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IMSA News Notebook: BMW To DPI? Ford GT Drivers? Honda P2 Back In 2016?

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BMW Not Counting Out IMSA P2 Effort

BMW continues to find itself at the center of speculation as a manufacturer with an eye on entering IMSA’s new-look P2-based Prototype class in 2017. With a brand-new GT3-spec model being readied for competition in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, BMW Motorsport boss Jens Marquardt says the marque isn’t ready to tackle IMSA’s top Prototype category, but he also isn’t ready to rule out the German brand’s expansion into the class after its twin-turbo M6 settles into GT Le Mans and GT Daytona.

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“At the moment, definitely our focus is on the GT project next year and getting the M6 on the road, but I would not rule it out completely at this time,” said Marquardt.

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”For sure there are no plans for that right now because we are looking to get a good start to the GT program, and then look at things from there.”

With General Motors, Mazda, and possibly Bentley joining the 2017 Prototype ranks, the addition of a heavyweight like BMW would be a significant score for IMSA. Just as Marquardt makes it clear BMW isn’t ready to add its name to the Prototype class, it’s also evident the company is keeping an eye on where IMSA takes the unique engines and custom bodywork that will be allowed with the P2-based Daytona Prototype International cars.

“We want to see how the whole package develops over here,” he said. “It’s not the hottest thing on our list right now, but we had a successful partnership with Steve Dinan before in DP, and it would depend on which type of engine would be permitted. This is something where we would need to learn more to understand the direction of the class as it goes ahead. As I said, it’s not really high on our list at the moment, but I would not rule it out completely.”

Ford’s GT Driver Lineup Begins To Crystalise

An artfully crafted headline from Corvette Racing during Petit Le Mans could be the first indication of where Ford’s first new GT driver has been sourced.

“Corvette Racing Re-Signs Full-Season Drivers For 2016” keenly omitted Ryan Briscoe, its primary endurance driver from the roster of drivers who re-upped, and if paddock speculation is anything to go by, Briscoe’s a lock for a full-time role in IMSA. Based the Australian’s long-standing ties with the Chip Ganassi Racing team that will run Ford’s return to domestic and international GT racing, Corvette’s press release could be a quiet confirmation of where he’s headed.

There’s still no confirmation from Briscoe’s camp, or from Ford, but it’s definitely worth following in the weeks ahead as Ganassi turns more testing miles in its new Ford GT chassis.

Focusing primarily on the American needs for the Ford GT program, four full-time opportunities and two endurance seats are expected to be filled before the end of the year. CGR’s Joey Hand takes one full-time seat, and with his 2015 teammate Scott Pruett now considered a big question mark for the GT program, it could leave three more seats open. And if Briscoe is indeed the second full-timer alongside Hand, the list of remaining needs becomes easier to consider.

A few other names have been mentioned repeatedly as strong candidates to earn full-time contracts. Corvette DP ace Richard Westbrook was known as one of the finest GT drivers on the planet before moving up to prototypes, and he was named by quite a few people during Petit Le Mans as a solid contender for a Ford GT ride. Like Briscoe, anything related to Westy heading to Ford is speculation.

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Adding to the fun-with-Ford rumors, veteran BMW man Dirk Muller was also the source of plenty of Ford-related mentions in Road Atlanta. Could those four comprise CGR/Ford’s primary IMSA driver rotation? Looking back to our July story, a few drivers who were mentioned – and some who were omitted – have also been part of the recent rumor mill, or have received favorable nods from within the program, to make expanding the list worthwhile.

CGR/Ford team manager Mike O’Gara professed his great appreciation for Marino Franchitti in the latest issue of RACER magazine and, with the 2010 ALMS champion’s stirring drive to cement Ganassi’s overall win in 2014 with the Ford EcoBoost DP at the 12 Hours of Sebring, the Scot has at least one admirer within the program. Dodge Viper veteran Marc Goossens has also been cited as a driver of interest for the GCR/Ford brain trust.

With more drivers to choose from than full-time seats to offer, it appears Ford’s IMSA GT effort will be saturated with talent to evaluate. And with the same number of seats to fill on the WEC side of the program, missing out on a ride in the WeatherTech Championship doesn’t necessarily mean a seat in the Multimatic-run WEC Ford GT effort is out of the question.

Sebastien-Bourdais-2Into the IMSA endurance seats (which would be for the four Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup rounds at Daytona, Sebring, Watkins Glen, and Road Atlanta), multiple sources place four-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais (Left) in a Ford GT for the TPNAEC events.

The Florida-based Frenchman has served in that TPNAEC role for the Action Express Racing Corvette DP team since the TUDOR Championship was formed. With AXR, Bourdais has amassed major wins at Daytona, Sebring, Road Atlanta, and has helped the team to win back-to-back Prototype championships.

The Le Mans native’s experience at the legendary French endurance race would also make him a natural ambassador for the brand when CGR’s two-car effort joins the FIA WEC program to form Ford’s four-car assault on La Sarthe. Another driver whose name has been frequently associated with an endurance seat is former Team Falken Tire driver Bryan Sellers.

Looking at some of the other drivers mentioned in July, rumblings on quite a few of those listed as FIA WEC solutions have surfaced. Whether some could become candidates for IMSA is unknown, but I’ve heard Olivier Pla, the aforementioned Goossens, Jeroen Bleekemolen, and Stefan Mucke on a rather steady rotation of names with a high probability of racing a Ford GT. McLaren driver Kevin Estre is another whose name has been attached to a Ford drive, but the Frenchman has also been mentioned in a similar capacity with Porsche, and with a return to McLaren.

Throw in other GT heavyweights like Kuno Wittmer, Colin Braun, Jonathan Bomarito, Billy Johnson, Spencer Pumpelly, Gunnar Jeanette, Jonathan Summerton and at least a dozen more prime candidates, and trimming the list to surefire signings and secondary options could be one of the hardest tasks facing CGR, Ford, and Multimatic.

Honda’s P2 Coupe On the Way Back

Honda Performance Development’s newest prototype is closing in on a full-time return for the 2016 season. The HPD ARX-04b P2 chassis, which made its debut at January’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, and was parked weeks later due to aerodynamic deficiencies, is being prepared for a dedicated campaign in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s Prototype category.

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“We’re not at a stage where we want to make a team announcement, but certainly we’ve been looking at options to bring the ARX-04b back into service,” said HPD vice president Steve Eriksen. “It’s gone through some development and continues to go through the development process to achieve some aerodynamic improvements and things are moving along on that front.”

HPD has spoken with a number of teams about partnering to run the revamped ARX-04b, and although Eriksen wouldn’t be drawn on the names, it’s believed the California-based PR1/Mathiasen team is the leading candidate to field the program.

PR1/Mathiasen, which earned the 2013 ALMS PC Drivers’ championship with Mike Guasch, just closed an impressive 2015 TUDOR Championship season where they won four PC rounds, including the Rolex 24, 12 Hours of Sebring, and Petit Le Mans. Based on PR1 team owner Bobby Oergel’s ongoing interests in moving to P2, and the team’s relative proximity to HPD in Southern California, an alliance between both parties could be advantageous.

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“We’re hoping to consummate something that would allow the car to return to the track next year,” said Eriksen of solidifying a partnership with the unspecified team. Oergel declined to comment.

IMSA will move to the new P2 regulations established by the ACO and FIA in 2017 and add a few twists of its own under the “Daytona Prototype international” chassis banner. Existing closed-top P2 coupes like the ARX-04b have been given a one-year “grandfather” clause that will allow them to race in 2017, but Eriksen hopes HPD’s latest chassis and others, will be granted more time to compete.

“The ACO has clearly specified that we can run in 2017, but what that means in the IMSA world has not been fully decided; we know we can run as a grandfathered car, but with everything about to be new, you never know exactly what adjustments will be made for reality when there’s a sea change,” he noted. “That’s part of the reason why we want to see the car out next year. You have a better chance of carrying on if you’re out and competing than if you’re not.”

Tyre Changes On The Way?

Discussions following last weekend’s rain-soaked IMSA season finale at Road Atlanta could lead to tire changes when the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship returns in January.

IMSA met with some of its partners following the rain-shortened event to discuss the possibility of developing a new Continental rain tire for use in 2016, and according to one team owner who asked to have his name withheld, an updated design could be ready prior to the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“The current rain tire, which Continental was tasked with building one solution for two types of distinct cars, GTs and prototypes, was pushed to its limits and probably beyond its limits in dealing with all of the water at Petit Le Mans,” he said. “They are ready to go with a new rain tire and I think that will be huge the next time we have this kind of situation. Everybody is on board with the idea.”

An IMSA spokesperson told me”We are conducting our annual review of the current Sporting and Technical Regulations. We have made no decisions at this time.”

History was made at Petit Le Mans when a Michelin-shod Porsche 911 RSR from the slower GT Le Mans category passed the leading Continental-shod Corvette Daytona Prototype for first place and went on to score the overall victory.

In the driving rain, the production-based GTLM cars, which do not use the spec Continental tire mandated in Prototype, PC, or GT Daytona were able to hound and pass Prototype drivers, but during periods where lighter rainfall was experienced, Prototypes held an advantage.

In the limited dry running during the event, the gap between top Prototype and GTLM cars on slicks was close to five seconds per lap. With a rain tire more suited to harsher conditions, another overall win by a GT car would be unlikely.

The high volume of spins and crashes on cold tires at Road Atlanta has prompted another possible change for 2016.

“I think we might also have tire warmers included in the rules package for next year,” the team owner added. “It’s something that will really help the [Pro-Am] drivers at night at the Rolex [24], in the rain, you name it. We had a lot of accidents with PC cars, a lot of cars in general. And even some of the pro guys struggled on cold tires. If tire warmers help the [Pro-Am] guys to be more comfortable and keeps more cars out of the walls, it’s going to end up being a cost savings to buy them.”

Marshall Pruett