Racing the Rotary (Part 2)

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From 1969 to 1970, Mazda had a successful foray into European touring car racing, where their Euro counterparts had been caught off guard. The screaming little Familia Coupes were not short of power and if it weren’t for a lack of reliability, Mazda would have returned to Japan in triumph with a lot of prestigious silverware too.

By the way, you can find Part 1 of this series of articles here.

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The Familias found respect on the tracks of Europe, but back on home turf, Mazda would find that on Japanese tracks, the Skyline GT-Rs simply dominated. The Familia put up a decent struggle but it was plainly not enough. Mazda would again assume the position of the underdog.

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For Mazda’s racing efforts, the Familias were then replaced by the RX-2 Capella Rotary (above and below). The RX-2 Capella was a mid-sized sedan and coupe, which was bigger and more sophisticated car than the basic little Familia.

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Whereas the Familia weighed 800kg, the bigger RX-2 Capella weighed 1020kg. Counteracting this was the fact that the Capella had the 20% bigger 12A engine, which boasted 130hp (vs 100hp for the Familia). The racing version of the RX-2 Capella would also use the peripheral porting technology seen in the Familia to make stratospheric top end power. Below is a diagram of how the peripheral porting technique works, straight from the Mazda works tech manual.

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The Capella also had a more sophisticated chassis, replacing the Familia’s crude leaf springs with a five-link coil spring rear axle for much better handling.

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Unfortunately for Mazda, the Capella would be destined to be the bridesmaid of the racing rotaries, its only notable win being 3rd outright and 1st in class at a Suzuka race in 1970 (above). Superior to the Familia, it was nevertheless the wrong car at the wrong time, and was simply outclassed by the C10 Skyline GT-R.

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The GT-R was a very serious attempt by Nissan to assume touring car domination, continuing from Prince’s huge success with the earlier S54 Skyline. Powered by a sophisticated 24 valve, DOHC 2.0 litre motor, the GT-R version was a special edition that sold at twice the normal price of a regular Skyline. Once the GT-R was in its stride, it swept all before it in local racing. The GT-R would assume an unbroken run of 49 straight wins, easily taking out the 1969 and 1970 championships. If you didn’t drive a Skyline, you would be nowhere. The picture below is from the time of the Familia (1971), and you can see that the first few rows of the grid are clearly dominated by Skyline!

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While it was a very good car and a genuine advance over the little Familia, the big Capella simply didn’t have what it took to stop the GT-R steamroller.

All this would change upon Mazdas return from European racing in 1971. The setting was the Fuji 500 Tourist Trophy, and Mazda chose Fuji as the venue to give their new RX-3 Savanna its racing debut. Just in case, Mazda still fielded their tried and true RX-2. Here’s a pic of them side by side, the new 10A engined RX3 is on the left.

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The RX-3 was little Familia Coupe’s replacement (in fact, piston-engined versions were called Familia in Japan). Weighing in at 865kg, it was much lighter than the Capella but it also had a cruder leaf sprung chassis that was closer to the layout of the old Familia. A cheaper, more basic car than the Capella, it was nevetheless a lighter, better platform for racing.

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The weight advantage over the Capella wasn’t as decisive as it seems, however because the RX-3 Savanna was powered by the smaller 10A engine (rather than the Capella’s 12A) so as the Mazdas rolled onto the grid at Fuji, the RX-3 Savannas did not appear to be much more of a threat to the dominant Skylines.

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But the Skylines wouldn’t quite have things go their way at Fuji.

By 1971, Mazda had lots of development time on the dimunitive 10A engine from its 2 years of racing in Europe. So the RX-3 Savannas may have had smaller 10A engines but they were now a well proven racing power unit. In addition, Fuji in the 1960s was a very big, flowing flat-out track, a European-style circuit much like Spa-Francorchamps, and the Tourist Trophy was a long distance endurance race.

In other words, the Fuji 500 was exactly the type of race Mazda had gotten to know very well in Europe.

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So as the brand new RX-3s sat on the grid, they may have appeared to be the underdog, but it was in the best position of any manufacturer to upset the Skyline applecart in over 2 years. Meanwhile, the confident but aging Skylines gridded up at Fuji on the back of a 49 race winning streak, the assembled Nissan contingent proudly looking forward to making that an unprecedented 50 race winning streak.

At this point the GT-R’s racing record was so absolutely dominant that its status as an immortal racing legend was already assured, but just the same, Nissan would field 8 GT-Rs to try to ensure that historic 50 straight wins.

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The race started with the rotaries running well, with 2 of the Capellas and the Savanna running in close formation at the head of the field. As the race wore on, the Capellas fell back, leaving only the Savanna in contention. The GT-R contingent was experiencing quite a lot of bad luck that day with crashes and breakdowns, so as the latter half of the race began, the battle for the lead was fought between two cars: the GT-R of Kubota/Sugizaki and the lone RX-3 Savanna of Kamo/Masuda.

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Then disaster struck!

With only four laps to go, the RX-3 Savanna comes off on the long, curving corner coming onto the straight, bending a steering arm, and as the RX-3 Savanna is being swarmed over by frantic mechanics in the pit lane, the Kubota/Sugizaki GT-R screams past into the lead. At that stage an historic 50th straight GT-R victory seems a certainty.

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But as the Mazda mechanics furiously repair the stricken RX-3, the Kubota/Sugizaki GT-R limps into the pits with a blown front tyre and damaged front suspension….the RX-3, duly repaired, hammers out of the pit lane back onto the track in a mad charge to make up the handful of lost laps and now it is the Nissan mechanics’ turn to get the GT-R back on the track before the RX-3 catches up.

But alas for the GT-R, a victory was not to be that day, and the RX-3 Savanna cruised to a win, and so in December 1971, the 49-race GT-R winning streak came to an end.

For the Nissan camp, the 1972 season would be a chance to get sweet revenge….and Mazda would raise the stakes by immediately releasing a version of the RX-3 Savanna with the bigger 12A motor from the RX-2 Capella. Japanese enthusiasts remember the 1972 season as being all about the titanic on-track battles between the GT-R Skyline and the RX-3 Savanna.

We’ll cover that in the next instalment.

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One Response to Racing the Rotary (Part 2)

  1. Van said:

    Bloody hell, what a read! Starting this site is the best thing I’ve ever done, haha. I’m learning more and more with each day. Good work Kev!