Reborn in the USA

Behind the fanfare at Daytona, the first chapter of a new story was just beginning: the return of Joest

Fifty years ago Vic Elford was leading a trio of Porsche 907s across the line on Daytona’s banking, just a week after he had won the Monte Carlo Rally. Quick Vic was soon winning the Targa Florio, and weeks later he finished fourth on his Grand Prix debut. Without any semblance of a fuss.

Fast forward half a century and a Formula 1 driver contesting a sports car race creates such a media whirlwind that the 2018 Rolex 24 at Daytona would have been more appropriately named the 24 Hours of Alonso.

Every step taken, word uttered, smile he shot was beamed around the world. The buzz was incessant.

Meanwhile, one of the most successful endurance racing teams the world has known was starting afresh, without anyone batting an eyelid. Team Joest of Audi and Porsche fame was back, but now partnered with Mazda.

At any other race this phoenix-like return would have been the star attraction. But Alonso put paid to that. He even put America’s own team – Penske – in the shade.

The spotlight shining elsewhere turned out to be a blessing, when both Mazdas (running numbers 55 and 77) were struck down with niggling problems before no55 was barbecued at the international hairpin when its exhaust caught fire as the sun was rising. “Challenging” and “taking the positives” was the official – predictable – party line.

Yet whatever happened at Daytona in January was immaterial. For there was very nearly no more Team Joest at all, despite those 15 Le Mans wins in four decades. This is a team, remember, that carried the flag for Audi for so many years. Together they dominated, revolutionised and innovated at Le Mans.

Before that, Joest had beaten the factory Porsches at their height of the mid-80s with Paolo Barilla, Klaus Ludwig and ‘John Winter’, a year after winning the ‘indie’ Le Mans when the Rothmans Porsches boycotted. A works scalp followed with the WSC-95, when the factory attention switched to 911 GT1s.

It was only after a chance meeting, set up through a mutual friend of John Doonan, director of motor sports for Mazda North America, and Joest director Ralf Jüttner that the partnership was formed and Joest’s future was secured.

“It was right here in Daytona,” says Reinhold Joest’s right-hand man Jüttner. “I came over to have some discussions regarding a Daytona Prototype international programme, originally with teams that don’t currently have a DPi: Toyota, AMG, lots of them. Most haven’t actually materialised yet. We thought it was going to be difficult in the short term because we needed a programme for 2018. Latest. We couldn’t afford two years doing nothing.

“I then received a call from a lady I know very well who said ‘I heard you are at Daytona, will you have time to meet someone?’ That was the first time I met John Doonan; we had a meeting in their hospitality, maybe only 20 minutes.

“I didn’t have Mazda on my radar; they had a programme already running [with SpeedSource]. They had a team, a car; everything. But in that meeting I learned they were making some big changes. At the end, the question was: does it make sense to meet again? We agreed; two weeks later they came to Germany to look at our shop, met Mr Joest for the first time, and from the very beginning there was just this chemistry. It went pretty quickly from then on.”

It was eventually announced to the world in July, with the first shakedown as late as October – just weeks before official IMSA 2018 testing began.

When the deal was struck, Team Joest had rather hit a brick wall. Audi had pulled the plug on its LMP1 programme at the height of dieselgate and Joest was at a dead stop. “Reinhold [Joest] and I both said we will not buy GT cars or two LMP2 cars, look for pay drivers and sponsors and run as a private team. Either we find a proper programme with a manufacturer or we stop. He was old enough. Me? I would have found something for the last years of my working life…”

The elusive Reinhold, an almost mythical figure as he’s so infrequently in front of a camera, microphone or digital recorder, has three podiums at Le Mans to his name as a racer, as well as all those team victories. There was a very real risk he and his eponymous team would have slipped, criminally unnoticed, from motor sport entirely, because nothing was forthcoming in the World Endurance Championship. Nothing from any existing teams, nothing from prospective manufacturers – those very things the ACO and FIA insist are on their way to the WEC.

“There is nobody on the horizon,” Jüttner says, almost incredulously. “There isn’t anybody thinking about going in there.

“For sure, [the ACO and FIA] didn’t like us leaving. Talking to Pierre [Fillon] or even [Gérard] Neveu, who is difficult to convince of any other opinion than his own, they have to accept what we have done. What could we have done? They had to show me something, and they said when Audi quit ‘We’ll help you’, but how could they? Give us £15 million and I can buy an LMP1? They didn’t do that…”

For Mazda in the States, change was evidently needed. A prototype programme in IMSA with Florida-based SpeedSource had yielded little success: in four seasons it had failed to win a race, and rarely troubled the podium – three times in 2017, once in 2016. It was more often off the pace and struggling for reliability.

Young American racer Tristan Nunez, who had made his way through from the grass-roots ranks with Mazda and SpeedSource up to what was then the 2014 United SportsCar Championship, found scant positives: “I never thought in my wildest dreams I would have a factory ride that early in my career,” the 22-year-old says. “I was just happy to be there then, but there’s that competitive nature inside of you that just says ‘God, I just want to be up there at the front competing.’

“It was a blessing in disguise, y’know? I never went to college, so those years were an education for me learning it’s not all sunshine and rainbows at the track.”

Before the Daytona Prototype international category was introduced in 2017, which allows manufacturers to alter the bodywork of existing LMP2s and run their own engines, Mazda and SpeedSource were competing in an ageing Lola chassis, with SkyActiv diesel technology similar to that found in its road cars. The chassis was still based on that built for Aston Martin in 2008.

When LMP2 was revised and DPi was brought in, Mazda chose Riley from the four available P2 chassis manufacturers from which to build its RT24-P. In the back sat a four-cylinder 2-litre turbocharged engine to align with its road car range, because it’s the biggest engine Mazda sells. And when that failed to change the team’s fortunes, Mazda had its “eyes out to put the best pieces of the puzzle together” to rejuvenate the flagging prototype programme, according to Doonan.

“I have a huge respect for SpeedSource,” he adds. “But it’s all about putting ourselves in a position to deliver victories for Mazda and our fans. And when you get the chance to meet someone with the records Joest has, then you don’t pass that up.”

Those previous years in IMSA go against the success of America’s dominant racing manufacturer, when you consider that a startling 55 per cent of all cars racing in the States are said to be Mazdas. And the manufacturer is channelling drivers from the MX- 5 Cup and Formula Ford right through to the world stage in IndyCar and IMSA. Nunez and rising IndyCar star Spencer Pigot are proof of that.

This Mazda by Team Joest partnership is being run and paid for by Mazda North America – “We have the Japanese flag, the US flag and the German flag on the car” John Doonan points out, with Joest also opening an American base.

The Team Joest-developed car is still a Riley chassis, it still resembles a Mazda at first glance thanks to its ’Kodo’ bodywork design, and it still has the same AER-developed powerplant. “The aero, from the front, doesn’t look massively different,” says Jüttner. “There have been big and very successful changes, mainly in the cooling area. It’s not that we have tonnes more downforce or less drag, but we haven’t added drag even though we have bigger radiators, because the car was way off there.

“The suspension has been completely redesigned, with a new spacer and gearbox casting. The dampers and springs are now as you would expect and the suspension stiffness has been improved. The car was overweight by quite a bit last year; fortunately after the ROAR test we had a 15kg break, which we could take out, and we still have three or four kilos of ballast in the car so the weight is where it should be. The cooling is, too.”

The changes have worked, according to the drivers Olly Jarvis, Harry Tincknell and René Rast, who joined Mazda regulars Nunez, Pigot and the experienced Jonathan Bomarito for 2018.

The pace shown at Daytona – between its myriad problems – proved Mazda and Joest have produced a rapid car and even afforded cautiously optimistic smiles to ripple through the garage. It has improved by more than three seconds and even topped opening practice at the 24, but the relevance of that is another matter, with constant accusations of teams sandbagging.

Jüttner says the pace has come from the fact the car is now behaving in the way it should. “Whatever you did to the old car it didn’t change. Now it is reacting to changes the way you would expect. The drivers like the car much more so we are going in the right direction.”

Nunez, who says Mazda is more involved than ever before, is probably best placed to ascertain just how far the RT24-P has come and the influence Joest has had. “You can’t compare the two,” he says, showing ever more bright white teeth through a widening grin.

“Joest is just a whole different calibre of team, and the car feels completely different. It’s hard to see from the outside, but the package is driveable, you have confidence to race it, to attack into the corners, attack in a race situation. I’ve never had more fun driving a race car, and especially because it has the Joest badge on it. It’s a dream come true, and the way car handles is promising for the rest of the season.”

Mazda 77 of Tristan Nunez, Olly Jarvis and René Rast navigates through traffic. Nunez, admits it would be a dream to race at Le Mans with Mazda
Mazda 77 of Tristan Nunez, Olly Jarvis and René Rast navigates through traffic. Nunez, admits it would be a dream to race at Le Mans with Mazda

The next dream for him is to race at Le Mans with Mazda, something that he says will make lifelong friend Derek Bell prouder than his own family.

“Going back to Le Mans would be awesome”, says Doonan, though Jüttner is more reserved. He’s been in and around the ACO more than most and knows the obstacles that lie ahead if the ACO and IMSA are to converge on a common prototype platform.

“The chance to take DPis to Le Mans would have been bigger if Toyota had stopped,” reckons the German. “The ACO could have started from a clean sheet and had an argument to scrap the hybrids. But with Toyota there they can’t do that, it limits the possibilities. That’s bad news for the ACO and the FIA.

“There was a chance for a new order: private LMP1s might have been a good start and it would have been easier to bring in these [DPi] cars. With Toyota still there – don’t get me wrong I don’t blame them – they are in the way. I understand their position and what they are doing, [but] it would have been better for the category if they weren’t.”

One thing is certain: Joest wants to return to its spiritual home in north-western France and knows what it would mean to Mazda.

“Joest and Le Mans is one thing. Mazda is the only Japanese manufacturer to have won Le Mans and is very proud of that. If there’s a chance to go back there without spending $200 million then they would at least have a good look at it.”

Doonan appeared more positive, hopeful even, of taking Mazda back to Le Mans, pointing to the communicative nature of the ACO and WEC with its surveys for fans and teams. Now the organisers need to act on the manufacturers’ advice.

But for the time being, the ACO’s loss is IMSA’s gain. And this season could be a marquee year for the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Not only do you have manufacturer involvement from Cadillac, Nissan, Mazda and Acura, but you have two of the world’s best teams going head to head for the first time in years: Joest vs Penske.

The limelight beckons once again.