A schoolboy's dream come true

LMP3 is the newest class in the Automobile Club de l’Ouest’s Le Mans portfolio. Ginetta was the first manufacturer to produce a compliant car and Motor Sport took a stint at its wheel
Writer Andrew Frankel | Photographer Jayson Fong

Like most of you, I expect, a racing driver was all I ever wanted to be. I was the one sat at the back of double geography plotting the racing line through a diagram of an oxbow lake. But drawn to the glamour of Le Mans, I always wanted to be a sports car driver – and not just of something that looked like a steroidal 911: I always wanted to drive a prototype.

Prototype. What a word. My online dictionary describes it as ‘the original or model on which something is based or formed’, but to me it was never so prosaic. Prototypes were and are rare, highly specialised devices, designed, tuned and raced only by the best. They looked other-worldly, sounded like the devil’s orchestra and, when they moved, appeared to defy the rules of classical mechanics.

The problem until now is that genuine prototype racing cars have been impossibly expensive for most to buy, let alone run and race. Even under new regs due in 2017 designed to cut costs, if you want to buy into the current junior category of Le Mans-eligible prototypes, an LMP2 car will cost £334,000 before you’ve even thought about spending another six-figure sum on an engine and gearbox.

But now that has all changed.

Last September the ACO presented rules for LMP3, a new kind of Le Mans Prototype. Like all the other LMPs it would be a purpose-built, carbon-tub racing car and, like the LMP2s, have a big V8 motor, paddle-shift transmission and pukka pushrod suspension. Unlike the LMP2s, however, the car costs £134,000 – a price that, critically, includes its 5-litre engine.

So while the cars are not yet eligible to race at Le Mans itself, they can (and do) race in the European Le Mans Series and Asian Le Mans Series and are seriously being considered by IMSA as a possible alternative to its Le Mans Prototype Challenge Series. But so far only one firm has built and raced an LMP3 car. “We had six months from when the ACO gave us the regs to the first round of the ELMS at Silverstone in April,” says Ginetta boss Lawrence Tomlinson. “We had five cars entered and were still building the fifth during free practice.”

Since then, with the likes of Sir Chris Hoy driving, the car has gone on to complete the Britcar 24 Hours at Silverstone and increase its pace through the ELMS season. At the Red Bull Ring it was quicker than every GT3 and GTE car out there, including RSR Porsches and Ferrari 458s, each one costing between two and three times as much as the Ginetta. Ultimately it was about 5sec off the pace of the quickest LMP2 cars, which is probably slow enough to keep the categories entirely distinct yet fast enough not to become mobile chicanes.

Perhaps this is why since September Ginetta has taken orders for 15 cars, its ability to deliver hampered only by supply of the ORECA-sourced powertrain, comprising a Nissan V8 and six-speed Xtrac. Others are now coming to the party, with Ligier’s new LMP3 showing promise, Adess and Riley committed and one more manufacturer still to declare to fulfil the ACO’s five-constructor limit.

For this kind of car, the regs are quite simple. As stated there is no choice of powertrain, all of which come sealed by ORECA and designed to last 6000 miles or an entire season without more than routine maintenance. Maximum external dimensions are fixed (the cars are as wide as P2 cars, but shorter), all must have a shark’s fin, a flat bottom, an 80-litre fuel tank and weigh no less than 930kg.

And I’d like to say the reason one is sitting waiting for me in the pitlane at Rockingham is that Tomlinson has recognised my natural talent and is about to offer me a works contract. In fact and as ever, I’m here to test the car for Motor Sport. But it’s still special: no hack had driven an LMP3 car before.

The Ginetta looks incredible, every bit as ferocious and far more attractive than the LMP1 Porsche 919 that won Le Mans this year. Less than a year after it was first given the go-ahead, the car is still being developed with Tomlinson – who took GT2 honours at Le Mans in a Panoz in 2006 – doing much of the driving. But between trying different springs, power steering and who knows what other refinements, I am allowed out.

It started badly. Because this car is shared by the 6ft 2in Sir Chris Hoy, I presumed I’d slot into his seat just fine. In a way I was right: the seat was comfortable and there was plenty of space for my helmet. I just couldn’t operate any of the pedals. In the end the seat was whipped out and I was reinstalled again with various bits of padding to stop me migrating around the cockpit in quick turns. It hurt like hell, but this was an opportunity I was not going to miss.

I should declare now I’ve not driven a brand-new prototype racing car. I’ve driven many museum pieces, particularly Group C cars, and I’ve driven a decent number of new GT3 cars of the kind with which the Ginetta now shares track space, but not a new prototype. Then again, this is a good vantage point from which to view the car not only because no one has any LMP3 experience, but also because I expect plenty of GT3 customers will be taking a long hard look at the Ginetta too, for reasons to which I will return.

For now, though, join me in the surprisingly spacious cockpit. The driving position is in the bum-down, knees-up modern vogue and your hands extend naturally to grasp an off-the-shelf Cosworth wheel with integral LCD display and buttons for all the usual functions such as pitlane speed, headlight flash, radio comms and so on. There’s a further stack of switches to your right, but nothing remotely intimidating let alone as bewildering as a modern LMP1 driving environment. Even so, I still half expected a small army of white coat-wearing, laptop-toting boffins to appear from somewhere just to start it, but that’s not the way it works: you just flick on the power and the ignition, thumb the starter and the big V8 blasts into life.

The 5-litre engine produces 420bhp, very little more than the Infiniti SUVs from which it is sourced. It has a Magneti Marelli ECU, new exhausts and, I am told, a different firing order and little or no flywheel; but all the internals are showroom standard so it should have little trouble surviving a season. It doesn’t sound humdrum, though: even wearing ugly external silencers to satisfy Rockingham’s noise regs, the engine thunders, and that’s at idle. If you’d like an idea of its potential, its power-to-weight ratio is about the same as Ferrari’s flagship F12.

You only use the clutch once, to pull away, but it’s vicious enough to make you look an idiot: having not stalled a racing car in years, I did so twice in this one. Its part-throttle manners can leave you kangarooing down the pitlane, too, which is fairly absurd given the off-the-peg engine. Work to do for Magneti Marelli, perhaps, on the management side…

Still we’re not here to drive slowly. I have a set of adolescent Michelin slicks just out of the blankets at each corner and it is time to find out if the Ginetta LMP3 is anything like as good to drive as its looks suggest.

It feels very alien at first. While it’s more spacious than an older Group C-type prototype, you seem to sit even lower and look through a smaller glasshouse to extremities that appear farther away. Rockingham’s weird topography of flat-out banking and featureless low- to medium-speed curves doesn’t help.

The straight-line speed is not an issue and the engine’s torque is delicious. The response to your foot varies little from 3000-6000rpm, so you’re far less reliant than you’d be with a more highly strung powertrain on needing to be in the right ratio all the time, which provides a level of user-friendliness likely to be welcome to those putting their feet on this first LMP rung.

By contrast, the grip level takes some learning, even if you’ve spent the last 20 minutes driving a GT3 car as fast as you possibly can. The steering is less aggressive than you might expect and in slower corners angles the car into the apex perhaps only a little faster than the GT3 car: the Michelins are quite hard, the bodywork generates little or no downforce and the springs are necessarily stiff to support said body in the quick stuff. Given the limited power, there’s traction enough at the exit not to break the rear loose unless you hit the gas artificially hard and early, and impressively little understeer too: the car just feels neutral.

But any corner requiring third gear or higher takes you into a realm beyond the reach of all racing cars with road DNA, however evolved their design. The Ginetta has less downforce than an LMP2, but to those arriving from anything other than a slicks-and-wings racer, adhesion levels are initially baffling.

In practice, and at the price of a slightly sore neck, you become acclimatised and discover that even at triple-digit exit speeds the car is no more likely to misbehave than in a second-gear hairpin. Tipping it into a fast turn and trail-braking into the apex is quite mesmerising. You know air pressure will keep the rear end nailed to the track and then, when the car is set up, you can pour on the power and feel yourself being catapulted out of the curve. I could have driven all day, but time and a not exactly match-fit constitution were against me.

LMP3 is so young it’s practically in nappies, so we must not rush to judgement. That said, the fact that the car could handle more power is obvious: the capabilities of a chassis still under development are already far beyond the abilities of its stock-block engine. Opposite-lock jockeys won’t like it at all.

So look at it another way: you are a gentleman driver, one of many who find the increasing speeds, costs and effort to stay competitive in GT3 more than they care to meet. As is inevitable with all successful but mature series, the sharp end has become the domain of the professional. Against this, LMP3 offers a proper carbon-fibre prototype that’s not just quicker and, to me, more rewarding to drive than a GT3, but it’s also a fraction of the price. True, it doesn’t come with a Porsche or Ferrari badge, but if you have always dreamed of driving a proper carbon-fibre prototype, now you can, and for less than the cheapest Ferrari road car on sale.

Climbing the rungs

A step-by-step guide to the Ginetta racing ladder

Ginetta’s race series starts with the G40 Junior for 14- to 17-year-olds. The idea is that once you’ve started, you’ll progress through the ranks until one day you find yourself inside a GT3 or LMP3 car.

Grown-ups first get pitched into the Ginetta Racing Drivers Club, where for £33,300 plus VAT you get 130bhp in a stiff, safe chassis. Intended for novice racers, the package includes tuition at track days, your ARDS test and four race weekends each with two races. The car, a G40 R, is road-legal, comes on track-day tyres and can be driven to the circuit. A fine trainer, it’s modest in power but also limited in grip, so you can learn car control skills at sensible speeds before progressing onto the GT5 – essentially a properly race-prepped G40 with about 165bhp, a brilliant Quaife sequential ’box and a lot more grip, thanks to slick racing rubber. It costs £29,000, but that buys you the car alone, not an entire season as it does with the G40 R.

It’s actually a bigger step up than it sounds, as anyone who can remember the first time they drove on slicks will know. You need to get used to tyres that feel like they’ll grip forever until suddenly they don’t. But other than driving a front-drive tin-top such as a Fiesta or Clio, it’s about as gentle an introduction to this level of race car as you’re likely to find.

It’s hard to give an accurate impression of Ginetta’s £82,500 G55-based GT4, because the slicks on the car I drove were long past their best. Not particularly quick but endlessly entertaining, it showed the fundamental class of the chassis. Despite exiting almost every corner looking out of the side window, I never felt close to losing control. Obviously this is a huge leap from a GT5 but despite double the power, a lot more weight, paddle shift, huge brakes and at least a little downforce, anyone conversant with a machine like the GT5 should not be intimidated. The V6 engine provides strong performance in a car that I am sure would make far better use of a set of slicks than a GT5, but ultimately what it does is simply offer more uncomplicated racing pleasure.

The night-and-day transformation in every way is between GT4 and GT3, and you need only look at the latter’s appearance and £199,000 price to know it. Whereas any reasonably skilled driver could climb aboard one of the more junior Ginettas and understand quickly how to extract the most from it, the GT3 takes time, thought and some nerve even to get to that stage where you feel you’re giving it a proper workout, even if not yet posting competitive lap times. There’s at least 530bhp from a very feisty 4.35-litre V8 motor in an 1100kg car, but it is the chassis and aero that mark it out as a genuinely serious racing car.

It is very different to drive from its smaller siblings, even discounting its incomparably superior performance. This is not a car that responds to attempts to balance it through the apex blending steering and power to keep it drifting. It requires you to go honking up to a corner, stamp hard on the brakes and use the entire entry phase as a deceleration zone, whereupon you land hard back on the gas and rocket away. Unlike all the other Ginettas here, LMP3 included, the GT3 has both ABS and traction control and you need both, one to help you in, the other to guide you away. The clever bit is the aero balance that keeps the car neutral as you turn in on the brakes from high speed, instead of simply throwing you off the track.

It’s a car I enjoyed and admired very much, but at least to me the choice of racing it or the cheaper, quicker and far more special LMP3 would be no choice at all.