Mazda Leads the Rolex 24 (VIDEO)

Huge improvements in the Mazda SKYACTIV Diesel Prototypes, along with their fuel efficiency, paid off at Daytona.

It is certainly no secret that the Mazda SKYACTIV Diesel Prototypes run by SpeedSource Race Engineering have had their development difficulties. But speak with anyone within the team or Mazda Motorsports, and they were all clearly confident that the struggles and hard work were going to pay off. And, on Saturday afternoon, about two hours into the 53rd Rolex 24 at Daytona, the first round of the 2015 TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, the first payoff came.

Tom Long, as he crossed the finish line to complete lap 62 in the No. 07 Mazda, became not only the first driver to lead the Rolex 24 at Daytona overall in a Mazda – despite the marque’s 23 GT victories in the race – but also the first driver of a diesel-powered car to lead the race in the event’s history.

“It was a little surreal hearing that we were leading the race,” Long reflected. “The whole setup to that is really how our SKYACTIV fuel efficiency with the diesel had given us that advantage to make more laps and stay on pace long enough to outlast our competitors to be out there leading laps at the end of that stint.

“Certainly I feel like that’s a little bit of a tribute to how much effort has been put into the program and all the painstakingly long hours to get there. That’s a small step of success, and I’m thrilled and honored to be able to help and be a part of that history,” he continued.

Unfortunately, a leak in the pressurized fuel rail led to a lengthy pit stop for the No. 07 that Long was sharing with Joel Miller, Ben Devlin and Sylvain Tremblay. That left the N0. 70 of Jonathan Bomarito, Tristan Nunez, James Hinchcliffe and Tremblay to carry the flag, which it did until a little after eight hours into the race, retiring from the top 10 with an oil pump failure. The No. 07 climbed its way back into the top 10, but ultimately retired with overheating issues.

However, the fact that Long and the No. 07 were in position to lead when the rest of the field pitted speaks to the huge strides the program has made. That was evident in testing, where the Mazdas cut about 6 percent off their lap times and upped their trap speeds by about 20mph. The difference was especially clear to the part-time drivers who drive only the long-distance races and had not been in the cars since the last Rolex, such as James Hinchcliffe.

“The improvement in the car and the engine is unbelievable,” he said. “It’s not the same car I drove last year. The engine. The chassis. The brakes. They have all improved and it really makes it a load of fun to drive.”

That kind of improvement makes the retirements even harder to take, but it bodes well for the rest of the season, notes John Doonan, Director of Mazda Motorsports.

“It’s a huge disappointment to exit the race early, but that’s the risk we take in pushing new technologies to the very limit,” he said. “The risk is necessary in order to reach our long-term rewards, and we ran the car and engine harder than ever. It was huge gain in performance since we were here last year and we will continue to make more progress for every race.”

The next event is the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, which takes place March 18-21. The busier circuit may very well play to the strengths of the Mazda SKYACTIV Diesels. Look for Mazda to once again broadcast the race from the prototypes on

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