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United Autosports: Part Two, The Present & Future In LMP

Richard Dean and Zak Brown on the way forward for sports prototype racing

You can read Part One of this interview on United Autosports’ plans to re-enter GT racing Here

Let’s talk about LMP racing. We’re here at Paul Ricard and there’s a fleet of new United Ligier LMP3 cars, the first competitive outing for a brand new generation of LMP3.

You’re here too with a pair of Orecas in LMP2 as well and running in front of just about every session out there. (United would go on to score double poles and a double win in LMP2 and LMP3).

Right now there are changes afoot in LMP racing. LMDH is on the horizon. Le Mans Hypercar is just around the corner for the FIA WEC.

All of that brings into focus two or three things: Choices about where your efforts go in the future in terms of cars, and for the Championships and what it is you think needs to happen right now to address the big elephant in the room right now, which is clearly the impact has been had on the sport, on the industry and on the world as a whole of what we’re still going through, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Richard Dean: “Well, first of all, we’re here at Paul Ricard, and for ELMS there are 32 cars on the grid. I think it’s incredible that everybody in the paddock has done such a fantastic job to make it through all of this and we haven’t really lost many cars, which is a surprise.
“We obviously shouldn’t be complacent about that, because it might be difficult next year as well.

“I think the new LMP3 car has helped enormously. It’s an affordable car to run, the introduction of the new 2020 cars that you’re seeing here for the first time and are competing against each other for the first time in all official practice sessions. It’s the first time we’ve really been able to compare the new Duqueine and the new Ligier and they look pretty close.

“It’s a nice step up, all the cars looking to be running reliably and certainly from where we are, we’ve got a great relationship with Ligier over many years. And we were in no doubt where we were going to go with our LMP3 choice and it seems to be the right one because, as you say, we’ve seemed to have topped most of the sessions here. Ligier has done a fantastic job.

“And for LMP2, you know, we’re still we’re not even a year yet with our ORECAs. But we’ve had some success in the last couple of WEC races, and we seem to have got on top of that. LMP2 is a great category, but it’s expensive and it definitely needs addressing.

“For the bigger picture stuff. I’ll hand over to Zak. I definitely do a lot more day to day, hands-on and putting fires out that we’re currently dealing with stuff operationally and Zak has a much better view on the bigger picture and where to go and where we should be going.”

You’re wearing a United Autosports shirt here, this is a team with ambition. That’s very clear.

You’ve invested heavily in the current programmes.  The programmes in recent years have been almost universally successful. You’re not going to stop, are you?  It’s no secret that you’re interested in top-class endurance racing?

Zak Brown: “Yeah, for sure, a victory for us would be winning Le Mans outright. As a sportscar team that’s your Indy 500, it’s your Monaco Grand Prix.

“So that’s what we want to do. And you need to be in the top class to do that.

“I think the new LMDH rules, while still getting fine-tuned, are excellent. And I think that’s going to be a huge success.

“It’s unfortunate COVID has come at the time it has because I think it will inevitably delay the debut of that class just like it’s delayed Formula One rules by a year, etc.

So you don’t believe 2022 is realistic for LMDH?

“I think 2022 is very optimistic (for LMDH) given the situation the world is in. And I think because of the rules, I anticipate it being very competitive and lots of manufacturers getting involved, that you’re better off not rushing it and having a stunning debut for your new era of sportscar racing than working too hard to get to ’22 and not quite get there.

“Which means that you have to solve what ’21 and ’22 looks like.  But I think to make short-term sacrifices for long term gains, as opposed to try and fix the short-term and maybe compromise your long-term.

With the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the economy, how realistic is growth in the sport?

I’d love to see us in LMDH and I think sports car racing if they get all the classes right could see real growth, because I think,  sports car racing needs to take a look, not just at the top class.  GTE has become too expensive. GT3 is massively successful. What do you do with LMP2, if you’ve got LMDH?

I think we need to simplify sports car racing, take a step back and look at the entire grid. Not trying to solve sportscar racing one class at a time because you end up solving one and creating other issues. So take a step back. Really try and get 2023 right.

I think we’ve got permission from the world to limp through ’21 and ’22 because of what’s going on that’s what every form of motorsport is looking at – IndyCar is looking at pushing back their new IndyCar and engine a year so there’s nothing to apologise for. But let’s get ’23 spectacular and have an unbelievable era of sportscars.

Is it the moment to be radical? Is it a moment for a bit of radical thought to think about the inherent cost of everything for starters?

“I think it is. And I’m not even sure I’d use the word radical.  It might feel radical because it’s changed. I think it’s simplified. Look at what’s working, look at what’s not working, make some simple decisions that might feel radical. But I think it’s all laying out there what I think sportscar racing could look like and I think the classes exist, there’s just inconsistency amongst the different series and kind of Band-Aid approach on some classes. I think the successful classes are there, they’re not all just bundled in one series yet.

“Simplification is sort of radical because of course, it means that people with assets are going to have to think about how long they’ve got the asset for, with GTE a classic example of that.

We mentioned LMP2, the class, here in Europe, is very successful, but how long can that continue if LMDH comes and is beginning to bite into those budgets, particularly with the customer car market, and the cost of the newer cars coming down through economies of scale?

“Well, I think if you look at IMSA, which has DPI and LMP2, there’s not enough to have two full grids.

“So I think if LMDH, which has its foundations with an LMP2 tub plus a hybrid in the new era, one has to ask the question, is there really room for both LMP2 and LMDH?

“You’ve got great LMP3 racing that’s very cost-effective with brand new cars that have just been debuted. So they have a long shelf life. You’ve got GT3 which is massively successful. You’ve got GTE that’s struggling. So I think the writing’s on the wall.

“I think what you have to do is you have to look at what’s the ideal class structure and then consider who do we have to help? How do we get there because you don’t want to hurt anyone along the way.

“Not everyone can afford to go buy new cars but I think if you start with the ideal result and then reverse into how you get there, that’s a better approach as opposed to trying to start with what you’ve got and trying to Band-Aid it to a better solution, I think it becomes too difficult to get there that way.”

So potentially LMDH, LMP3 and GT in some form as a mix for multiple international championships?

“That would be my view. The devil’s in the details, but I think these LMP2 teams have a choice. Go LMDH, or go LMP3 and even call it LMP2 if you want to, it would still be the second-fastest prototype class! Those cars are brand new, fantastic and much less expensive to run.

“Then whether it’s GT, GT3, GTD, call it what you want.  We know where there’s the heaviest concentration of manufacturers of GT cars, both for Pro and Pro Am.

“And then you’ve got four classes, and three types of racecars. Your top prototypes, your second prototypes, GTs and you’ve got a Pro class and a Pro Am class, which is what sportscar racing has always been about.

“That structure gives you your Pro Prototypes (LMDH), your Pro-Am prototypes (current LMP3), your Pro GTs and your Pro-Am GTs.”

This story forms part of a wider interview with Richard and Zak that will be included in the next edition of the Inside the Sportscar Paddock podcast.