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First in a series of articles for the launch of Mazda's Third-Generation Roadster

I first met Shuko Yamamoto just prior to the completion of the third-generation Roadster development project. He was an engineer who had lived and breathed sports cars at Mazda’s vehicle development department throughout his storied career. At 50 years of age, Yamamoto’s passion for and commitment to creating the next great automobile burned as brightly as ever. Acting as the project’s deputy general manager, his role was to guide on-the-ground development operations in line with the general manager’s vision and direction. Yamamoto was the coach on the field.

I clearly remember Yamamoto once saying, “We’re so close. We’re 99.5 percent there. But something’s missing. If we get this right, we can finish this with no regrets.” What was that one half of one percent? What was it that Yamamoto sensed was missing? He was talking about something he’d detected in the handling. “When I turned the steering wheel quickly, it didn’t feel the way I’d imagined it would feel,” he explained. “We hadn’t quite got to ‘Jinba Ittai.’ When we did the internal test drives with our sales and marketing staff, most of them said they didn’t notice the problem. But there were a few critics among the real Roadster connoisseurs who sensed something was amiss. With the vast majority satisfied with the handling, it was tempting to call it a day. But we wanted to nail it. We wanted to be able to walk away from this at the end of the day with absolutely no regrets.”

The quintessential engineer, Yamamoto could always be counted on to speak his mind with passion and conviction. And always with a quiet smile.

Within Mazda, once he set his sights on a goal, Yamamoto was well-known for his tireless determination in pursuing perfection, even through entirely new automotive technologies. Yamamoto had that special fire that burns within every great engineer. And it would be his task to take the third-generation Roadster that additional one half of one percent to perfection. “It was early summer two years ago when the Roaster development group called me,” Yamamoto recalls. “The project was well underway, the engine specs were set, and the draft design of the chassis was near completion.”

Takao Kijima, the project general manager, took it upon himself to personally negotiate with Yamamoto’s department head to have the engineer transferred to the Roadster development team. The project was deadlocked. It had proved a formidable challenge indeed to translate “Jinba Ittai” into reality. The project needed a veteran engineer expert in sports car technologies to push the development forward. And that task fell to Yamamoto.

Yamamoto had had a fascination with automobiles since he was a young boy growing up in Kochi Prefecture during the 1950s. He recalled that, one day as a junior high school student, he read that Mazda had begun developing revolutionary rotary engines. He became fixed on the idea of working with this exciting new engine technology. From that day forward, his dream was to become an engineer at Mazda.

Yamamoto worked hard to see that that youthful dream was realized. Years later, after joining Mazda, he was assigned to the Rotary Engine Research Department where he worked for over 15 years developing state-of-the-art rotary engine designs. His groundbreaking work included not only engines for mass production sports cars, but race cars as well, such as the 4-rotary engine that won the infamous 24-Hour Le Mans in 1991. He’d been immersed in Mazda engine design and development since the first-generation RX-7. After the successful launch of the third-generation RX-7, Yamamoto was assigned to the second-generation Roadster development team. Yamamoto’s engineering experience was extraordinarily broad, ranging from sports cars to racing, from the RX-7 and the Roadster to the world’s most grueling endurance races. Here was an engineer who lived and breathed Mazda. It was clear to Kijima that Yamamoto was the man to help the team break through.

“When my department head asked me about working on the Roadster with Kijima, my response was simple,” Yamamoto recalls. “I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ I was happy to take the assignment. I’d worked with Kijima on the RX-7 development. I understood and identified with his approach. I resolved to immerse myself in the project and take Kijima’s vision and mission as my own.”

Joining the Roadster development group, Yamamoto gave himself entirely to the task at hand. The Roadster’s driving performance became is sole obsession.

“It immediately became clear to me that our challenge was to capture the ‘essence’ of the Roadster,” Yamamoto explained. “Without that, the result simply wouldn’t have been a Roadster. And the results of all our efforts to evolve the next generation would have been in vain. That ineffable essence is everything. It should be felt with a press of the accelerator or a simple turn of the wheel. Each time you drive that car, you should delight in it. It goes without saying that you ought to feel that sense of exhilaration on a racing circuit, but you want to feel it wherever and whenever you drive. Otherwise what’s the point of owning a Roadster?”

‘Essence’ is a deceptively simple word. But to actually manifest a thing only sensed through feeling and intuition is extraordinarily difficult. To sense and intuit is an intensely personal experience. And to work toward such a subjective experience is often more of an art than a science. The third-generation Roadster was designed with the latest technologies. The engine and body were completely updated. Looking at the numerical test results, the new Roadster’s performance far surpassed its predecessaors. And yet, though the quantifiable performance had been dramatically improved, the driving experience hadn’t necessarily been commensurately enhanced. Recreating the essence of the Roadster experience was proving extremely difficult.

Yamamoto framed six typical, everyday scenarios within which to evaluate the Roadster driving experience. Yamamoto explained each scenario as follows.

“The first scenario was simply driving your car out of a parking lot. You start the engine, step on the clutch, engage the transmission, turn the steering wheel a little, and accelerate in the normal way. The question was how to turn this mundane experience into a pleasurable occasion.”

The second scenario involved another typical situation. When you drive at 40 km/h to 60 km/h, do you really feel the comfortable acceleration of the car on the level surface of the road? The third scenario depicted taking a left-hand turn at an intersection. You downshift to slow down, move into the intersection, turn to the left. When you accelerate and shift up again, is the sound and feel of the engine a pleasure? The fourth situation involved accelerating away from a tollbooth back onto a highway. Scenario number five depicted overtaking another car and changing lanes on an expressway. The final scenario, number six, had to do with achieving a sense of absolute comfort and confidence driving on a twisting stretch of road.

Yamamoto noted that the team conducted an enormous number of test runs. “These six scenarios provided the basis for a entirely new set of performance evaluations,” Yamamoto explained. “It was impossible, of course, to achieve the results we wanted based entirely on feeling and intuition. The individuals’ experiences had to be somehow measured, quantified, researched and analyzed. Unless the ‘essence’ of the driving experience is analyzed in this way, it’s simply not possible to consistently manifest that essence in an automobile.” No expense was spared as technological innovations were then painstakingly developed to respond to the results of these meticulous experiential analyses.

It was in this way that Yamamoto was able to identify that one half of one percent shortcoming in the steering wheel. And when the car was later retuned to final specifications, 100 percent performance was achieved. And the project moved ahead toward mass manufacturing.

In the end, Yamamoto saw the third-generation Roadster as one of his finest achievements. As Yamamoto himself put it, “This was a once-in-a lifetime job. Everyone on the team understands now that this was a truly unique opportunity. It’s incredibly rare to redesign a world-renowned lightweight sports car from the ground up. That’s why we were determined to finish this project with no compromises and no regrets.

Because the Mazda Roadster has made its mark in automotive history, to take part in its evolution is to participate in history’s unfolding. And Yamamoto’s rare passion and commitment are now also part of that remarkable, ongoing story.

 

 

 

Because the Roadster has made its mark in automotive history, to take part in its evolution is to participate in history’s unfolding.

 

 
 

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