The 2016 sports car season has been quite the success story for Honda. It’s hard to have a bad season after starting off winning the “36-hours of Florida”. It was the first time since 1996 that the same car won both the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring in the same year. And it’s only gotten better with Michael Shank Racing’s win at Laguna Seca. Overall, Honda-powered cars have won threee of the first four IMSA races
(Impress your friends with this trivia: Scott Sharp was one of the drivers for this year’s Extreme Speed Motorsports Florida 36-winning team and the Doyle Racing team that won both races in 1996.)
But there is more to this season than the impressive race wins at Daytona, Sebring and Laguna Seca. Much of the discussion for the rest of this year will involve transitioning to a new world of North American sports car racing for Honda in 2017.
What’s going on for 2017?
- The long-awaited debut of the NSX GT racer built to FIA GT3 regulations.
- The debut of the new Daytona Prototype international class at the top of IMSA WeatherTech sports car series.
Winning the “Florida 36”
Pipo Derani of the ESM team (who is associated with Onroak, the manufacturer of the Ligier chassis) got all the attention. But a significant amount of the credit should go to the new Honda twin-turbo V6 engine for 2016. In an email exchange with Temple of VTEC Motorsports, Steve Eriksen, Executive Vice President of Honda Performance Development ( HPD ), said the primary reason for the increase in displacement was to improve the ability of the LMP2 car to race with the Daytona Prototypes.
“We thought that switching from the 2.8L configuration to the 3.5L configuration would improve the raceability of the LMP2 chassis when competing against V8 powered Daytona Prototypes. We proposed the change to IMSA , they tested it on their dyno, and ultimately granted us approval to use that displacement.”
So the fact that both the Shank and ESM cars were among the cars-to-beat at both events was no accident. In previous years when the V8-engined Daytona Prototypes had a big torque advantage it was easier for them to on restarts and to do things like drive around slower cars. Whereas Honda’s 2.8-liter turbo was more of a “momentum” car. It did fine on one lap, but got eaten alive in any situation that required low- RPM torque.
With the displacement increase, that all changed. The Hondas were able to navigate slower traffic better and they were actually able to pass on restarts.
Will this change mean that Honda should be competitive at all IMSA races this year? In a word, “No.” Michael Shank is the only Honda “full-season” entry in the Prototype category of IMSA . One of his full-time drivers is John Pew, an amateur driver. Due to the nature of the IMSA rules, Pew has to qualify the car. That means that the Michael Shank Racing ( MSR ) car is typically going to be starting around seventh place. In most IMSA races, you can’t win from that far back. The way the yellow flags fell at Laguna Seca was good fortune to say the least. They put Oz Negri right up at the front when he took to the track. If he can see the leader, he’s dangerous. On the whole, the team’s 7th place finish at Long Beach is probably more indicative of what can be expected from the team in the non-endurance IMSA races.
Also, Shank has announced that they won’t be contesting the Detroit Grand Prix at all, because it conflicts with the LeMans test day.
Where you likely will see Honda shine yet this year in IMSA competition is in the last two races of the North American Endurance Championship: The Six Hours of Watkins Glen and Petit LeMans (Daytona and Sebring were the first two races in the Endurance Cup). Since ESM won the first two races of the championship, and its sponsor, Tequila Petron, sponsors the North American Endurance Championship, the team announced recently that it would field a Ligier-Honda in the final two races of the series. In those races, the same things that worked for the Honda teams at Daytona and Sebring should also work: The races are Long (Watkings Glen is 6 hours and Petit LeMans is 10 hours), and the cars with the new engines should be more competitive with the DPs.
NSX GT3 Racer
The car was unveiled at the 2016 New York Auto show and it’s clear Honda has big plans for it. But no one at HPD is talking about exactly what those plans are just yet.
“We look forward to sharing more details of our NSX race plans in the days ahead including information about teams, drivers and competition series as those plans mature.”
Understanding that I have no more information than that from Honda, this is what I think is going to happen with the NSX GT.
First, HPD is going to apply to have the car homologated by the FIA to run in GT3 races around the world. That’s pretty certain, hence the name “GT3”. In the US, that includes the GT class in World Challenge and the GTD class in the IMSA WeatherTech series. The NSX might earn that homologation yet this year, in time to hit the track at the latter stages of the season. Possible debut races could be Pirelli World Challenge September 17-18 at Sonoma, Petit LeMans October 1 or PWC at Laguna Seca October 8-9.
If it’s not ready by then, it should be on the track for sure by the start of 2017.
The questions at this point are “Who is going to race it?” and “In what series?”
If it’s raced this season, I would anticipate the likely team to be the quasi-factory RealTime Racing and the series to be Pirelli World Challenge. These short, sprint races and all-professional driving lineups are perfect for shaking down a new car.
I also anticipate that the NSX will do a full season with RealTime in PWC for 2017, where it should be much more competitive than the current TLX GT car.
Being a GT3, eventually I would expect it to be available to customers; that is what GT3 is about. And someone may choose to run one in the GTD class of IMSA . The problem with that is that this is a new car and new configuration that would be expected to last 24 hours in the first race (Daytona) and 12 hours in the second (Sebring). It might happen, but I’m not holding my breath.
Another possibility is an Acura “factory” team in GTD . Lexus is doing this now in selected races. But a factory team in a pro-am series (at least one amateur driver is mandated for each car) runs counter to the spirit of the rules.
The most disappointing thing to me about the NSX GT3 is that it’s not a hybrid, and it’s not all wheel drive. Of course, this is due to the GT3 regulations which don’t allow either hybridization or AWD . And GTE/ GTLM regulations also do not allow hybridization. So effectively there is not place for a hybrid NSX to race. The reasoning: It’s too complicated. I don’t believe that, and Eriksen said this on the subject: “We are very confident in the car’s performance as a hybrid but that does not align with current North American motorsports regulations.”
Making sure that everyone knows that I have had no conversations with anyone at Honda about this, but I think a Hybrid NSX in IMSA GTLM makes too much sense not to happen.
As it sits, the NSX GT3 might be a bit underpowered to compete with the Corvettes, Porsches and Ferrari in GTE or GTLM . And it might be a bit expensive to push the engine, on its own, to the point where it could truly compete with those cars. A racing Hybrid might be the answer to that power problem.
Then the question becomes “Would IMSA allow it?”. The short answer is “Sure”. Why? Because IMSA needs factory teams in GTLM . Though there is a good number of competitors in the class now (Chevy, Ford, Porsche, Ferrari and BMW ), Ford is only committed to the class for 2016 and 2017. That’s why IMSA allowed BMW to run a thinly veiled GT3 in GTLM . It’s not a GTE car like the others. Also, the Ford GT is running on a “Waiver” since it does not meet the requirement that the race car be based on a production car, since the Ford GT is not in production as yet.
So IMSA makes exceptions all the time to entice manufacturers to play in its sandbox. Why not Honda/Acura?
The last question then becomes: “Would Honda/Acura pay for a factory NSX sports car team?” Up until now the answer has been “No.” And to be fair, it’s a lot of money. Fielding two factory GTLM cars for a season probably costs as much as the entire Honda Indycar program costs, especially factoring in a trip to LeMans. But if Honda is serious about polishing up Acura’s performance image in the US, a Factory NSX Racing team in IMSA would be a helluva way to establish credibility.
IMSA Daytona Prototype International
The 2017 Rolex 24 at Daytona marks the end of the ancient Daytona Prototype cars and the debut of the Daytona Prototype International class. The cars are based on the new-for-2017 LMP2 cars. In the
series the LMP2 cars will all have spec engines.
cars will have a wider variety of engines, as well as manufacturer-specific bodywork to make the cars distinctive without any kind of competitive aero advantage.
While existing Daytona Prototypes will be retired, existing LMP2 cars, like the Ligier-Hondas and the ARX-04b, will be grandfathered for the 2017 season.
Where does Honda fit in? “We are happy to supply customers in 2017 that want to run their grandfathered Ligier-HPD’s or our ARX-04b,” said HPD’s Eriksen. “Anything beyond that is TBD .”
It’s the First week of May as this is being written. I know nothing about what Honda’s DPI prototype plans are. But let’s look at some facts and see what puzzle pieces might, or might not, fit together.
First, HPD has an engine (the 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6 based on the J-series) that would be able to power DPI or a grandfathered LMP2 like the Ligier or the ARX 04b. It’s reliable, relatively inexpensive and it performs. That’s not an issue.
Second, HPD has revised the aero on the ARX-04b, the car that was not competitive when it was introduced in 2015 at Daytona. Michael Shank Racing tested one at Sebring in April, all in attendance were impressed with its performance according to reports.
Third, at this point Honda has not partnered with one of the four 2017 ACO LMP2 chassis manufacturers (Ligier, Oreca, Multimatic and Dallara) for a Honda DPI for IMSA . It might be too late to start development on the IMSA-required manufacturer-specific bodywork and be ready by Daytona. And its rumored that Dallara is exclusively partnering with GM.
As of now, only two manufacturers are known to have DPIs in the works: Mazda and GM. Mazda will have a factory team similar to what they have now with an updated car. GM is likely to run DPIs badged Cadillac with a factory team and perhaps a customer car or two. At least one team (Starworks) plans to run a WEC-spec LMP2 with a spec Gibson engine in IMSA .
Fourth, the spec engines in 2017 Gibson-engined spec ACO/ WEC cars will have about 100 HP more than Nissan V8s that power most of the WEC field for 2016. The 2017 DPI cars will be performance-balanced by IMSA to the 2017 spec ACO/ WEC LMP2 cars. Around the IMSA paddock it is assumed that any grandfathered cars will be at a disadvantage to the new DPI/LMP2 cars because of the 100 HP difference.
Options for Honda in DPI
Option One: Grandfathered Ligier-Honda. This assumes that HPD does not have time to put a new DPI car together with customer bodywork, or that the team does not want to invest in a new car. Would this car be competitive? It would probably be slower than a DPI or a 2017 LMP2. But it would not likely be 100 HP down on power. It was thought that this year’s HPD V6 had about 70 HP more than the Nissan-Ligiers at Sebring. So maybe it would be down 30 HP. Still a significant handicap. If I were a team-owner, it would not be my first choice.
Option Two: ARX-04b. Let’s continue to assume HPD does not have time to put a new DPI car together with custom bodywork by Daytona. HPD could offer teams the updated ARX-04b for 2017 with the promise of a full-fledged DPI for 2018.
Why would a team run an untested car instead of a grandfathered Ligier-Honda? Maybe because the car is untested? Effectively, the car would be new to IMSA , and IMSA might have no choice but to balance its performance to the new 2017 cars. This would make it much more likely to be competitive than a grandfathered Ligier-Honda.
Option Three: a 2017 Honda DPI . No, we’re not assuming there is enough time to develop an aero package for a 2017 LMP2. We’re assuming the aero package already exists. We’re assuming the updated ARX-04B is adaptable to a new LMP2. Perhaps the real reason HPD updated the aero on the car was to develop an aero package for 2017? The cars are about the same size and the aero package is now tested in real life. Perhaps the designs of the front clip and the sidepods can be massaged to fit one of the LMP2 cars?
Personally, I am hoping HPD follows option Two or Three. I find it hard to accept that HPD would be content to defend its Florida 36 accomplishment with a package that it knows would be uncompetitive.