You don't have to follow sports car racing for too long before noticing its a rather cyclical sport. For a few years, everything will be totally awesome with cool cars and great racing. Then it all goes wrong; a bad economy sucks racing budgets dry, a rules change sends competitors elsewhere, or one of any number of other problems arises and interest and excitement evaporate. CanAm, Group C, GTP, and the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) each blossomed for a while before circumstances conspired against them. We saw it most recently with the World Endurance Championship. For a few brief years it was the best thing in racing, with 1,000hp hybrid prototypes from Audi, Porsche, and Toyota—now in 2018 it's a mere shadow of where things were just two seasons ago.
Meanwhile, here in the US IMSA's WeatherTech Sportscar Championship appears to be in rude health, attracting a healthy mix of factory-backed cars in the DPi and GTLM class was well as pro-am teams running DPi, LMP2, and GTD cars. We've checked in with the IMSA series a couple of times this year—at the season opening Rolex 24 as well as at the Detroit Grand Prix—and we took a look behind the scenes with Mazda and Multimatic. But at Watkins Glen earlier this summer I caught up with IMSA's president Scott Atherton to talk about where American sports car racing is headed.
Atherton's been involved in the sport for several decades, running several different racetracks before heading up the ALMS in 2000. The ALMS' heyday was probably in the late 2000s, but by 2012 it was in a bit of trouble. NASCAR stepped in to buy it, merged the ALMS with its GrandAm series (which always put on a great show but struggled to attract the fans, mainly due to its low-tech and rather ugly Daytona Prototype cars). I put it to Atherton that his series is now very reminiscent of ALMS' glory days.
Atherton responded: "This is one person's opinion, but candidly it's taken us that long to get back there. It's completely different in terms of what's on track, but I would agree with you, the combination of manufacturer involvement, the caliber of the teams, the caliber of the drivers, the overall energy level and trendline of the championship is very similar."
"You had to have lived through that era, when you had Acura, Audi, and Porsche all competing, and then a handful of really top quality independent teams, most of all Dyson. If you were there, you know, what I'm speaking of," he told me.
For a few years after the series merged in 2013, the ungainly Daytona Prototypes raced against Le Mans-spec LMP2 prototypes, a tricky balancing act for the people who had to write the rules. What's more, it happened with a lot of negativity in the background.
"When we first announced the merger, many of our core fans were very outspoken, opposed to it because they all felt that sports car racing was simply going to become another class of NASCAR. And that's not a negative observation of NASCAR it's just the two are so very different. And the NASCAR approach to racing and the traditional European approach to sports car racing candidly doesn't have a lot in common," Atherton said.
"Without question it was the most difficult process. Anybody who was on the front line would tell you it was the most difficult experience they ever endured and it brought everything to a breaking point. And I think we've all witnessed other examples of things that have had the title merger applied to it and in fact, it was an acquisition where one set of perspectives remained and the other simply quietly went away," Atherton said.
"Whereas when we announced this as a merger, and let's be candid, it was an acquisition—the France family [which owns NASCAR] acquired Panoz Motorsports Group and all that it entailed, but the process was a true merger. What it means is the combination of those two approaches, and if the outward appearance has more of the consistency of the American Le Mans series I can tell you that under the surface the infrastructure is all GrandAm, and it's all NASCAR."
Next year is going to see a few important changes to IMSA's WeatherTech series. There's a new TV deal with NBC Sports. Long-time series partner Continental Tires is leaving at the end of the year, to be replaced by Michelin (which has always been a presence in the GTLM class). And the prototype cars will be split into two classes. For the past two years, IMSA has had to try to performance balance the highly standardized LMP2 cars (which also race at Le Mans) with the factory DPi prototypes, pegging the latter back via the dreaded balance of performance (BOP).
The DPi cars are based on the LMP2 class but OEMs have freedom to use their own engines, control electronics, dampers, and can add styling cues to visually link the race cars to their road machines. All of that should make them theoretically faster, but this year the BOP has been so successful that LMP2 cars have won several of the most recent races. All that changes in 2019. From next year, DPi will be its own class, and let off the leash, with LMP2 remaining an option for pro-am teams but almost guaranteed no chance of an overall win.
For many fans of the sport, DPi cars should be an obvious addition to the French endurance race at Le Mans, particularly after the hybrid LMP1 class there proved to be financially unsustainable. Both Audi and Porsche were spending several hundred millions of dollars a year on LMP1 programs, and other than Toyota, no other OEM has been prepared to consider taking part at that level due to the cost. (By contrast, a factory-backed DPi program would struggle to spend more than $20 million a year.) Meanwhile, there are increasing rumors that we may soon see DPi cars become hybrids, but with standardized systems to prevent the cost escalation seen in LMP1.
I asked Atherton about those rumors, and how IMSA's relationship with the ACO (which organizes the 24 Hours of Le Mans) is faring. "I think it would be helpful to give you just a brief history of the process we've been involved with. Because you're right, it's an important topic. And it's one that is still very much alive in terms of the opportunity to bring a single technical regulation that would work at Le Mans, Daytona, Sebring, in the WEC, and what's happening here in the WeatherTech series," he said. "If you go back to the very first sit-down meeting between ourselves and the ACO, that takes you back to September of last year. And there was a vision shared at that time of when we look at the next generation prototype regulations, it makes total sense for all involved that we have a common regulation. By common, meaning the same," Atherton told me.
"At the time that meeting took place, the reality of what had happened in LMP1 was not private information, it was public. There was going to be one manufacturer, Toyota, continuing. So the interest level of all involved, ACO, FIA, IMSA, was at a very high level. And we talked about our definition of what is a sustainable level of budget not only to design, build, create the racing vehicle, but then to compete with it. And the model that's always used is a two car team over a full season," Atherton said. (The budgets being discussed were between €25 and €30 million, that is, $29 million to $35 million, which would be a significant reduction from LMP1 and much closer to—but still more than—it would cost to run in IMSA.)
At first, the ACO's plans sounded like everyone wanted to return to the late 1990s, where road-going supercars were used as a starting point, then evolved into fiercesome GT1 cars. Except this time with hypercars, the idea would be that we could see McLaren P1s and Ferrari LaFerraris race each other at Le Mans, rather than the even more exotic P1s that bear much less resemblance to anything you might see wearing a number plate. Whether this is where we will get to see that is still up in the air; a more likely alternative is an evolution of the DPi concept, with more road car styling cues applied to prototype chassis, and production car engines coupled with standardized hybrid systems.
"The next generation of our top class will make its debut—whether it's with hypercar example or DPI 2.0—in January of 2022," Atherton said. "We're here in 2018. So we have some luxury of time. But when you think that far ahead, knowing what we know today, and if you go to the International Auto Show in Detroit, you go to Geneva, you go to Paris, you go to Los Angeles, every manufacturer is showcasing hybridization, electrification, alternative fuels. So if your mandate is to maintain manufacturer and consumer relevance in technology, then there's no leap of faith involved to say there's got to be hybridization," Atherton told me.
"The question is how you put a wrapper around that such that you don't have the technological arms race that ultimately results in that program coming to an end because the budgets get out of control. And you're always one board meeting away from termination," Atherton said. "That's always been the case. We're very sensitive right now to how our manufacturers who are currently involved with us want to evolve. And we take a lot of our cues from that type of very candid transparent feedback," he explained.