Dallara returns to Le Mans
Italian firm secures licence as new LMP2 era dawns | By Gary Watkins
Dallara will build its first Le Mans-rules prototype since 2001 when the new LMP2 formula comes into force for 2017. The prolific Italian constructor was granted one of four licences to supply P2 chassis, following a brief tender process that started in June.
Le Mans organiser the Automobile Club de l’Ouest and fellow promoters are limiting the number of suppliers in the popular LMP2 division, so that each is able to put together a proper business model as it sells the latest generation of cost-capped sports-prototypes. Constructors will compete for customers across the World Endurance Championship, the United SportsCar Championship and the Le Mans Series in Europe and Asia. But Dallara managing director Andrea Pontremoli says this was only of secondary importance when the Parma-based company decided to make a tender, in a bid to build its first carbon-chassis prototype since the car of the early 2000s (known internally as the SP1 and externally simply as the LMP).
Beyond the one-make racing
“We are looking forward to be able to make a reasonable business with the new rules,” says Pontremoli, “but this is not the main reason we have decided to enter now. We are getting involved because we were looking for competition.”
He pointed out that Dallara is primarily involved in one-make categories, from GP3 up to IndyCar.
Its entry into another open formula alongside Formula 3, where it has a virtual monopoly, will provide a training ground for its engineers.
“We consider this as an investment into research and development, because competition will help us come up with new ideas. GP2, GP3 and Indy Lights don’t offer real competition,” he says.
Dallara offered the same reasoning when it re-entered US sports car racing in Grand-Am’s Daytona Prototype division in 2008. That coincided with a dip in the market for DPs, so that it has produced only four cars over eight seasons in the category that P2 will replace from 2017.
Pontremoli admits that entry into the P2 marketplace still brought risk: “The cost cap is very tight, so we don’t know if it will be viable from a business point of view. It is definitely a risk.”
He wouldn’t put a figure on the number of cars Dallara expects to sell across the four years of the next LMP2 rules cycle, but did suggest that Dallara’s US satellite base in Indianapolis would be “a big advantage” and that he expects sales to be “half and half between the US and the rest of the world”.
A limited market
Limiting the P2 market to four players – down from the six constructors who have had cars on the grid this year – will not necessarily mean a profitable business. Bill Riley, whose Riley Technologies operation won the slot reserved for a US manufacturer in a joint bid with Multimatic Motorsports, points out that Grand-Am employed a similar business model at the start of the DP era, granting seven licences at the start of the category in 2003 and five in 2008. Yet Riley dominated the market and went on to build more than 40 of the chassis based on its original MkXI. The rest built cars in very limited numbers.
Riley entered into partnership with Multimatic, the North American automotive conglomerate, to give the North Carolina-based company the same “global presence” as rivals. The FIA and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest at Le Mans, which framed the new rules together with the USC sanctioning body IMSA, demanded guarantees that bidders could service cars in all LMP2 markets.
“We wanted to make sure that we had a global presence, and teaming up with Multimatic allows us to have that — they have a big facility in the UK and offices all over the world,” Riley says. “We also believe that we will produce a better car by working together.”
Strakka back to P1
Putting in place the infrastructure needed to service customers was one reason why Strakka Racing, which built the Japanese Dome S103, opted against bidding to become one of the chosen constructors.
“We came to the decision that we would not meet the criteria demanded by the FIA and the ACO and that we wouldn’t be able to stand toe to toe with the other bidders,” says Strakka team principal Dan Walmsley.
That has resulted in Strakka abandoning the Dome project, which suffered a series of delays that prevented the S103 from racing in 2014. Instead, it will race a Gibson 015S in the remainder of this year’s WEC and focus on a return to the LMP1 division, in which it competed in 2009 and 2012-13, with a car of its own design.
“After evaluating all the options, the LMP1 privateers’ category now offers the best arena to create our own car, which we will use to showcase our growing knowledge of new design and manufacturing processes,” says Walmsley, who adds that this was another step towards Strakka becoming “a sustainable motor sports business”.
Gibson targets engine deal
The question remains whether limiting LMP2 to four manufacturers will create the viable business that the FIA and the ACO covet. Bill Gibson, whose eponymous company (formerly known as Zytek) has produced a line of successful P2 machinery, thinks not.
That explained why he didn’t enter the tender process.
“It was not commercially viable, leastways for us, though that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be for others,” he says. “It wasn’t an easy decision to take and is sad in many ways.”
There is also a second reason for Gibson opting against trying to continue in P2 beyond the end of next season: the rules precluded a chassis builder from supplying the one-make engine that will be used across all the arenas, with the exception of the USC. The likelihood is that Gibson will bid for that contract and a decision is due to be announced in September.
The French connection
Current LMP2 big hitters ORECA and Onroak Automotive (with its Ligier and Morgan chassis) were also selected when the ACO announced the successful bidders.
ORECA suggested that it reached break-even point only after building 10 of its ultra-successful 03 chassis, of which 20 have been produced since 2011. Onroak has hit that number with the Ligier JSP2 in just 18 months, but is refusing to talk about profitability for a new company established only at the end of 2012. Boss Jacques Nicolet claims the firm is still “at the investment stage”.
The jury is still out on whether the new rules will allow P2 constructors to operate in profit. Financial success for one or two is likely to lead to losses for the others.
Obituary: Peter de Klerk
South African Grand Prix driver Peter de Klerk has died aged 80. He came to the UK in 1958 and worked for Lotus, building engines for Graham Hill and Cliff Allison, before returning home to work on Alfa Romeo-powered Cooper and Lotus cars. That led to building a successful Alfa special in which from 1962 de Klerk contested the South African championship and two Grands Prix. He went on to race a variety of Brabhams, entering two more South African GPs, then turned to sports cars, in 1966 sharing sixth place at Le Mans in a Porsche 906.
He raced single-seaters in South Africa until 1980.