It has been a long time coming, but starting at Daytona (or perhaps a little before that at Laguna Seca), Honda will have an honest-to-goodness GT car to campaign: The Acura NSX GT3.
We’ve all seen what HPD has been doing with the car on track at Mid-Ohio, Gingerman Raceway, and the Utah Motorsports Campus. But let’s review how we got to this point and talk about what happens next.
At the moment, there are two cars. Both were built and developed by JASport in Europe. This is the company that built and developed the Honda Civic WTCC cars. They took shell of the body and the actual production engine and made a purpose-built race car out of it.
There will be a third car built by JASport that will be used for the GT3 Homolgation testing in September in France (more on that below). At the end of hologation process there will be three cars. It is my understanding that at some point the production of GT3 race cars will move to Ohio.
So why is HPD racing these things? It’s not just to win races. HPD is racing these cars in 2017 to build demand for customer cars for 2018 and beyond. This is not a F1 Car, or a GTE car that is raced and then put into a warehouse somewhere after a new car replaced it. It will be a success if GT3 teams and drivers buy lots of these cars and race them. Just like they buy Ferrari 488s (and 458s before them), Porsche 911 GT3s, Audi R8s, Lamborghini Hurricans, etc. The object of the exercise is to sell as many as you can for $500,000+ each, plus spares, tools, and track support. This the purpose of almost all “factory” GT3 teams. The major exception is GM, which for some reason does not sell it’s Cadillac and Corvette GT3s.
If this works, HPD will be no different from Audi or Porsche. The two “factory” teams racing the cars in Pirelli World Challenge and IMSA GTD will be charged with building demand for the NSX GT3 in the rarefied world that is the GT3 marketplace.
The NSX GT3 falls into a category of race cars called, coincidentally enough, FIA GT3. These cars are not built to any specification. Sure, they generally have four wheels and 500-600 HP, avoid certain materials and fall into a certain price range. And they go like stink. But there are really no limits. The GT3 “standard” is a performance envelope at a specific track in France driven by a control driver with control tires in September.
You ship your car to the track with a crew. The car gets driven with other cars looking for GT3 homologation and, if all goes well and performance is within the envelop, the car gets approved by the FIA for use in GT3 series around the world. That’s it. Judging by the performance of the car at Utah, the NSX will get approved and could race the next day.
The second thing to know about GT3 is that it is a performance-balanced formula. Lots of different cars are balanced so that they can race against one another with an approximately even chance of winning. For example, a Bentley should not be able to keep up with an Audi R8 on a tight road course. But when the Balance of Performance (BoP) data is applied to both, they are pretty close. Same for a McLaren keeping up with the Bentley at Road America, “America’s National Park of Speed.” But through BoP they are closer than you’d think. They accomplish this by adding or subtracting ballast (weight), making boost adjustments, or fuel capacity among other things.
The BoP data that the various series use is published in a table by the FIA . There are settings and limits for each car under different types of conditions. For a given track a sanctioning body might add weight to one car and take boost away from another to bring them more into line.
Once the car is accepted into the club, it becomes HPD’s challenge to make it attractive to its target audience: Gentlemen Drivers. These people are normally rich guys who want to go to exotic locales and race expensive toys as a hobby. They make their money doing something else and spend it doing this.
There are a few series like PWC where professionals race these cars, but primarily the market HPD is looking for is Amateurs. Most professional GT3 teams are factory-funded in some fashion, like RealTime in the PWC .
There are lots of places to race these cars. Broadly, there are sprint races and endurance races. The difference is that there is usually no refueling in sprint races. PWC falls into this category. There is refueling in Endurance racing, and sometimes a driver change or two. Many of these events are pro-am, where the Gentleman Driver pays a professional (sometimes two) to race with him. IMSA is an example of this. Most of the time, the Gentleman Driver owns the car and pays a team to campaign it.
are the two best known series in the US that use GT3 cars. The Blancpain Sprint and Endurance series are the best known in Europe. But there are many others.
So the Gentleman Driver market, worldwide, is the market HPD is going after for 2018.
The challenge in 2017 is to showcase the cars in a positive light. Honda will do that in two ways:
They will likely race two cars in the Pirelli World Challenge, replacing the TLX-GTs. One car will almost certainly be driven by Ryan Eversely. His job is to show what a professional can do with them in a sprint series. The second car, who knows? The important thing from HPD’s standpoint is to win and be reliable doing it; building demand for people who will buy them and run them in Europe and Asia.
In IMSA GTD , the hot rumor is that the NSX will be campaigned by Michael Shank Racing. Their job will be to showcase the car under a different set of circumstances. They will likely have one very fast pro teamed with one Silver driver (likely an amateur who is not really an amateur). Again, the object will be two fold: win and gain attention running in the front of the field as well as to show how reliable it is in an endurance setting. Nothing would be better than to win their class at Daytona and/or Sebring with trouble-free runs.
Shank might have a second car. If it were me, I would make sure they do. This would be driven by a pro with a REAL amateur like John Pew. The purpose of this car would be to demonstrate how well the car does in the hands of a non-professional driver. Remember, that’s the market; guys who have enough money to buy the car, hire a team and hire two pros to take the car to the 24-hours of Spa, or Bahrain, or Nurburgring, while on vacation from their day jobs.
There are amateur drivers who take cars, crew, and professional drivers to several major GT3 endurance races as a hobby (there are more of these people than you think there are, believe me). A damned expensive hobby, but who am I to judge? Bowling balls are expensive, too!
Secondarily, (pardon the pun) the second car would assure that there was an NSX in the field in case something happened to one of the cars early-on in a 24-hour or 12-hour race.
The GTD cars will be the best showcase of the NSX to the endurance market. The object is to win or finish well while showing that “anyone” can drive the car. That no “special” skill is required to race it. Among other things, it will showcase how easy it is to change tires, refuel and change drivers. The kinds of things that don’t happen in PWC races.
Another, smaller market is what I call the “arrive-and-drive” market. This is a market of race teams that sell their services to Gentleman Drivers. Often on a per race or per season basis. Most of these teams have brand specialties. Some run Porsches, some Ferraris, etc. HPD would likely be interested in snagging a couple of these teams to specialize in the NSX going forward. In this case, the team would buy a car, parts, and tools and then offer its services to Gentleman Drivers who are not ready to make the investment to buy an NSX GT3. So they would sell the a season of 10 or so races for maybe $700,000 or more.
Porsche has been a bit weak in GT3 lately. So HPD may be targeting some “Porsche shops” for conversion.
So why should we as Honda fans care? Sales of race/track versions of high performance cars are a significant source of revenue for the companies that do it well: Porsche, Ferarri, Audi, Lamborghini, etc. So much so that racing use of the car becomes a design consideration as the road cars are developed. Also, success of the cars can have an impact on brand image and have an impact on a company’s decision making process. Audi, for example, does not sell many road going R8s. But the fact that they sell so many race cars, and the cars do well, can keep the car in the portfolio.
If HPD were selling as few as 10-15 GT3s a year, that would represent ~$5-8 million. Not to mention spares, support contracts, etc. That helps make HPD more capable of funding projects like a racing CTR , or the Formula 4 program. And it makes it more likely that there would be a NSX 3.0 when the time comes, or that there would be a GT4 version of a future “baby NSX”, or help fund development of a GTLM or GTE version of the car to be raced by factory teams at LeMans, or make it more likely that HPD brings its TCR cars here for use in PWC and IMSA . It could convince Honda to develop more RWD cars that are useful in racing series. Or it could simply mean more everyday customers consciously or subconsciously think of Acura as a success.
So it would be great if Acura NSX GT3s win a bunch of races in 2017. But ultimate success will be measured in the number of customer cars there are on track throughout the world in 2018.