PRUETT: Mazda's hidden message

Image by LAT

PRUETT: Mazda's hidden message

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: Mazda's hidden message


Sports car fans have been guided toward the looming split between Mazda and Team Joest for more than a year.

Parse the quotes from former Mazda motorsports director John Doonan over that time span – especially towards the end of the 2019 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season — and the proverbial writing has been on the wall.

Starting at the onset of the most recent season, when asked about the vast improvements to its RT24-P prototypes, the flowery prose was reserved for one vendor.

“Once again. I can’t give it up enough for the Multimatic staff – Raj Nair, now leading that entire organization; Larry Holt; Steven Charsley; the whole vehicle dynamics team,” Doonan said days before the January 4-6 Roar Before the 24.

Asked in a follow-up question if the team’s rapid advancements were a shared responsibility between Joest and Multimatic, Doonan offered a polite correction, naming Multimatic’s Canadian racing outfit and engineering firm as the partner deserving of recognition. The omission of Joest’s name spoke to the German squad’s questionable standing in Mazda’s long-term plan.

Joest Racing, renowned for its rock-solid hands and minds while assembling Le Mans-winning efforts for Porsche and Audi, wasn’t living up to its lofty reputation. Without saying it directly, Doonan’s careful wording implied Mazda was experiencing a heavy dose of deja vu with its latest IMSA race team partner.

Mazda embarked on its DPi program in 2017 with longtime vendor SpeedSource, which worked closely with Multimatic to develop the Riley/Multimatic Mk. 30 LMP2 chassis into the Japanese auto manufacturer’s custom RT24-P model. A lack of pace, driveability, and poor reliability made for a dreadful start to Mazda’s DPi campaign.

The overall task of creating and fielding a competitive DPi effort was too great for SpeedSource, which reflected negatively on the team. It also called Mazda’s decision making into question after placing the DPi project with a vendor whose growing pains with Mazda’s winless LMP2 program from 2014-2016 made for uncomfortable viewing.

As the mantle passed from SpeedSource to the LeMans-conquering Joest Racing, there was new excitement at Mazda in early December 2017 testing at Daytona. Image by Trienitz/LAT

By June of 2017, the decision to split with SpeedSource and hire the internationally-renowned Joest Racing team was made. Through a single change, trips to Victory Lane seemed inevitable.

Returning as Mazda Team Joest in January of 2018, it was hard to spot the difference between the old and new partners when the season got underway as many of the same, silly errors that blighted Mazda’s DPi debut with SpeedSource continued. Wheels fell off, mechanical breakdowns were common, and on too many occasions, the all-conquering Joest Racing team was barely recognizable.

The Joest team Mazda thought it was hiring was a thing of the past. Somewhere, members of the SpeedSource team likely had a laugh a Mazda Team Joest’s expense.

Joest’s arrival in early 2018 didn’t deliver the instant turnaround to Mazda’s DPi fortunes that many were expecting. Image by Galstad/LAT

Piled atop a spate of engine problems that added to the list of woes, the mood was downright sour as the 2018 season continued its fruitless march towards the final race. Attaching Mazda’s name and a bigger budget to Joest had not delivered on its promise to field a winning effort. Rumors of a possible split with Joest began to circulate as too many failures, mechanical mistakes, pit lane blunders, and lost opportunities through race strategy weighed on the manufacturer.

Despite the desire for an early conclusion to the relationship, it’s believed parting ways with a second race team vendor in consecutive seasons was considered too much for the proud Mazda organization to accept. Mazda Team Joest was kept intact for 2019.

The choice to continue with Joest, however, was not an endorsement of its services.

Mazda’s dissatisfaction with the underperforming Joest group was spoken in strong organizational terms as the new season arrived. If a change in providers wasn’t going to happen, the next best option was pursued by vastly reducing Joest’s day-to-day involvement. Multimatic would fill the void.

At the completion of Petit Le Mans in October of 2018, the changeover from Joest to Multimatic made its greatest step forward. Given full authority over the RT24-P testing and engineering program, Mazda dispatched its cars to Multimatic’s base outside of Toronto where the vehicles underwent teardowns and inspections, in-depth performance analysis, and moved onto an intensive series of track tests before the DPis were sent back to Mazda Team Joest’s shop in Georgia.

The same vehicle handover process took place last month after Petit Le Mans, as will their return to Mazda’s shop near Atlanta before the new year.

Change in the running of the Mazda program was very clearly in the wind following last month’s Petit LeMans, with total engineering control handed off to Multimatic. Image by Galstad/LAT

As the reconfigured team appeared at the Roar, a staffing change was seen as the two-car RT24-P program was split into separate houses. One car run by Multimatic personnel, and the other by Joest’s crew.

Beyond the reduction to Joest’s physical presence inside the garage, Mazda also handed total control of the program’s engineering responsibilities to Multimatic. Joest technical director Ralf Juttner, along with Joest’s involvement in the vehicle dynamics, development, and race engineering of the RT24-Ps, were cut from the Mazda DPi effort.

Le Mans-winning race engineer Leena Gade was hired by Multimatic and appointed to oversee one RT24-P; Multimatic veteran Dave Wilcock would lead the other; even Multimatic boss Larry Holt got involved on the race engineering side as Mazda expanded its overall commitment to the company.

“But really, I’m pleased with Dave joining as well as Leena and again thankful to Larry and Raj and everybody on the Multimatic side for being willing to invest so much to see this program have success,” Doonan said before the Roar.

Compared to the full-Joest operation in 2018, the message at Daytona was clear: On the mechanical and engineering fronts, Mazda Team Joest was morphing into Mazda Team Multimatic.

Out of approximately 15 seats on the giant Mazda Team Joest timing stand in 2019, only two or three were reserved for Joest employees from Daytona onwards. The majority were taken by Mazda and Multimatic staff; in yet another example, the transition of authority was never hidden from the public.

Intrepid fans will also recall stories over the summer involving Mazda’s search for a new vendor, which included Chip Ganassi Racing as a high-profile option that was explored. Even as the Mazda team went on a three-race winning streak, its Canadian partners received the bulk of gratitude from the brand. Placing the entire program in Multimatic’s care soon became Mazda’s easiest path to follow. It makes the upcoming exit by Joest in favor of Multimatic more of a process foreshadowed throughout the year than a plot twist kept secret until the big reveal. It’s major news, no doubt, but this chess maneuver has been in motion for a good long while.

Formal notice of Joest’s termination is said to have been delivered shortly after the mid-September IMSA race at Monterey. Provided the rumors of a clause requiring a six-month advance notice are true, the split between Mazda and Joest would be pushed to the days following Sebring’s 12-hour race in March.

Assuming Joest wants to continue running the Mazda program for two rounds, rather than accept a buyout, it might come up short on corporate support to complete its contract. Looking at how most major manufacturers racing agreements are formed in North America, budgeting tends to be spread across quarterly payments. Lump sum payments, delivered up front, are a rarity, and that’s what Joest would likely need in this case.

Provided Mazda Team Joest is under that common structure, completing the Roar, Rolex 24 At Daytona, and Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring could stretch the team’s bank account to its limits and beyond. Depending on the class, the mandatory Daytona test, plus the combined 36 hours of racing, can absorb a frightening amount of an IMSA team’s budget for the season.

Would Joest come out of pocket to run the cars it will leave behind after the second round? And would Mazda pay the team extra money to get through Sebring? Both scenarios are improbable.

Joest knows it isn’t wanted, which makes turning up on Mazda’s behalf an ugly situation that won’t help in its efforts to find new clients. And in hindsight, Mazda’s signing of a team that proved to be on the decline is also worthy of a rapid conclusion. The divorce is happening; provided they agree to terms, early termination and a swift transition to Multimatic would benefit both sides. Mistakes in faith and performance were made; neither side is clean in that regard.

Once more, it’s the words unspoken that serve as our roadmap to Joest’s pending departure.

The verbal dagger was delivered in September at Monterey, on the one-year mark of Mazda Team Joest’s painful loss at the coastal road course.

“If there’s any golden nugget in any of our success, it’s Multimatic and the engineering support, the investment they’ve made, the simulation, the vehicle dynamics, the testing,” Doonan said. “They’ve just crushed it out of the park in terms of helping this program be successful. In looking at Monterey, throughout the year last year, we had those oh-so-close moments, and the more we’ve involved ourselves with Multimatic, the more success we continue to have.”