While the state of play in the forthcoming ‘Hypercar’ regulations is the hot topic in sportscar racing at the moment, there’s another prototype formula that’s about to go through a period of change, and that’s the hugely successful LMP3 category.
Friday, is due to be incredibly important in shaping the future not only of the top class of racing prototypes, but also of the ACO’s entry-level prototypes, with the new chassis all set to be shown off in public for the first time.
Ligier, Adess, Ginetta and Norma all return with upgraded challengers. And this chance to reset the formula (which has turned into a Ligier vs Norma battle) has been welcomed by the constructors with open arms.
So what’s new here? The new cars will have traction control, more sophisticated aero, a new engine (which packs an additional 50hp), new safety systems (pulled from LMP2) and restyled bodywork.
Either way, existing LMP3 teams have been taken into careful consideration by the manufacturers and rule makers here.
The price point looks to be reasonable, and not every series that features LMP3 cars will move to the new spec straight away either. IMSA Prototype Challenge won’t shift to the new cars until 2021, and the upcoming Asian Le Mans Series season over this coming winter will also feature the current chassis.
You won’t necessarily need to invest in brand new cars either, as in many cases, customers can choose to upgrade existing chassis – again at a fixed cost.
To gain more of an insight in what’s to come, DSC went out and spoke to some of the key personalities involved. This writer was unable to get hold of anyone from Norma, but did get a chance to sit down with representatives from Ginetta, Ligier and Adess.
A reboot for Ginetta
For Adess and Ginetta, this new cycle is hugely important, as it presents both with a chance to find their footing once again in LMP3.
Ginetta was there at the beginning but suffered from Ligier bringing its JS P3 to the game just as the category began to take off, and Adess didn’t really ever build a customer base.
That was then though, and this is now. The biggest challenge, aside from building a race-winning car, is convincing Norma and Ligier’s existing customers to switch.
Ginetta’s Lawrence Tomlinson is both bullish and realistic about his company’s prospects however, citing the marque’s experience developing its G57, G58 and G60 (LMP1) prototypes as a cause for optimism.
“We’ve never left LMP3, people have been racing it each year, just not in the volume Ligier and Norma have had,’ he said to DSC. “We’ve always been there. We’ve had cars in Asia. When we started, we had 15 cars on order but couldn’t get the powertrains, so that’s why we struggled early. Supply issues have been solved now, ORECA has done a good job and it’s settled down.
“It’s about performance,” Tomlinson continued. “It’s such a competitive formula. The Norma has come along and if there’s four Normas, they will qualify in the top six. They’ve upped their game. We know we have made significant improvements to the car, which will make it faster than the other two, our car will be for teams that want to win.
“We’ve done so much work on the LMP1 car, and we’ve learned a lot from that, there’s a lot of LMP1 DNA in the LMP3. It should be a great car to drive, perfect for gentlemen drivers, really balanced and predictable.”
But, he does acknowledge that it will take time to build a base of customers. Ligier has over 100 chassis in circulation and Norma’s base has been growing since the M30 started winning regularly.
Right now, Tomlinson says customers for its new LMP3 car will be buying new cars, rather than upgrading the old model as very few of them are still out racing.
“The LMP3s people had came back to us and were upgraded to G57s and G58s, the number of chassis we have out there isn’t massive. There will probably be old customers that don’t have a car. Our new customer base will probably be people moving over from Ligier and teams that want something different from the Norma. It’ll be a good car to have.
“Ligier have done a great job, they’ve sold over 100 cars. With the new generation coming out, people won’t buy the old car. Any cars we get back for part exchange or may well end up out in Asia.”
Another factor keeping Ginetta keen to move its LMP3 effort forward is the move by the ACO to change the styling of the new LMP3s. This has handed Ginetta a chance to utilise styling cues from its new Akula supercar, which it hopes is just the beginning of its new-found foray into the automotive sector.
“Now is the opportunity to use the new bodywork. I like the ACO’s concept that they want them to look more like a sportscar than a prototype, with styling cues from a road car. With the launch of the new Akula, we’ve got styling cues on there which differentiate it.
“At Road to Le Mans there was a queue behind me of Ligiers, and I couldn’t tell which cars were which. When the Norma came, it looked very similar to the Ginetta. I’d hope from a fan point of view they’d be able to differentiate the cars now.”
Ginetta, Tomlinson says, will be out testing its new car shortly after Le Mans, with customer teams. At first it will run with the old powertrain, as it’s unlikely that one will be in circulation for Ginetta to use before October.
As for numbers, he hopes to get a dozen into circulation for the start of next season, preferably split across the Le Mans Cup and ELMS, where they will be put to the test in a grid of the most accomplished LMP3 teams in the world. Whatever the number though, Ginetta can and will meet the demand.
“We currently have no stock of cars in any category aside from LMP1!” he chuckled. “For example, if you ordered a G40 from us it’s a 12-week lead time. But for LMP3 we will meet customer demand. We estimate between launch and the start of next season we could get a dozen cars ready. Ideally, we’d like six two-car teams in high-level competitive series. It would be great for the mixture on the grid. To have half a dozen in Le Mans Cup and in the ELMS would be about right and work well.
“Demand is strong. The car looks striking, it’s distinctive. We’ve got a young team of designers about 15 in the team, who have worked together to make it as efficient as possible. It’s the same team as LMP1. It’s exciting, it’s a mad rush to get prototype bits sorted for the Friday at Le Mans.”
Adess back on the scene
Adess meanwhile, is also taking a more modest approach. Its general manager Stephane Chosse spoke to DSC at length about the company’s new car, which will test for the first time after Le Mans.
“The monocoque and crash box are identical to the old car. But we’ve made a few changes which are mandatory, the safety features,” he explained. “We have made plenty of evolutions, with an updated rear wing, new suspension, a reduced wheelbase. We’ve made light aerodynamic upgrades, but we’ve focused on our weak points more.
“We’re ready. Our first car will test later this month, with the new engine.”
Chosse said that Adess’ approach will be to sell its cars at a lower price point than the other manufacturers to attract teams on tighter budgets.
While it’s unreasonable to expect Adess to be inundated with orders, due to the success of the Ligier and Norma chassis from the last cycle, he does believe that getting a handful of cars racing in Europe is achievable in Year 1.
Currently, there are 10 old Adess 03 chassis out in customer hands. They can be upgraded, but Chosse is more dedicated to gaining new customers.
“We see this as a big chance. We know what we needed to improve to increase the car’s performance. And we’ve taken into account that this has to be cost-effective, and that won’t change.
“It’s very early for us. We know that we were not first choice for teams before. We had a decent start but had a hard period of sales later on. We don’t know how many we will sell now, but for us it’s important to be in the ELMS. We will look for a serious race team that can enter two cars.
“I’ll try and focus potential customers on the fact that we don’t have many customers, so we can focus our attention on them in the best way.
“We will provide a better service. After that, I have not seen the performance of the other new cars, but we will bring a lot of humility. We know the competition is very tough.
“We don’t have the same business model as Ligier, we can’t produce 100 cars, and we don’t want to. Five cars is possible for us to get ready for the start of the season in Europe. I would prefer a few cars and support the teams well.
“Performance-wise we are sure we can be there. They have capped the top speed to 290kph. So it’s all about price for us.
“It wasn’t an easy decision for us to come back. But it was logical to continue, we wanted to continue for us. We want to keep our LMP3 car as a low-cost, accessible prototype. We will try to be a little bit cheaper than the other manufacturers. It’s important to take into account spare part prices and running costs.”
Ligier hoping to carry current momentum forward
So what about Ligier, and for that matter, Norma? For both this new cycle, the biggest challenge will be maintaining their customer base, and prevent Ginetta and Adess from taking too much of the market share, which currently, they dominate.
Ligier has been working hard behind the scenes to offer the best product possible. Its new Ligier JS P320 (featured), has already been out running with the new engine, will continue its test programme after the car’s launch at La Sarthe.
“I think after five years of the same regulations, it’s good to enable teams and customers to have an evolution of the car,” Pierre Nicolet told DSC. “What’s offered to current teams and players is an incomparable package at this price, with the levels of performance, reliability, the number of places you can race.
“It’s going to make the category even more stable.”
“The price for a new car is 239 thousand euros, compared to 207 thousand from the old version, if you take into account inflation, it’s a good price. It includes a new safety kit, the same that’s currently in an LMP2.
“It’s a lot less than a GT3, it’s faster, safer, it maintains the pros of LMP3 for the next five years. I only see positives. There will be people that aren’t satisfied. But it’s been done to keep the success factor of LMP3 but still refreshing the category. It makes perfect sense.
“The operating cost of the car won’t rise and the price increase is low.”
Ligier has built over 100 JS P3s, so unlike Ginetta and Norma, a focus has been put on allowing current customers to easily upgrade their current cars, especially if they are relatively new. Nicolet feels Ligier can offer options to suit all of its teams.
“Everything is possible, which is great. Each team will decide ahead of 2020. There is a residual value of their current cars which is quite high. You can still use the old cars in the USA, track days the Asian Le Mans Series this year. All of the business plans are possible.
“You can buy a new one, sell your old one, upgrade your old one, or keep racing your old one. There’s plenty of opportunities for the teams to find a solution to keep racing.
“I think it comes down to customers to decide what they want. If they want to decide in May, all the way to January, it will be possible to deliver an upgrade in time for next season.
“The fact that Asian Le Mans starts in October 2020, and in the US it’s 2021, it gives us and customers time. We can manage production.
“Obviously I want to secure upgrades from customers as early as possible. We are talking to customers to find out what they want and prepare production in accordance with what they want. We benefit from the experience of delivering over 100 LMP3s. We have the resources in place to get this done.
“We have 20,000 square metres of composite factory to build the bodywork. If you ask me now we can build a car in four weeks. It comes down to engine and gearbox availability though, as NISMO and Xtrac have a longer lead time. We’ll place orders in anticipation.”
Will LMP3 numbers in Asia take a hit this year?
Initially, this year’s Asian Le Mans Series looked to pose a real problem for teams looking to compete over the winter and in Europe next year. Would they miss valuable testing time using their old car in Asia? Could they get a new car sorted between the end of the Asian Le Mans Series and the start of the ELMS season?
Despite some concerns from the ELMS LMP3 paddock who made the trip to Asia over the winter, Nicolet feels that competing this winter in Asia and preparing for the 2020 European Le Mans Series season doesn’t pose too much of an issue for JS P3 customers.
“Everything is possible,” he said. “You can keep the car to run in Asia, and update it after. You can buy a new car. Maybe it’s best for teams to keep their old cars for Asia, then use it as a spare. All of the mechanical parts can be used as spares for new cars.
“Obviously the logistics of the end of the Asian Le Mans Series and start of European Le Mans Series will make it difficult if we receive the cars mid-March. But we can update any cars before the start of the season without a problem.
“Each customer will decide what’s best for their 2020 programme, if that includes Asia, they will work around it. They can use that time to use our test car. We will have two cars for testing from June to end of the year.
“It won’t be hard to learn how to run the new car. It’ll be the same experience, the engine too is close. The only new parts to be managed will be the safety parts and the introduction of traction control. But that’s simple. The operation of the cars is simple, like it is now. We are just doing updates and a re-style.
“There’s a good number of LMP3s in Asia full-season to fill the grid. The European teams went to Asia last year and will go back because they saw the benefit. If everything is decided in a timely manner by teams, then we won’t have any problems getting them ready for ELMS.”