“Basically the car is just too heavy,” he shrugs, “too heavy to handle and too heavy to pull out of the slow corners. Getting through the Dunlop Chicane is a real struggle. Every time I do it I’m surprised to come out the other side. We chose the right set-up, but need more speed.”
It’s not just down to the opposition’s problems, as Mazda’s preparation has also been superb. The signs were there last year, when designer Nigel Stroud upgraded to a composite tub, and a punchy four-rotor engine was introduced. The team also backed up its regular squad of drivers with three single-seater hotshots, who were under orders to thrash the thing to bits.
Herbert, Bertrand Gachot and Volker Weidler did exactly that, and 12 months on, Mazda has made improvements, adding carbon brakes to the package. The same three drivers returned, and their charging style has made the difference between winning and losing.
Ohashi is congratulated by Tom Walkinshaw. The Scot has a lot of respect for his Japanese colleague; a few years ago, TWR made its first steps in sportscar racing in partnership with Mazdaspeed, and both have come a long way.
Weidler and Gachot are pushed by the mob down to the new podium, part of the ultra modern pit complex. There’s no sign of Johnny, and word comes through that he is having medical treatment. Celebrations continue without him, the Mazda pair flanked by two sets of bemused Jaguar drivers.
It’s a sweet moment for the winners. Gachot’s career is on the up; he’s just scored points for the new Jordan team at the Canadian GP. He didn’t enjoy Le Mans last year, but as this race has progressed, his motivation has increased.
Few notice, unless they’ve studied lap times, but Weidler has been the anchorman. A disastrous year in F1 trying to pre-qualify the Rial appeared to finish him off, but he’s fighting back in Japanese F3000. Mazda’s top brass enjoy their podium moment, and finally the national anthems and champagne spraying are over. The winning drivers enter the 24 press room for a light-hearted Q&A with the media, but there’s still no sign of Johnny. When proceedings break up, I doorstep Gachot. Was he surprised to win?