IMSA: Looking Toward 2018

When the checkered flag fell on the Petit Le Mans’ 10-hour endurance race at Road Atlanta, and consequently on the 2017 season of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, series officials likely let out a collective sigh: Finally, a year where a lot of important things went right, and more significantly, nothing major went wrong.

It was a year of close, relatively controversy-free competition—a year when the 2014 merger of the Grand-Am and American Le Mans Series finally meshed. It was a year when the other major U.S. racing series, including IMSA’s much bigger corporate cousin, NASCAR, struggled to varying degrees while sports car racing motored along, arguably on a roll.

And inarguably, all of 2017’s success, and more, should transition directly into 2018: In an atmosphere that’s particularly thin on oxygen, where it’s practically impossible for a mainstream motorsports series to thrive without manufacturer support, IMSA is actually attracting more manufacturers to an already comprehensive roster.

The era of “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” is long gone, and with it the concept of immediate and profitable brand identification. But there’s no denying that a great many manufacturers consider IMSA’s WeatherTech series to be a good place to spend money. And unlike the pack mentality that may be driving carmakers to become part of the new Formula E series, where the central attraction seems to be the fear of being left out should electric racing actually become popular and profitable, the corporate presence in IMSA is a result of measured, conservative marketing that offers a good return on the dollar.

This is not to say that racing in the IMSA WeatherTech series is inexpensive for manufacturers, because it isn’t, and that includes a big check each manufacturer is expected to write to IMSA at the start of each season for the privilege of being a part of the field. But compared to, say, NASCAR or Formula 1 or even IndyCar, it’s a bargain. And for many of the manufacturers, that cost is partly offset by the business of selling customer cars for the GT Daytona class, a big business for, in particular, Porsche, Audi, Mercedes, Ferrari and Lamborghini.

Let’s take a quick look back, and forward, at what happened in 2017, and what is likely to happen in 2018. We’ll go by class.

Prototype Challenge

We’ll start here, because any predictions we make for 2018 are guaranteed to be accurate. And that first prediction is: There will be no Prototype Challenge class.

Prototype Challenge began essentially as a field-filler in the American Le Mans Series, and served that same purpose when it was dovetailed into the IMSA WeatherTech series four years ago. Using a spec Oreca open-cockpit car and a crate Chevrolet V8 engine, PC gave drivers a genuine taste of prototype racing at a reasonable price, and consequently attracted a great many gentlemen racers with varying degrees of talent. It was also a good showcase for young pro drivers on the way up, and for veterans who weren’t quite ready to hang up the helmet.

But the cars were getting long in the tooth, and certainly safety concerns have led the trend in prototype racing away from the open-cockpit configuration. So Prototype Challenge went out with something of a whimper in 2017, with only three cars running the whole season–two from BAR1 Motorsports, one from Performance Tech Motorsports. The Performance Tech team took the final PC championship, with drivers James French and Patricio O’Ward winning every race but the Petit Le Mans finale.

The Prototype Challenge cars are already finding a home in historic racing series, and IMSA drivers who want to race prototypes at a lower level are being directed to the Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda series, which has two classes: The venerable four cylinder-powered Mazda Prototype Challenge cars, which use an open-cockpit Elan chassis, and the closed-cockpit LMP3 cars, offered by several manufacturers and powered by spec V8 Nissan engines. (Though since Nissan doesn’t pay a royalty, the engine is regarded as generic.) The 2018 season is the second for the LMP3 cars.

GT Daytona

Easily the largest class in the IMSA WeatherTech series, GTD consists of the cars that most closely resemble their street-going counterparts. One of the few controversies IMSA faced last year, and so far a minor one, was that GTD is supposed to be a privateer class, while GT Le Mans is the class almost entirely made up of factory-backed entries.

When Acura and Lexus entered GTD for 2017, each two-car team seemed awfully close to a full factory effort, over which a couple of manufacturers, Porsche being one, cried foul: How are privateers supposed to compete with entries that are fully financed by the factory? So far, IMSA has kept this from becoming a crisis, but the situation had some IMSA teams looking hard at the rival Pirelli World Challenge. Whether it causes any substantial movement between the two sanctions remains to be seen.

Regardless, it was a very solid season for GTD. Christina Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan repeated as champions in their No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari, finishing 20 points ahead of the No. 33 Riley Motorsports-Team AMG Mercedes driven by Jeroen Bleekemolen and team principal Ben Keating. The Ferrari team won only once, at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, but notched one podium finish after another to take the title.

At this writing, despite two straight championships, Nielsen is without a ride for 2018, as her spot on the Ferrari team will be taken by Cooper MacNeil, son of the owner of series sponsor WeatherTech. MacNeil finished 11th in driver points after starting the season in the new-for-2017 Mercedes, but finishing in a Porsche.

Of the two, Acura had a better freshman season than the Lexus, with the two Michael Shank Racing Acuras finishing fifth and tenth in the points with two wins, while the winless Lexus team, 3GT Racing, was 11th and 12th. Even so, Jeff Segal and Andy Lally are leaving their Acura rides–Lally is rejoining car owner and co-driver John Potter at Magnus Racing, likely for a GTD entry–and it appears Acura will be less of a factory-financed effort in 2018.

Bottom line: GT Daytona won’t be the newsmaker it was for 2017, but expect strong fields and good racing.

GT Le Mans

Though team manager Doug Fehan insisted for most of 2017 that IMSA’s Balance of Performance rules did not favor his Corvettes, drivers Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia still took home the championship in their No. 3 Corvette Racing entry. They parlayed three wins and a consistent performance in the rest of the races into a 17-point lead over the No. 25 BMW Team RLL car of Bill Auberlen and Alexander Sims. Third and fourth were the Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs.

With guest driver Kuno Wittmer, the No. 25 BMW closed out the season with a win at Petit, significant because it was the swan song for the BMW M6 GTLM, as it will be replaced, starting with the Rolex 24 At Daytona, by the new BMW M8 GTE.

Prototype

This is where the Big News is for IMSA’s 2018 season, leading with a brand-new car from a returning manufacturer, and a much-massaged car from an existing manufacturer, fielded by a new team.

The new car is, of course, the Acura ARX-05, powered by a twin-turbo 3.5-liter V6. But the headline here is that the car will be fielded by Team Penske, with an all-star lineup that includes IndyCar stars Helio Castroneves and Juan Montoya. Montoya will be paired with former Action Express driver Dane Cameron, and Montoya’s teammate will be Ricky Taylor, who won the 2017 Prototype championship with his brother, Jordan. Two more IndyCar drivers, Simon Pagenaud and Graham Rahal, will help out in the longer races, including the first two events, Daytona and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

To get a head start on 2018–even though the Acura wasn’t ready–Penske acquired an Oreca LMP2 chassis and a Gibson engine, which is essentially the spec car and engine for the World Endurance Championship and its 24 Hours of Le Mans, and entered it in the Petit Le Mans with Castroneves, Montoya and Pagenaud. Montoya put it on the pole, and the car led often during the race before finishing third, on the lead lap.

GRM was there for the first public test of the new Acura at Daytona International Speedway, and it was fast. “It’s good enough to race as it is,” said Ricky Taylor. “But, knowing Penske, we have a lot more development work to do before the Rolex 24.”

Dutch driver Renger van der Zande, who spent 2017 in the No. 90 Visit Florida Ligier-Gibson, will replace Ricky Taylor in the family-owned No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac DPi in 2018. The Taylor brothers won the 2017 championship with a dominating five-race win streak to start the year. Second, and 19 points back, was the No. 31 Action Express Cadillac of Cameron and Eric Curran. They were seven points ahead of third place, the No. 5 Action Express Cadillac of Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi. Felipe Nasr will replace Cameron in the No. 31.

The other major story in Prototype is the return of the beleaguered Mazda Prototype, which has gone winless since it debuted in 2014 with an uncompetitive diesel engine. Mazda was sufficiently disheartened that the team shut down for the last seven races, announcing that it was replacing longtime stalwart partner SpeedSource with Joest Racing, the German team that had so much success with the Audi prototypes.

Joest and Multimatic have made major changes to the team’s RT24-P and Mazda has been tweaking the four-cylinder engine in preparation for a Daytona debut. Holdover Mazda drivers Jonathan Bomarito and Tristan Nunez will be joined by Oliver Jarvis and Harry Tincknell; for the longer races, Spencer Pigot and Rene Rast will be added to the roster.

In other Prototype news: JDC-Miller, which ran a single Oreca-Gibson in 2017, is expected to add another car for 2018. CORE Autosport, which ran in GT Daytona in 2017, will move up to Prototype, also in an Oreca. BAR1 and Performance Tech, which ran in Prototype Challenge, are expected to race in Prototype in 2018, BAR1 in a Riley LMP2, Performance Tech in a Dallara. And Ian Dawson’s D3+ Transformers Racing will field a Ligier/Gibson, with sponsorship from Hasbro’s Transformer toy line.

And finally, likely just for the Rolex 24, Formula 1’s Fernando Alonso will be part of a United Autosports Ligier Prototype team, along with Paul Di Resta and Lando Norris. And don’t look now, but martial artist Jackie Chan, whose team very nearly won the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans, may be coming with not one, but two Jota-fielded Oreca/Gibsons.

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Devilsolsi
Devilsolsi Reader
12/18/17 3:01 p.m.

Cannot wait for Daytona. The prototype category is going to be really interesting with Mazda returning and Penske joining. 

759NRNG
759NRNG Dork
12/19/17 10:46 a.m.

" And for many of the manufacturers, that cost is partly offset by the business of selling customer cars for the GT Daytona class, a big business for, in particular, Porsche, Audi, Mercedes, Ferrari and Lamborghini." Yes the Corvette is in GTLM, but for me, to have Cadillac jettison the ATS-Vr program (yes different series) makes little or no sense from a marketing/selling product stand point(yeah corporate has it all figured out).   Will DPi caddys be available at a location near you????

bmw88rider
bmw88rider SuperDork
12/19/17 12:27 p.m.

Let's be honest though. They get more visibility for the Cadillac brand from IMSA than they ever would from PWC.  3-4 X the TV viewers and more fans in the stands. 

 

At least with IMSA, it's not the creation of a completely different car for 1 team to promote a car that sells 25K units for all of the variations (Plain Jane 2.0T to ATS-V) on a good year with this year looking more like 14K for the entire line. What was the V take rate of that? Maybe 3-5%? I've never seen one in the wild outside of areas of a cadillac sponsered event. 

They never did a customer program in the US as the Corvette was the only customer car they ever sold and that was really rare until this year. 

 

All said, I give Caddy credit for staying in PWC for as long as they did. 

 

 

 

 

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