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DPI Interest, As It Stands

Based on the lack of official news from auto manufacturers regarding next year’s Daytona Prototype international formula (DPi), one could draw the conclusion IMSA’s new-for-2017 flagship class is struggling to get off the ground. In reality, constant movement has been taking place behind the scenes for quite some time, and while the manufacturers currently competing in IMSA’s Prototype class aren’t ready to acknowledge their upcoming plans, the WeatherTech Championship paddock has been rife with chatter about the offerings a variety of brands have in the pipeline.

The closest thing we have to a confirmed factory program belongs to Mazda. The American arm of the Japanese company has previously confirmed its Mazda Prototype effort, which utilizes a Multimatic-built P2 chassis and a two-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, is part of a five-year commitment. Based on its debut in 2014, its current Prototype effort would run through at least 2018, and to meet those obligations, a new DPi chassis would be required.

Mazda-Sebring-2016

It’s believed Mazda will continue its association with Multimatic through the new Riley-Multimatic relationship that earned one of the four official P2 constructor contracts from the ACO, FIA, and IMSA. The new Mazda Prototype is expected to be powered by the current turbo engine, and per IMSA’s DPi rules, all manufacturer-affiliated cars must use custom bodywork that is unique to the brand, which means Riley-Multimatic would be at work on Mazda-themed panels for its 2017 DPi.

SpeedSource is also expected to continue running two factory Mazdas, and it has been suggested as many as four Mazda Prototypes could be pressed into service, with two going to teams outside the Florida-based entrant. Given the brand’s long history of supporting customer programs, and the interest some teams inside the Prototype class (and outside IMSA) have shown in Mazda’s 2017 plans, it would not be completely unexpected to see more than the two SpeedSource Mazda DPis on the Daytona grid in January.

Honda has a busy 2017 on its horizon within sports car racing. Its GT3-spec Acura NSX was finally unveiled earlier this month at the New York Auto Show, and the mid-engine twin-turbo V6-powered coupe is set to replace the TLXs used in Pirelli World Challenge by RealTime Racing.

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There are also tentative plans to field an NSX in IMSA’s GT Daytona class if a customer team can be identified. The need to develop and introduce the NSX GT3 will likely push any 2017 P2 aspirations Honda Performance Development may have to 2018.

Michael Shank Racing has its existing Honda-powered Ligier JS P2 chassis, which it can run in 2017 under the one-year grandfather clause for non-DPi cars, and MSR also has HPD’s ARX-04b P2 chassis which it will soon test on behalf of the manufacturer. Although a full-bore Honda DPi looks unlikely in the short-term, the brand could maintain its presence in Prototype through MSR’s Ligier, or through the ARX-04b (provided MSR or another team opts to use and support it with a full operating budget).

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It’s worth noting the option to use the grandfather clause sounds more attractive in print than it has been presented to some teams who’ve inquired about bringing 2015-2016-spec P2 coupes into the new DPi era. A Honda representative says that they were informed by IMSA that grandfathered P2s will not be competitive in 2017, and with the series controlling the Balance of Performance tables for the class, the message regarding grandfathered cars could be: If you want a chance to win, bring something new. At this early stage, it makes the idea of racing an ARX-04b, BR01, Ligier JS P2, or ORECA 05 – anything other than a new DPi or WEC P2 chassis – less than compelling.

And as HPD vice president Steve Eriksen said in the days between the St. Petersburg IndyCar opener and the 12 Hours of Sebring, HPD made the effort to speak with at least one approved 2017 P2 constructor, and learned of another manufacturer-based program in the works, while assessing Honda’s DPi options.

“I met with Dallara at St. Pete and talked to them, asked them about how the [DPi] sports car stuff is coming along for IMSA,” Eriksen said. “They wouldn’t mention, naturally, who they were working for, but they did mention they were getting the cars together. So we know that there will be some Dallaras out there at least in 2017.”

The greatest volume of discussion for DPi has centered on General Motors, whose Corvette DPs have dominated the first two seasons of IMSA’s Prototype class. Eriksen’s comment regarding Dallara could, unknowingly, be the first confirmed link to GM’s DPi plans, which is said to include a switch from Chevy Corvette branding to its upscale Cadillac division.

In a late February interview with RACER.com, GM Racing director Mark Kent reasserted the company’s (unconfirmed) position on DPi.

“As we discussed about a year ago, there was a lot of questions that needed to be answered whether or not we continue to compete in that category,” he said. “Secondly, what brand we would compete with? And then third, what approach we would take, whether it would be a focused [factory] team or multiple teams? All of those questions are still not totally answered today.”

Speaking with Action Express Racing, VisitFlorida Racing, and Wayne Taylor Racing, the teams using Corvette DPs, at Sebring, all have either declined to comment on which DPi manufacturer they’ll work with next year, or said no decision has been made.

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Multiple sources have confirmed one Corvette DP team has purchased four Dallara-built Cadillacs (two primaries, two spares), and it’s believed one of the other Corvette DP teams has been offered the use of one of those Cadillac DPs if needed.

Among the other unconfirmed Dallara-Cadillac chatter is a possible change in the engine the Italian chassis will carry. The twin-turbo V6 that powers Cadillac’s ATS-V.R Pirelli World Challenge GT cars was tipped as the logical fit for a Cadillac DPi, but recently, it has been suggested the Corvette DP’s small-block V8 will be mated to the back of the Cadillac DP chassis.

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Filtering Kent’s comments through the behind-the-scenes Cadillac DP purchases from Dallara, it looks like GM Racing will continue to focus on multiple factory-affiliated teams. Other than AXR, VFR, and WTR, I’ve heard nothing regarding new teams being invited to purchase Cadillacs, although with the present date in mind, there’s plenty of time for more Dallaras to be produced and distributed if GM Racing wants to widen its Prototype base. We’ll come back to the “wants to” part shortly.

The last manufacturer currently involved in IMSA’s current Prototype class is DeltaWing, and as we’ve previously written, the DWC13 chassis is not expected to be welcome in 2017, nor has the DeltaWing GT the brand wants to build been invited to join GT Le Mans or GT Daytona. Seeing the DeltaWing name on a 2017 Prototype entry list would likely involve the commissioning of a DPi car with Dallara, Ligier, ORECA, or Riley-Multimatic. Without a DeltaWing DPi, it’s hard to envision the Don Panoz-owned brand maintaining its presence in the series.

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Parsing through the independent Prototype teams, and there are very few to consider, Starworks Motorsport owner Peter Baron says he’s purchasing a Riley-Multimatic DPi, and with his interest in racing across the pond, going with a WEC-spec P2 using the Gibson V8 engine could make the most sense. It could also be his only option.

Other than Mazda, owners like Baron appear to have few choices when it comes to buying or partnering with a DPi manufacturer. Unlike Grand-Am’s Daytona Prototype formula where interested owners had access to any chassis or engine combo they desired, IMSA’s DPi formula has been less accommodating for owners wanting a custom P2s with a manufacturer bodies and engines.

The fallback position for those without manufacturer ties, as Baron explains, is ignoring the DPi formula altogether and racing a WEC P2 in IMSA.

“We’re buying the 2017 P2 from Riley with the Gibson motor as the default,” he said. “I’m perfectly comfortable owning a Riley-Gibson at this point, and we can call other manufacturers to see if they want to get involved. The nice thing about [Grand-Am] DPs is you could switch motors if you wanted, but since we can’t [in DPi], I expect the Gibson engine will be balanced to be competitive.”

Alegra Motorsports impressed at Sebring with a Riley-BMW DP, and the Fifty Plus Racing Riley-BMW DP has also been active at select events. If both teams want to continue in 2017, they’ll need to acquire a grandfathered P2 or a new WEC P2-Gibson, unless a manufacturer decides to reward two relative newcomers with DPis. Of the manufacturers who’ve either expressed an interest in the DPi formula, or have been heavily rumored to be taking a look at factory programs, there’s very little news to share that indicates more 2017 DPis are on the way.

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One person with intimate knowledge of Alfa Romeo’s plans told me things have gone quiet after initial curiosity was shown. Christian Meunier, Nissan North America’s new marketing and operations VP, is an advocate for DPi, but like Alfa Romeo, I’ve heard nothing from insiders to tell me Nissan DPis are on the way for 2017.

If I had to place a bet, Bentley is the one brand with some recent energy behind a possible DPi car, although I’d say the current odds are no better than 50/50. Provided momentum continues to build, I’m hoping those odds begin to skew in favor of a green light for the British marque to make customer DPi cars available.

“We’re not in a position where I can confirm anything new,” Bentley communications ace Mike Sayer said when we spoke during Sebring. “We still have interest.”

If the potential of four Mazdas turns into the same two SpeedSource entries, and the four existing Corvette DPs do not manifest into more than four Cadillac DPs, IMSA’s Prototype reboot could look small. Turning back to the topic of grandfathered cars, IMSA’s willingness to give its older P2s a chance in 2017 could change based on the actual car count. Team owners with grandfathered P2s won’t help IMSA to expand the 2017 Prototype class unless they have guarantees their cars can vie for wins.

And if IMSA’s massive efforts to replace the unloved mash-up of Daytona Prototypes and P2s with a single formula ends up being nothing more than 2016 cars being swapped for the same number (or fewer) in 2017, it will be hard to hail DPi as a success. Grid size matters. Especially during the first year of a new formula.

Until IMSA has new manufacturers entering DPi with the willingness to sell high-quality customer cars – modern equivalents of the Porsche 962 (RIGHT) – the chasm between factory-chosen entrants and independent teams like Starworks will remain. The brilliance of DPi – or, more accurately, the proven brilliance of DPi – is hinged upon access to those cars. Right now, access is heavily restricted.

Without the desire from manufacturers to populate next year’s Prototype grid with DPis, interested teams would be forced to buy spec WEC P2s due to the simple fact that those are the only 2017 cars available.

I’m not sure IMSA predicted sales of its new DPi cars would be so strictly controlled by its manufacturers, and with the DPi rules lacking any requirements for manufacturers to supply a minimum number of cars, or to support non-factory teams, the series finds itself in an interesting predicament.

What happens when a new car dealership opens and its lot is empty? Buyers go across the street to the dealer with new models for sale. What happens when IMSA announces a new P2 formula and new Prototype teams or existing, independent entrants can’t get their hands on those cars to grow the class? They go to buy what’s available, and in this case, it’s the anti-DPi, the WEC P2.

Starworks’ purchase of a WEC P2 is fantastic for Peter Baron, but it’s hard to feel the same for IMSA. If Baron is unable to find a manufacturer to turn his Gibson-powered Riley-Multimatic into a DPi, he could be one of many to turn up at Daytona with a European P2 because they’ve been denied by DPi brands.

It’s great to hear four Cadillac DPs have been bought by an existing Corvette DP team. It’s also great to know one of those new cars could be given to one of the other Corvette DP teams. Altogether, the four Corvette DPs in the field should be replaced by four Caddys. And it’s awesome to know Mazda is returning with at least two cars, replacing its current pair of P2s, and it could make a few more of the 2017 Mazdas available. But if those numbers aren’t driven up, the DPi formula could launch with six cars.

Considering the ongoing contretemps with the ACO/FIA over DPi specifications, and the new news about DPis possibly being unwelcome at Le Mans, IMSA’s new Prototype concept, in concert with the lack of confirmed manufacturer programs, and the inability for all but the chosen few to purchase cars from those manufacturers, has given DPi the appearance of being on shaky ground.

Given the choice between IMSA’s DPi and the WEC’s spec P2, the concept behind IMSA’s formula wins by a mile. Few are excited over the ACO/FIA taking its P2 cars in a spec direction, and with the right amount of support from IMSA and its manufacturers, DPi should result in a major boom for the series.

If there’s a time for IMSA to work with its (unconfirmed) DPi manufacturers to make sure extra cars are available for purchase, and those cars are vaguely affordable, it’s now. And if that option falls flat, IMSA needs to act quickly and collaborate with a new manufacturer, and one of the four chassis suppliers, to bankroll the building of that modern 962.

Again, great news on Caddy and Mazda, but without a manufacturer option for everyone else, the WEC P2 could become IMSA’s most popular Prototype once the DPi formula arrives. Count me among those who want to see DPi thrive with the kind of numbers IMSA deserves.

Marshall Pruett
This article first appeared on Racer.com