You will probably know that the current GT3 regulations have created the most successful formula for sports car racing the world has ever known. Every major manufacturer, from Ferrari, Lamborghini and McLaren to BMW, Mercedes and Audi has an active GT3 programme.
The cars are highly evolved versions of existing road car products and by race car standards, sell in vast numbers: Mercedes for instance has produced over 100 of its SLS GT3 cars and with money coming in from selling updates and parts to repair wrecked cars. It’s a good business to be in even before you consider the halo effect of these programmes on road car sales.
But GT3 cars now come with two problems. First they are expensive: though some are cheaper, a typical front running GT3 machine will set you back around £350,000 before you’ve put a set of slicks on it. Second, because GT3 is so popular yet expensive, it has attracted big name drivers with no interest in being there for the fun or to make up numbers: they want to win. And the influx of pro drivers who deal in tenths and hundredths of a second has squeezed out the gentlemen drivers who just love racing for whatever position they can.
So what if there was a new formula? One where the cars are not converted road cars with aluminium or steel chassis, but a purpose-built prototype racer with a carbon-fibre monocoque, just like the Porsches and Audis that win Le Mans? A car with pushrod suspension, massive downforce and a presence no machine that started life as a road car could ever manage?
And what if such a car was not only quicker than a GT3 car but also cheaper, not by a few thousand, but a few hundred thousand? What if you could buy this carbon fibre prototype for less than the cheapest road-going Ferrari? There’s no need to wonder, because you can.
The regulations for the third Le Mans Prototype category were published in September and by April Ginetta has managed to get no fewer than five to the first round of the European Le Mans Championship. Soon there will be four other manufacturers making LMP3 cars, including Ligier. All will have the same ORECA-supplied and sealed Nissan 5-litre V8 engine and Xtrac paddle-shift gearbox and all designed to last 6000 miles, or at least a season of racing. And all at the fixed price of £134,000.
It sounds too good to be true, but having been lucky enough to be the first journalist allowed to test an LMP3 car, I can assure you it is not. You will, I’m afraid, have to buy a paper copy of Motor Sport for the full lowdown on Ginetta’s new prototype, but I can confirm here that having got straight out of the company’s impressive GT3 car and into the LMP3 was like entering another world. However good a GT3 car can be, it can never feel like a thoroughbred racer because you can’t fake the snake’s belly driving position, the tiny glass house, far off extremities and lack of mass: the minimum weight limit for a LMP3 car is just 930kg.
With an engine limited to just 420bhp at present it’s probably little or no quicker than a GT3 car in a straight line or at the apex of a tight corner. But its brakes are a different world and the downforce in a quick curve (where it can develop over a tonne of the stuff, which is far more than its own bodyweight) is simply otherworldly. I’m told that even by LMP2, let alone LMP1 standards, the LMP3 cars are actually not that grippy, but by the standards of any road based machine, it is a different proposition altogether.
I hope LMP3 gets the following it deserves and that customers (and their sponsors) are not put off by the lack of a posh badge or an easily recognizable shape. For the money an LMP3 car has to be the biggest bargain in sports car racing right now, not to mention one of the most entertaining racing cars of any kind it has been my pleasure to drive.