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Hinchcliffe, Mazda Ready To Make Move At 24

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, January 23 2015

The going was tough for Mazda's P2 car a year ago. This year, bigger things are expected.

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

At least SpeedSource Racing and its factory-backed Mazda turbo diesel prototypes didn’t let anybody down in last year’s Rolex 24. Not really. Not even when its two cars failed to finish. The Lola-based P2 cars, with their SKYACTIV technology, were new, they were complicated, they were not battle tested and they were still being cobbled together when they were shipped to Daytona in January of 2014.

Mazda, SpeedSource and drivers will not have the luxury of low expectations when this year’s 24 starts on Saturday. The SKYACTIV program has spent a year developing, testing and racing its cars and after the Mazdas showed big speed and promise in the Roar Before the 24 test earlier in the month, those who compete in, and follow the Tudor United SportsCar Championship series, are expecting plenty.

This is Mazda, after all. A company known for chasing things until it catches them.

Yet IndyCar Series star James Hinchcliffe, who will be co-driving one of the Mazda’s this weekend, waved the caution flag on setting stratospheric expectations for the cars. Yes, he told RacinToday.com during a phone call between video shoots at Daytona on Thursday, this will be Year Two for the cars, but other teams have been developing their stuff for a decade.

“It’s tough to tell,” Hinchcliffe said when asked how where he thought the Mazda’s would be at the end of the race on Sunday. “The first goal here, right now, is obviously to get to the end of the 24. That’s goal No. 1. I

SpeedSource's Mazda prototypes showed they would play with the big boys at the Roar Before the 24.

think in a program like this, that’s developing at the rate that it is, I think that your expectations and your goals have to be kind of a moving goal post. This is very much an evolution. It’s not something that’s going to happen over night. There’s still a lot of work ahead.”

Behind was a bittersweet – probably more bitter than sweet – 2014 season.

The Mazdas were so low on power that they often finished behind GT Le Mans cars last year. When, that is, they finished; reliability was a major problem. The Mazdas were, to be blunt, the dregs of the prototype class.

At the Roar, however, the Mazdas, well, roared. They trimmed over seven seconds off their 2014 lap times. They had picked up 20 mph. They demanded the attention of the established, race-winning competitors. They set the improved-expectation machinery to whirring.

“Seeing that progress,” the “Mayor of Hinchtown” said, “confirms to everybody what this program is capable of. I think that excites a lot of people within the team and hopefully, within the industry.”

Under the bonnets of the aerodynamically improved bodies were improved twin-turbocharged four-cylinder

James Hinchcliffe will be hoping to take a champagne shower at Daytona on Sunday. (File photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

engines. Improved in terms of power and improved in terms of reliability.

Twelves months of development was clearly doing its thing.

“Last year was the start of a very aggressive development program for Mazda,” said John Doonan, Mazda’s director of motorsports in North America. “Now, in the second year, that development is beginning to pay off. The improvements we have seen are a product of very smart people working very hard to enhance every aspect of the race car. It was great to see that effort show up in the lap times and top speeds, and in the smiles from the drivers and the team.”

One of those smiles belonged to Hinchcliffe.

“We had the new engine go in for the Roar,” he said, “and not only did we see a huge increase in top speed, reliability was great. The team did a lot of laps and had zero mechanical gremlins. It bodes well for the race this weekend for sure.”

The SpeedSource Mazda P2s will be the only cars in class using turbo diesel engines. While those will be unique to the Rolex 24 this year, the technology is not be unique to racing. Audi and Peugeots prototypes used turbocharged diesel enigines to dominate in European sports car racing in the recent past.

“That,” Hinchcliffe said, referring to the successes of Audi and Peugeot, “is why a lot of people have faith in this program.”

Specifically, the diesel part of the engines offer the benefit of increased fuel mileage while the turbo part produces torque. And it does so in adundance.

“Obviously big torque is a characteristic of this type of engine,” the Canadian driver who won three races for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar during his years with that team, said. “The big thing is, we’re still just learning. It’s a new technology on this side of the pond in sports car racing and we’re really kind of flying blind and learning all on our own. But as you add it all up, it’s getting there.

“We’ve made a lot of progress. Especially in terms of cooling the engine, and top horsepower and we’ve got some great partners helping on the software side to help manage the torque and it’s turning into a pretty good little race car.”

Hinchcliffe will be driving the No. 70 SpeedSource car. Co-driving will be Jonathan Bomarito, Tristan Nunez and SpeedSource owner Sylvain Tremblay.

In the No. 07 sister car, the driving foursome will consist of  Tom Long, Joel Miller, Ben Devlin and Zachary Langrone.

Hinchcliffe, whose full time job in 2015 will be driving an Indy car for Schmidt Peterson Racing, will be driving in his fourth consecutive 24 for Mazda at the Daytona International Speedway infield “roval”. And doing so happily.

“Obviously, anytime you get to come to one of the classic, historical race tracks, it’s special,” he said. “As a fan of the sport of racing, no matter what bracket it is, what discipline it is, it’s always cool getting to come here and race a car in a place like this.”

Many drivers who have day jobs in other series but show up once a year to drive in the Rolex talk about the fun factor. Hinchliffe, one of the most fun dudes in racing, says yes, he will have fun this weekend. But, he says, “This is a serious business. There’s a job to do. It may be a one-off for some drivers but you’re partnered with people who are racing for championships and running the full season so you take it just as serious as you would on your normal race weekend.”

No matter who you are, the Rolex weekend is never normal. It’s Hinchcliffian.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, January 23 2015
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