All change in North America
...but will new-look endurance races attract sufficient support? | By Gary Watkins
The top flight of North American sports car racing will undergo a revolution next season. The Daytona Prototypes that carried over into the merged IMSA SportsCar Championship from the old Grand-Am series will finally be consigned to the museum. The question is, who will be signing up with a new breed of car coming on stream in 2017?
IMSA is adopting the same LMP2 rules that will come into force in the World Endurance Championship next year as the basis of its top category, known simply as the Prototype class. But there is a twist. The faster P2s, powered by a normally aspirated V8 built in the UK by Gibson Technology (né Zytek), will compete with cars built to the Daytona Prototype international rules announced last year.
DPi reflects IMSA’s need for manufacturer involvement in its top class – there’s no LMP1, remember. Manufacturers, and manufacturers only, will be able to develop their own bodywork and engines for a chassis built by any one of the four constructors licensed to produce P2 cars to the new rules: Dallara, ORECA, Onroak with the Ligier brand and Riley/Multimatic.
IMSA boss Scott Atherton is understandably cautious when making predictions about the Prototype field for 2017 and is reluctant to talk numbers. He does, however, reckon that there
will be a “respectable field” when the new era begins at Daytona in January.
“No one has a crystal ball, but confidence is high and we expect to begin at a good level and grow from there – that’s my patented line,” he said. “There is a lot more going on than meets the eye, and there is a frustration that we have to respect confidentiality agreements and can’t share a lot of
what we know.”
Pushed harder to put a figure on the likely Prototype grid for 2017, and he replied: “The same number that has been our typical Prototype grid. We had eight cars last time out at Road America [at the start of August] and I would say that we should reach that figure or surpass it.”
Atherton also noted that IMSA is expecting additional entries for the pair of IMSA blue riband enduros at Daytona and Sebring that kick off the American season in January and March.
CAN DPI WORK?
Atherton insists that there is real interest in the DPi concept, though he does concede that only two manufacturers will be on the grid next season. He’s not allowed to name them as yet, but they are General Motors with the Cadillac brand and Mazda. They have respectively signed up with Dallara and Riley/Multimatic to develop DPis.
“A significant number of manufacturers have expressed an interest,” he said. “Right now we have two firm commitments and two or three in process. Two is a good launch pad, and we are confident that it will grow from there.”
THE 2018 CONUNDRUM
IMSA has a pressing need to evolve the field through 2017 after announcing that its secondary class for full-house racing cars, the Prototype Challenge open to the one-make ORECA-Chevrolet FLM09, will end on schedule after next season. More pertinently it will not be replaced.
The governing body has opted against trying to incorporate the LMP3 class that was introduced into the European Le Mans Series last season and has instead found a home for it from next year in its Prototype Lites feeder series, which will be known as the Prototype Challenge. Increasing the performance of the P3s to sit between the Prototypes and the GTE cars that race in its GT Le Mans class might have been tricky, but Atherton insists that the new class structure has been motivated by a desire to simplify the series.
“The speed of the P3 cars was only a minor consideration,” he explained. “More significant in our decision was a desire to bring a higher level of simplicity and clarity to our championship by having one Prototype class and two distinct GT divisions [GTLM and GT Daytona for GT3 cars].
“Grand-Am in its original configuration [and up to the merger with the American Le Mans Series that created the current series for 2014] had a single class for prototypes and a single class for GT cars.
“That makes the series much easier for the casual fan to grasp. I’m not suggesting that by eliminating PC all the confusion will go away, but it is a step in the right direction.”
IMSA will, however, introduce a sub-class for pro-am line-ups, a move that Atherton is expecting to attract existing PC entrants.
“It will admittedly be a big step for some, but if you look at the best teams in the PC, it will not be so big in terms of their level of professionalism.
“P2 is an attractive formula courtesy of its value equation – a great job has been done in terms of the acquisition price and the running costs – and its global nature.”
PC entrant Peter Baron, whose Starworks team won the World Endurance Championship P2 title in 2012, isn’t so sure that many teams will make the jump. “Scott says that it’s only an extra million dollars, but I’d like to see him buy a million-dollar house every year,” he said.
Baron also pointed out that there are alternatives for the kind of amateur driver IMSA is looking to keep – or perhaps attract.
“For $2 million, so less than a season in IMSA, you could do the ELMS and the Le Mans 24 Hours,” he explained. “Silverstone and Spa [which are part of the European series], as well as Le Mans, are circuits that you’ll find on the bucket list of many of these wealthy guys.”
COULD A DPI RACE AT LE MANS?
The idea of DPis racing as privateer P1s at the Le Mans 24 Hours was something first raised by race organiser the Automobile Club de l’Ouest. Club president Pierre Fillon made the suggestion as a reaction to a trans-Atlantic rules row that has culminated with DPis being allowed to run their own engine management systems rather than the spec P2 unit supplied by Cosworth. This has resulted in the abandonment of the original plan to allow DPis to race in P2 at Le Mans with their regular engines, but using the original bodywork supplied by their chosen constructor.
The ACO has stated that it will insist on any DPi racing in P1 complying fully to the rule book, which could prove to be an obstacle in North American machinery crossing the Atlantic.
Mazda North America, which is already racing a DPi-spec engine in a Lola chassis this year, has stated its aspirations to take the marque back to the Le Mans 24 Hours but has set out no timeframe.