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The Road To A Dream: Part 1

RJ O'Connell chronicles the lead up to the Super GT X DTM Dream Race

DSC’s Super GT correspondent RJ O’Connell has been hard at work. With the Super GT X DTM Dream Race at Fuji Speedway just days away, he’s filed a huge in-depth feature on the lead up to this milestone event. It’s packed with detail and analysis, a perfect mid-week read.

So here it is, The Road To A Dream: Part 1:

8 November 2009: The origins of the Dream Race start with a meeting on the grid before the afternoon’s final race of the Autobacs Super GT Series at Twin Ring Motegi.

It is there that officials from Super GT’s promoting body, the GT Association (GTA), meet with officials from the ITR, the promoters of the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM), about the potential of a unified set of technical regulations between the DTM and the GT500 class of Super GT.

GTA and ITR officials will meet again over the coming weeks, and over the coming months and years. The aim is not to combine the planet’s fastest “super silhouette” GT class into the fastest “super silhouette” touring car category and form one series, but rather to devise a set of common regulations that could see cars from DTM compete in GT500, and vice versa.

At this time, DTM is still searching for a third manufacturer to compete with Mercedes-Benz and Audi. It’s been five years since Opel (General Motors) left. It’s reported that this new ruleset could entice BMW to join after they announced their departure from Formula 1. Alternatively, the German arm of Toyota Motorsport, who just pulled out of F1 a week before this meeting, could bring the Lexus brand to DTM.

Conversely, while GT500 still has the “Big Three” of Japan onboard, Toyota, Honda, and Nissan, they are at a crossroads as well, thanks in large part to the effects that the “Lehman Shock” of 2008-09 has left on the country as a whole. This year, they along with the Formula Nippon Championship, Japan’s top single-seater racing series, introduced a common engine formula with all teams using a 3.4 litre, naturally aspirated V8 engine, not too dissimilar to DTM’s 4-litre V8 engines.

The number 36 Petronas TOM’s Lexus SC430 wins the race and the championship that day, a record-matching third title for veteran driver Juichi Wakisaka, and the second for a 28-year-old German driver who’s made his name in Japan, so much so, that Audi Sport Team Joest is seriously considering placing Ándre Lotterer in one of their LMP1 cars for Le Mans next year, but that’s another story for another time.

16 October 2012: Nearly three years after that initial meeting, at a press conference in Tokyo, Japan, GTA chairman Masaaki Bandoh is joined by ITR chairman Hans-Werner Aufrecht to announce that the GT500 class of Super GT and the DTM will compete under unified regulations, starting in 2014.

Six months ago, it seemed as if the collaboration talks were over, with the GTA unwilling to adopt a new common chassis specification identical to the current DTM platform, while the ITR was unwilling to adopt a new two-litre turbocharged engine specification that’s currently being developed by the racing arms of Japan’s top automakers. But there was a breakthrough in the months since, and with it, a plan for the future of both series.

GTA Chairman Bandoh says: “It was during the last round of the 2009 Super GT Series at Twin Ring Motegi that GTA was approached by ITR, organizers of the DTM series, with the proposal of unifying the technical regulations of our two competitions. Since then, negotiations have proceeded and we have finally reached an agreement. I am very happy to announce this agreement here today.”

“I hope that through this collaboration with ITR the engagement between automakers and motorsports in Japan will deepen as in Europe. I also believe that there are things we can learn from DTM in cost reduction as well as in developing manufacturing and other industries in Japan, which three domestic manufacturers are taking hands in. At the same time, I also feel that DTM can be influenced positively by the Super GT, where the many types of cars from various manufacturers participate and five tire makers compete, combine to bring it a level of diversity and excitement rarely found in competitions around the world.”

“We believe that this collaboration will contribute greatly to the development of both the SUPER GT and DTM race series. We also think that deepening the relationship between DTM in Europe and Super GT in Asia toward the future may lead to new developments, such as organizing exchange races for both series, that will bring new excitement and enjoyment to fans around the world.”

Both series set a goal for 2014 to converge upon these new unified technical regulations.

1 March 2013: A symposium of automotive engineers from Japan’s big automakers converge on Kogakuin University Hall in the Shinjuku region of Tokyo, and it is at this symposium that representatives from Toyota, Honda, and Nissan first introduce to the world, Japan’s new top-flight racing engine specification.

Toyota, Honda, and Nissan have each been at work developing their own interpretation of a new two-litre, direct injection, turbocharged four-cylinder engine, which is dubbed the Nippon Race Engine (NRE). This engine will be used in Super GT starting in 2014, as well as in Japan’s top formula championship, which has now been rebranded to the Super Formula Championship earlier this year.

The vision for the new engines is for a lighter, smaller-displacement engine that runs more efficiently, and is more relevant to the output of vehicles produced by Japan for the civilian market – yet still produces more horsepower and torque than its predecessor and sounds every bit as good if not better than a larger-displacement engine with more cylinders.

As for the DTM, Chairman Aufrecht projects that their series will switch to the same engine layout by no later than 2017, perhaps even sooner than that.

26 March 2013: Two weeks prior, the United SportsCar Championship became a reality as IMSA and Grand-Am merged effective 2014. In a press conference held in New York City, Grand-Am’s Jim France and IMSA’s Scott Atherton joined Bandoh and Aufrecht and announced a technical license/cooperation agreement with the GTA and ITR.

By aligning with DTM and Super GT, the plan is for IMSA to start a brand new series, independent of the new United SportsCar Championship, using the new regulations adopted by both series. IMSA sets a goal for 2015 to launch the new series, which will be co-administered by the ITR.

Aufrecht says: “In addition to the six German and Japanese manufacturers, Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Nissan and Toyota, which are already involved, the new cooperation quite obviously also offers a new and extraordinary field of activity for the American premium manufacturers such as Cadillac, Lincoln or Dodge SRT within the framework of future motorsport programs. Now, we have to inform and thrill them together with our new partner GRAND-AM/IMSA and encourage them to get involved.”

The idea of a “DTM America” series might also evoke memories of the golden age of another super silhouette racing category: The Trans-Am Series.

13 July 2013: Executives from the GTA, IMSA, and ITR form the first “steering committee” aimed at developing the technical regulations for their new unified GT/touring car racing platform, at a press conference in Nuremberg, Germany.

IMSA is still aiming to launch their new North-American based championship upon these unified regulations by 2015, or 2016. The goal is for all three series, Super GT, DTM, and the New IMSA Championship to be under the same chassis and engine regulations by no later than 2017.

“This is an exciting concept, but there is much more work remaining on the horizon,” says Grand-Am CEO Ed Bennett, as this three-party steering committee commits to meeting again at the 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona and the 2014 Suzuka 1000km.

But before then, it’s time for the next stage in Super GT’s evolution.

16 August 2013: On the Friday before the biggest race of the Super GT season, the 42nd Suzuka 1000km, GTA Chairman Bandoh is joined by Keizo Takahashi (Toyota), Hideo Satoh (Honda), and Shoichi Miyatani (Nissan) to unveil the first GT500 cars built to the new unified regulations.

Nissan continues with a heavily revised version of the R35 GT-R. Lexus unveils a racing version of the LF-CC Concept, which later becomes the RC F, to replace the retiring SC430. And in anticipation of the NSX’s return to production, the NSX Concept-GT is unveiled as its racing variant, replacing Honda’s front-engined HSV-010, their solution to replacing the old NSX-GT and complying with the new engine regulations.

Crucially, Honda gets their wish fulfilled thanks to the cooperation of the other two manufacturers, the GTA, and the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF): They will be able to run a mid-engined NSX on the new platform, which was envisioned strictly for front-engined cars.

All of the cars will be powered by the manufacturers’ own renditions of the Nippon Race Engine, which will produce in excess of 600 horsepower, far exceeding the current 3.4 litre V8 engines which will be phased out at season’s end. But Honda will pair theirs to a hybrid powertrain, further distinguishing themselves from Lexus’ and Nissan’s more conventional entries.

23 January 2014: On the eve of the first unified running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway in over a decade, the second steering committee meeting between the GTA, ITR, and IMSA is held.

“At this Steering Committee, we could confirm, that this cooperation has moved to a new level,” says Chairman Bandoh, “due to a further deepened intercultural communication we managed to install between our three regions. A complete communization of the technical regulations between these 3 series with their great successes in each region will go down as a groundbreaking event in the history of world’s motor sports.”

“We want to further strengthen cooperation between ITR, IMSA and GTA towards a world-class interleague racing event of our 3 series, not at least for all our motor sport fans.”

The steering committee sets a tentative goal for the first unified race to be held between Super GT and DTM in 2015. In addition, the representatives of the three series are brainstorming a name for the unified technical regulations used by the three regions.

By this point, IMSA is still working on a new series under the new regulations, that will start with a stand-alone race in 2016, in anticipation of launching their new series in 2017 – lining up with the DTM’s planned switch to the 2-litre engine formula that’s being launched in Super GT later this year.

IMSA CEO Ed Bennett remarks: “We continue to have a good dialogue between the parties… and the steering committee will continue to work together toward our common goal.”

6 April 2014: Super GT’s new era begins in the GT500 class, the first race for the new-generation cars and the new Nippon Race Engines. The new cars are as many as 3-4 seconds per lap quicker than the last-generation GT500 cars at Okayama International Circuit, thanks in large part to the new, more powerful engines and a massive increase in downforce with the new chassis and aero regulations.

During the weekend, ITR Chairman Aufrecht pays a visit to the opening round of the season, and takes part in answering questions during a press conference before Sunday’s race.

“Our initiative, ‘to create a set of joint technical regulations for car races on different continents,’ which we embarked on from four years ago, has made progress,” says Aufrecht. “This will lead to assuring the future of motorsports for us all.”

“Cost reduction is an important issue for manufacturers and for racing series like ours, and at the same time manufacturers would want to utilize the highest standard development effort they put into motorsports in their significant markets. Realization of these integrated regulations will make all that possible.”

Daisuke Ito and Andrea Caldarelli go on to win the race for Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s, a landmark first victory in this new era of GT500.

30 September 2014: Initially planned to take place during the Suzuka 1000km a month prior, the third steering committee meeting between GTA, ITR, and IMSA representatives is held, and a new name is announced for their unified technical regulations: “Class One.”

Dr Wolfgang Ulrich represents Audi, Jens Marquardt represents BMW, and a fellow by the name of Toto Wolff represents Mercedes-Benz, alongside Takahashi-san of Toyota, Miyatani-san of Nissan, and Chairmen Bandoh and Aufrecht in the press conference.

Super GT, DTM, and the new IMSA series are still on course for 2017 to unify under the new regulations with the common engine and chassis formula, and of course, the first joint race between the series is still on track, though it’s now looking like it’ll happen in 2017 as well.

“The name ‘Class One’ is the clamp that holds us together,” remarks Aufrecht, with IMSA’s representatives present via teleconference.

10 November 2014: Speaking with Marshall Pruett for RACER Magazine, IMSA CEO Ed Bennett talks about the American series’ role in the Class One steering committee. It’s been a tumultuous first season for the United SportsCar Championship, and the priority has now shifted to the future of that series, rather than a “DTM America” championship.

“The general thing is to get alignment and I think it works to our benefit,” Bennett tells Pruett. “The idea is to get alignment on the technical specifications where the regulations would begin in 2017. It’s not as pressing for us necessarily to have an answer on whether there manufacturers that want to do it now because the regulations are still being developed. In my own mind, I think about it happening no earlier than 2017.”

Bennett reveals that IMSA has approached the American “Big Three” GM, Ford, and Chrysler, to get their thoughts on joining a separate series. “We had a meeting in Detroit in August […] where we met with the three U.S. OEMs, GM, Ford and Chrysler, and really took them through the philosophy, where things stood, let them ask a lot of questions in a nice open forum and really get their thoughts.”

Would these new Class One cars instead become part of the United SportsCar Championship rather than feature as the showcase of a standalone championship for IMSA? “Maybe it makes sense to mix it with some other specification and have two classes as a creative way to have a proper field,” says Bennett. “It’s an idea. I don’t know how the manufacturers will feel about that, but it’s an idea.”

20 May 2015: The day after the conclusion of the Nürburgring 24 Hours, the GTA, ITR, and IMSA formally ratify the engine regulations of Class One, centred around the 2-litre, turbocharged 4-cylinder engines making upwards of 600 horsepower for GT500, DTM, and IMSA’s stand-alone series.

“We struck agreements in many areas,” Aufrecht said, “and made a major step to realising our common goal. I’m looking forward to the day when the ‘Class One’ vehicles from different continents will compete with one another for the first time.”

This is the fourth steering committee meeting between the three parties. Now with the engine regulations set, the three parties are now working towards common aerodynamic regulations.

As for the unified exhibition race between Super GT and DTM, that race has been put off to late 2017 and early 2018, the first race taking place in Japan and the second taking place in Germany. The press release concludes: “As soon as the IMSA series starts in the USA, the American manufacturers also will be involved.”

30 August 2015: GTA Chairman Bandoh gives his customary pre-race press conference before the 44th running of the Suzuka 1000km, and the crossover race between DTM and Super GT is now looking more and more like a reality.

Chairman Bandoh expects Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz to field four cars each, a total of twelve cars, squaring off with all fifteen GT500 cars and teams in the exhibition events, which are still being planned for late 2017 in Japan, and early 2018 in Germany.

1 November 2015: During Chairman Bandoh’s pre-race press conference at Autopolis International Racing Course, the first question asked regards a rumour that’s done the rounds that could cause a massive disruption in Super GT and DTM converging upon Class One regulations, if not sink the collaboration entirely.

“There is a report in the media that the DTM has said they will delay the introduction of the two-litre turbo engine until 2019. Is there a comment from the GT Association on this?” asks one reporter.

The reports from Germany’s Auto Motor und Sport suggest that Mercedes-Benz has halted development of the new engine, citing the high cost of development. “The entertainment value wouldn’t be affected by the introduction of a new engine,” Mercedes’ Toto Wolff tells AMuS, “but it will certainly affect the costs would be significantly affected.” Others are sceptical of Toto’s explanation given that they’ve already sunk the costs into the new engine anyway.

Wolff even has to go so far as to deny speculation that Mercedes are willing to pull the plug on their DTM programme.

“I went to Germany to talk about this issue as well as sustenance of the collaboration between Super GT and DTM,” says Chairman Bandoh. “After returning, we then discussed with the manufacturers of Japan the other day. We have adopted the new engine regulations already. We have been and will continue to be discussing positively with the German side.”

20 January 2016: The ITR confirms that the introduction of the new engine formula will be delayed until the 2019 DTM season, after Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz all agree to delay the introduction of the new engine formula due to the short-term costs associated. This delay also impacts the DTM’s switch to the new chassis framework, which was also set for 2017 along with the introduction of the new engines.

“We just have to take the overall situation into consideration,” BMW motorsport boss Jens Marquardt told Autosport magazine with regards to their deliberation that was made over the winter. “Right now, we are three [manufacturers] and we are facing other worldwide situations.”

“For example, China sales numbers are not on the same level that we have expected for a while, we now have in Germany certainly a very special situation which at some stage could also potentially affect Audi.” The latter is in reference to the “Dieselgate” scandal which will ultimately see the Volkswagen Audi Group pull the plug on its LMP1 programmes, its WRC programme, and snuff out any ideas of an F1 venture.

“We all have always been very cautious about the spending that we have in the championship, and we really have to figure out what it means.”

AMuS, meanwhile, suggests an even more bleak outlook ahead: That the GT Association is ready to abandon GT500 as we know it all together and switch the premier class of Japan’s most popular national racing series to run to FIA GT3 regulations. And with regards to a joint race between the DTM and Super GT, AMuS declares that “the myth of a joint race […] is over.”

Check back tomorrow for Part 2…