The axis of speed has been shifting from Germany to Japan.
Although Porsche has won three consecutive World Endurance Championships, Toyota has been relentlessly threatening. Now, with Porsche’s exit from endurance racing’s top level, Japanese manufacturers are moving to center stage.
Reinhold Joest has a long and legendary legacy of fielding German-built endurance race cars. Most of Joest’s biggest achievements were as the Audi factory team from 1999 through 2016. Before that, Joest Racing had multiple Le Mans victories with Porsche and was the Opel factory team in DTM, the German touring car series.
Adding it up, Joest racked up 16 victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans — while on this side of the pond, the German claims multiple wins in prominent North American races like the Rolex 24 At Daytona, 10 wins in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring (the first team to win four consecutive races at Sebring) and six triumphs at Petit Le Mans.
Joest’s locomotive-like team was stopped dead in its tracks when Audi’s parent Volkswagen ended the LMP1 program after the 2016 season. It’s ironic that the diesel-powered race cars were parked because the VW’s diesel passenger car emissions settlements disemboweled the company’s racing coffers.
Quitting was not a Joest option. Did he discover an old Japanese proverb that instructed him “To raise the palanquin,” which means to start working on something. But the soft-spoken racer didn’t know exactly where to start. Porsche was an obvious choice, but off the table developing its LMP1 program in-house.
Even so, it didn’t take long before the phone started ringing. The team received several offers, but Joest was circumspect. He relented and sent Joest team director Ralf Jüttner as his emissary to Daytona for the 2017 Rolex 24 At Daytona.
“We had some meetings with the officials there in Daytona and asked about ‘what is the future, what is new? And what is the chance we could jump in?’” said Joest. “I like the USA and IMSA because we did a lot of races there in past years. … Maybe this was a focus for the future to think about?”
While Jüttner was sipping his morning coffee in corporate hospitality before the race, he was asked to take a meeting with Mazda Motorsports executives John Doonan and Jim Bowie. They wanted to hitch their wagon to a top team. The national anthem was playing and the jets roared over while the trio huddled in secret.
Could such a groundbreaking deal even happen? The short answer is yes.
“Ralf was very happy after the meeting,” Joest said. “He said, ‘I have a feeling this person (Doonan) is nice and serious. We had a meeting here (at Joest headquarters) and then another in Chicago (at Mazda’s Midwest Region office). And then it was finished. This is always a good sign.”