When we think of sportscar racing our minds may wander toward GT cars and exotic prototype machinery coming out of Europe, the 24 hours of Le Mans, and respectful competition. There is also an air of superiority in the product Europe produces, some might even say snobbery. Jean Girard in Taladega Nights is a caricature of this and, as with all good humor, it contains an element of truth. Yet as sportscar racing in Europe is currently being suffocated by an overzealous and politically correct ACO , an unlikely savior is emerging: the good ole US of A.
For purists, the acquisition of the ALMS (American Le Mans Series) and IMSA (International Motor Sports Association) by the France family (which controls NASCAR ) in 2014 was a hard pill to swallow. Most of us could not shake the idea that NASCAR , with its “managed competition” philosophy, spec. hardware, and questionable race control was lurking somewhere in the background. Sure enough, the years of joint LMP2 (Le Mans Prototype 2) and DP (Daytona Prototype) racing saw the acquiring series’ old-school tube-framed DP cars beefed up, the faster and more modern P2 cars slowed down, and several questionable caution flags. Some saw this as legitimate Balance of Performance (BoP) while others saw it as politics. How would IMSA’s good ol’ boys, paying entrants to be fair, feel if a bunch of new guys in their Jean Girard-type machinery came in and cleaned house? Neither path was going to satisfy everyone.
The answer was DPi, or Daytona Prototype International, which IMSA formally announced in 2016. The DPi formula takes a modern 2017-spec ACO LMP2 chassis and mixes it with an engine and custom body work from an auto manufacturer to create unique cars with both engineering and marketing value to manufacturers/sponsors (the opposite direction the ACO went with their P2 class). The purists immediately scoffed with visions of gaudy and insulting vinyl stickers mimicking road cars that NASCAR uses dancing in their heads. Then in December of 2016 Cadillac unveiled its DPi entry. It looked handsome and the purists were, thankfully, proven wrong. The designers and aerodynamicists managed to find a good balance between functional aerodynamics and styling that craftily incorporated design language you see on road-going Cadillacs. Mazda released their car and it was much the same story (although not quite a good as Cadillac).
As the cars were first driven in anger in 2017, DPi’s inaugural season, it seemed as if IMSA still had a BoP problem favoring Cadillac (an old Daytona Prototype team); however, as they dialed in the BoP, the racing became good as well. While the Cadillac DPi with its rumbling linebacker of a V8 came out on top in 2017, by the end of the season we witnessed some great races between the Dallara/Cadillac, Ligier/Nissan P2 car, and the Oreca/Gibson P2 car. The cars looked good, they have value to their respective manufacturers, and had they managed to make it fair.
And a funny thing started to happen as the 2017 season unfolded. Rumors swirled of other manufacturers wanting to get in on the action and join Cadillac, Mazda, and later Nissan. The exciting Penske-Acura [Honda Performance Development] project was announced for 2018 bringing two racing powerhouses together for a foray into the new class. As a matter of fact, prototype entries at this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona have swelled to 20; made up of teams from around the world. And there continue to be rumors of brands such as Lexus and McLaren creating DPi teams for 2019. But it’s not only manufacturers; IMSA prototype racing has piqued the interest of spectacular drivers like Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button (though it didn’t work out for 2017), Juan Pablo Montoya, among others. Invoking another classic movie, “If you build it they will come.” And they are.
For context, recall what is happening at the same time in Europe: P2 has essentially become a spec. racing class with virtually no value to automobile manufacturers and the P1 class has become an over-regulated, over-complicated dive into the deep end of mixing enviro-political policy with motor racing. Audi and Porsche have left P1. Toyota is hanging on because they might have a chance of winning Le Mans if they are the only team left.
Perhaps realizing, but not admitting, the err of their ways the ACO and IMSA held talks in 2017 in an effort to see whether America’s new racing class could participate at Le Mans to bolster its struggling P1 class. The possible solution has been changing. First indication was that there may be a way for P1 and DPi to run together, but then the ACO wasn’t interested. Then the possibility of running in P2 was discussed but quickly abandoned. The latest is a possible P1/DPi convergence when IMSA and the ACO both revisit their respective prototype regulations in 2020. Both Ford and McLaren have said they would strongly consider joining the WEC LMP1 field if the new LMP1 spec were Global, that is, legal to race in the WEC , IMSA , and LeMans.
The spec. was rumored to be something similar to an Indycar engine in an enhanced LMP2 chassis with some kind of simple hybrid system. This hypothetical package would cost $10-$20 million per year to run instead of the hundreds of millions of dollars that Porsche, Audi and Toyota were spending on their P1 programs. Initially, IMSA spoke favorably of the idea and the sportscar world expected something along those lines to be announced in December of 2017, but it wasn’t and now there won’t be an announcement until at least March of 2018. Rumor is that IMSA shared the ACO’s thoughts with its prototype teams and they were not crazy about the idea. Though a $20 million dollar per year program looks like a bargain compared to the cost of the current LMP1 class, it’s more than double what a DPi program costs per car. Why would companies like Acura, Mazda, Nissan, and Cadillac sign on for that formula just to bolster the car count in the WEC when they seem happy with what IMSA is giving them in the American market? They shouldn’t.
Credit where credit is due for IMSA not losing sight of the things that make motor racing great and viable. Not the least of which is allowing manufacturers to have some engineering and branding contribution while using relevant and proven platforms to control costs. Couple that with improved stewarding and bringing on European stalwart Michelin as its tire supplier in 2019 and the series is poised for more success. In the end, Ricky Bobby may not have won the race but he crossed the finish line ahead of Jean Girard and that is exactly what IMSA seems to be doing with DPi.