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The Future Of IMSA Prototype Racing Is Becoming Clearer

Though question marks still hang over the LMP2 class...

Away from the track last weekend at Road America, it was a notable meeting for IMSA in providing further clarity on the future of prototype racing in the WeatherTech Sports Car Championship. The ‘State of the Series’ conference trackside provided some important details from IMSA President Scott Atherton.

While on the face of it the bulk of the announcements contained no major surprises, some of the detail within the 2020 schedule release and the information regarding IMSA’s 2022 DPi plans were very interesting indeed.

Let’s begin by unpicking the LMP2 news, as some key changes have been made to the class for next season. The calendar is shorter (six races) for WeatherTech Championship entries and doesn’t include the Rolex 24 Hours which is a non-points scoring round that’s still part of the Endurance Cup.

LMP2 teams will, therefore, have the choice. Do they sign up for all seven races where the class is included, just the six races that now make up the WeatherTech Championship, take on the four Endurance Races or only make the trip to Daytona for the Rolex 24? There are plenty of options for drivers and teams alike.

However, even with so much flexibility, boosting the class’ numbers is still going to be difficult. With United Autosports purchasing the two former JDC Miller ORECAs for its new-look LMP2 programme based out of Europe, there are few remaining chassis left in North America.

ORECA did tell DSC though, that “depending on some talks at the moment, could be three to four ORECA 07s in North America.” ORECA also said that it is “prepared – and ready – to build new 07s in the coming weeks/months, and there are also some second-hand ORECA 07 available for the U.S. market.”

But, unless teams in North America come out of the woodwork and acquire chassis from outside of their local market or European teams opt-in soon, it’s hard to envisage the LMP2 field being any bigger than it is now.

PR1 and Performance Tech have stuck at it this season, racing in a two-car class in which just finishing guarantees a podium spot. The former full-season LMP2 teams that jumped ship to DPi when the classes were split for this season, (CORE autosport and JDC Miller) despite being unable to mount a title challenge with their new machinery this year, won’t have regretted their decision to abandon LMP2.

Right now though LMP2 is still in a state of flux. Despite the quoted interest, whether or not more teams will come forward is still an unknown. DSC has spoken to multiple European LMP2 teams that have looked into IMSA recently, and none of them appears confident enough to make a commitment right now.

“IMSA needs to encourage the guys with LMP2 cars out there that aren’t being used to come back out. But they took away the motivation last year when they made that move to compete for the overall win. They’ve reduced the cost, I get why they have done it, but for us, it doesn’t change anything,” Richard Dean, United Autosports’ co-owner, said to DSC.

“Having originally gone into LMP2 in IMSA with a chance to win outright it’s hard to go back now, in a B class. Part of our motivation is to go for the overall win, and it’s an expensive way to be lost in the race without getting any exposure. I don’t think we’d go back unless LMP2 and DPi were racing together again.

“I know we’re doing WEC in LMP2, and there are LMP2 cars out there. But with the limited amount of LMP1 cars, the chance for an overall podium is another motivation.”

ORECA made it clear to DSC though that there is interest from new teams. A spokesperson explained that the allure of the ladder to DPi that IMSA has created via LMP3 and LMP2 could provide a boost to the numbers in P2.

“There is a strong interest from teams to race in LMP2 in America and with a different approach, which is good,” they said.

“It can be LMP3 teams, GT teams, Europe-based teams for a full season or long races only etc. JDC-Miller or CORE autosport are good examples of how LMP2 class is preparing the teams to step up to DPi. The IMSA platform is really attractive, with teams able to go from LMP3 to LMP2 to DPi.

“IMSA has been open to discussion with the teams and manufacturers, and we feel the announcement is very positive. Now we have to embody this by adding more entries alongside PR1 and Performance Tech. We hope the other LMP2 manufacturers are as motivated as we are for IMSA series.”

A source from one of the other LMP2 chassis manufacturers also stressed to DSC that multiple teams outside of IMSA’s current LMP2 pack are taking a serious look for 2020. “We shall see,” they said.

There could be renewed positivity from prospective drivers too. If these changes do increase entry numbers, then a smaller, more cost-effective schedule may play into the hands of drivers looking to make a first step (or return) into the IMSA paddock.

“I think it is a smart move,” said Alex Brundle who has dipped in and out of IMSA in recent years, to DSC. “The only move (IMSA could make to save LMP2) is to make it into a bona fide stepping stone in terms of budget for drivers and teams looking to race prototypes in the USA.

“If you’re not going to compete for the lead of the race overall and for the championship overall, then it needs to be cheaper. This does make it cheaper.”

Atherton has shown and stated that IMSA remains “fully committed” to LMP2 and continues to experiment with solutions to breathe life into the category. The willingness to persevere, at the very least, should be praised here.

Beyond that, there was a briefing on the evolution of the DPi platform coming in 2022. This included further details on the changes to the successful top-class formula, and a timeline for the formation of DPi 2022.

DPi has exceeded our expectations

Scott Atherton
President, IMSA

“DPi has exceeded our expectations,” said Atherton. “It’s full-speed ahead. We’re homologated with the current cars until 2021. Then in 2022, the new cars will make their debuts and for the following five years are locked down.

“There’s no news here that hybrid will be part of the powertrains. We’re in dialogue with 10-11 hybrid manufacturers. We’re looking for this new technical regulation set to embrace an IMSA Green initiative looking for a new fuel in addition to hybrid power.

“We will retain combustion engine options, all the combinations available now are available. There are some limitations on engine size but it’s no different to today, there are many choices.”

Currently Acura, Mazda, Cadillac and Nissan have representation, and IMSA plans to continue to grow the number of brands involved going forward. One of the ways Atherton hopes to attract further OEMs is by allowing more recognisable styling for its prototypes.

ORECA, which is currently partnered with Acura Team Penske, told DSC that DPi 2022 coming together this far in advance, it has allowed the French constructor to already begin planning.

“We are currently involved with Acura Team Penske as you know, and the first goal is clearly to win the championship together,” a spokesperson said.

“Nevertheless, we have also strong discussions with several OEMs for 2022. Some are more advanced than others. It’s an exciting period in any case.

“Again, you can have various ways to build this kind of programme and it makes it even more interesting. DPi 2022 has generated huge interest from OEMs.”

DPi 2022 has generated huge interest from OEMs

ORECA

Scott Atherton explained that “the big change here is that one of the requests was to have more freedom to style the cars more aggressively for manufacturers of the DPi.

“And it’ll be open for that. The aero elements that are expensive and create the downforce are locked down, we don’t want an arms race in that category. All cars will need to fit into an aero performance window which we will control.”

This philosophy will sound rather familiar to those well versed in the FIA WEC’s ‘Hypercar Prototype’ regulations. The key difference is that, as Marshall Pruett wrote recently in an article on RACER.com, “IMSA has suggested it will continue using Dallara (Cadillac), Ligier (Nissan), Multimatic (Mazda), and ORECA (Acura) as the four approved DPi chassis providers, but it’s unclear whether new vendors will be added to the list for auto manufacturers to choose from.”

‘Hypercar Prototype’ meanwhile, will not place the same restrictions on the base chassis. They can be either prototypes or race cars born from road-legal hypercars.

Despite the clear difference in programme costs between utilising an existing customer chassis and a bespoke chassis designed and manufactured specifically for the regulations, by the time 2022 rolls around there may still be an appetite for crossover races if the performance levels for both sets of cars is (as expected) similar.

This could also pose a chance for privateer teams to run parallel programmes in IMSA and the FIA WEC, which Richard Dean told DSC is something that United will monitor.

“If the new DPi regulations have some common ground with what I’m hearing is under discussion with WEC, then that sounds practical. If we can do a WEC and an IMSA programme without needing to invest in a whole new set of kit and cars, then it offers opportunities,” he said.

If we can do a WEC and an IMSA programme without needing to invest in a whole new set of kit and cars, then it offers opportunities

Richard Dean
Owner, United Autosports

For now though, IMSA is focused on developing its own regulations and is determined to ensure that the regulations are published two years before the cars begin racing.

“(Having the regulations ready two years in advance) Is a textbook example of how to go about defining regulations,” Atherton said. “We have nine manufacturers in our working group with another threatening to join.”

At the time of writing both the IMSA DPi 2022 feasibility studies and the wind tunnel model testing is complete. The request for a tender for the hybrid systems is next on the agenda and that’s due any time now before the regs are released in Q1 of 2020 and track testing begins a year later ahead of the 2022 Rolex 24 Hours.

If that timeline is achievable, and IMSA believes it is, then there will be plenty of time to ensure that there is a seamless transition between the current DPi regulations and the ones that will be introduced for 2022.