shot at the championship. Anywhere with slow corners, and not many fast corners to compensate, were problematic for us. So Detroit wasn’t great, and Long Beach was very difficult – exiting that final hairpin onto the front straight, we would lose three or four tenths to the Caddy. I think it was Larry who said to you that a new engine management system would have been required to fix that issue, and that wasn’t going to happen in the car’s final year.
“That’s actually why I think last year, with the way COVID-19 eliminated Long Beach and Detroit from the schedule, which led to us having two races at Daytona and two at Road Atlanta, was theoretically probably Mazda’s best shot at the championship. I know everyone can point to bad luck over the course of a championship, but I do believe it was purely bad luck that took us out of contention, and in terms of the IMSA calendar modifications caused by the pandemic, there was a higher proportion of tracks that suited our car’s characteristics in 2020 than in 2021.
“That said, there were tracks where we were stronger this year than last year, and Road Atlanta last week was one such. It was quite a strange weekend if you were judging the DPi cars’ relative performance overall. Off the back of Long Beach and Laguna Seca where we struggled [fifth in both], if I’m totally honest we went to Petit expecting to be a couple of tenths off the outright pace. But I think the colder temperatures helped us because the extra cooling that gives our turbo was a benefit.
“Then you looked at Meyer Shank Racing Acura which hit the front and pulled away at one point, and then Wayne Taylor Racing Acura struggled for much of the weekend and then suddenly was right there at a couple of points in the race, including the end. It seemed like almost everyone had their moments, and anyone who was in front could open up a gap of six or seven seconds. I know we normally say it doesn’t matter where you start in such a long endurance race, but it felt last Saturday that wasn’t necessarily true, and that track position was king at times.
“And for us this was particularly true because our slight deficit in raceability, in terms of losing momentum behind GT cars if we caught them at the wrong part of the track, meant that we needed to pull an advantage on the opposition whenever we could find a clear track, because we knew they’d be right back on our tail if we got held up and then they might then be able to outaccelerate us. And this year, with that many cars on track, it was difficult. It was the craziest endurance race I’ve ever been part of. There were 10 more cars than usual, and the majority of their drivers were guys who’d never done this race before and maybe hadn’t done a night race where so little of the track is lit.
“So the traffic we came across was… Well, I was about to say, ‘the worst’ but actually maybe it was the best thing for the race! It helped make the race. As a DPi driver, you could build a gap over the nearest car behind, but if you caught the wrong car at the wrong place – exiting the pitlane or going down through the Esses, the three or four second margin you built up could disappear in two corners! So you always needed that buffer to the guy behind and you could only afford to get unlucky with the traffic once.
“Another of our car’s characteristics is that it’s quite kind to the tires, but it takes longer than the Cadillacs in particular at getting the rubber up to fully operational temperature. Obviously that was a big concern of ours given how late in the year the race was and therefore how much lower the ambient temperature was, so one of the things we focused on in that test three weeks before the race was tire warm-up, and to not worry so much about tire performance at the end of a stint. If that means we lost a tenth or two more per lap, that was worth it just to make sure we didn’t lose three seconds and track position on our out-laps.
“I think you saw that revised approach pay off for us, in that, yes, getting the tires up to temperature was bad for us but we weren’t any worse than the opposition. I passed Ricky [Taylor, WTR Acura] at Turn 7 because he was struggling on an out-lap and I had pitted I think one lap before. Basically, all the cars were a handful on cold tires in those cool conditions. I noticed that several of the ‘third drivers’ brought in for the enduros did less running than usual, and I assume a lot of that was because they simply have less experience than the full-time IMSA drivers, so they struggle more when the cars’ handling gets tricky. I’ve thought that was one of our strengths this year in going down to one car – our third driver was Jonathan, and none of us see JB as the ‘third man’. He’s part of the team, he was a fulltimer in this car for four years, so he just picks up where he left off, jumps in and gets the job done.
“Actually I think one of the reasons we won the race was that, OK, we had car problems, but there were no mistakes on the driving side – no offs, no major contacts with other cars, no penalties. It was very satisfying – we did our jobs in the cockpit, and the team was just amazing at thinking on their feet, dealing with a mechanical crisis without panicking. It was a great note to end on. There was a lot of talk about giving the program the send-off it deserved, but it’s one thing to say it, another one to actually do it – and from three laps down! We’ve won races in the past when I think we can honestly say we had a fairly favorable BoP, whereas I think this year we were quite hard done by, and so no one can deny we deserved that Petit win. At the end of the race, there was us, a Cadillac and an Acura, basically able to lap within a tenth of each other, and it was us who emerged on top because we got everything right.
“When I look back at our four years together, it won’t just be the wins I think about: it’s where we were at the start of 2018 to where we ended up. My first test with the Mazda, we were at Sebring for two days, and I think I ran 10 laps, and I’m not sure Harry even drove the car! That’s how bad reliability was. And then even a year later, I stuck it on pole at Daytona, but after qualifying when the media were speaking to the lead drivers in other teams about prospects for the race, our rivals wouldn’t even mention Mazda – they assumed we weren’t going to make it through the 24 hours.
"To then look at 2021, where in the four longest races we score podiums at Daytona and Sebring, and win Watkins Glen and Petit Le Mans – that car has run 52 hours and scored two victories, a second and a third! And I don’t think the drivers can take much credit for that – it’s the result of blood, sweat and tears behind the scenes from not just Multimatic and AER, but also Mazda themselves, and before Multimatic, Team Joest. It’s been amazing to watch that progression, and to be part of it.”
Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images
Nasr knew Taylor wouldn’t make corner in final-lap lunge
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