A lot has been written in recent months about the state of sportscar racing and the direction that it is taking. What with the GrandAm merger with the ALMS (or was it a takeover?) and new ACO regulations in the pipeline, we are indeed going through a time of change. Change always happens, though, so that’s nothing new; what makes the current situation different is that the changes ahead have an air of revolution about them.
The United States of America is not alone in sometimes taking itself too seriously. Many ‘important’ countries occasionally fall into the trap of believing that the world ends at its own borders. There is more than a hint of truth in the old headline “Fog in Channel – continent cut off”.
But the USA is bigger, more important, and more easily ensnared by the trap. Sports like baseball are particularly “American”. Basketball and ice hockey, which are widely played across the world (and more popular even than cricket or rugby?) have such a strong presence in the States that the Americans can lay claim to the phrase “World Class”.
But I do find myself smiling inwardly to myself when I hear Americans talking of the importance of American-based motor racing. While America has NASCAR and IndyCar, these are clearly USA-centric and for me fall into the category of baseball and American football. When talk turns to sportscars, the US finds the stage already occupied. From some of what you hear, you would be forgiven for thinking that the whole future of endurance sportscar racing hinges on the choices made by those who are currently evaluating the regulations for the unified American series in 2014.
The trouble is this. In the USA, NASCAR and IndyCar racing have no overlap with other forms of motorsport elsewhere in the world, whereas sports-prototype and GT racing does. What the merger of Grand-Am and ALMS has done is to remove Grand-Am from being a national race series (if you know UK club racing – think Legends) and to place upon its successor the opportunity to define a class for international prototypes. This is a huge opportunity and how it is dealt with is fundamental to the future direction of sportscar racing worldwide.
To my way of thinking, the unified American series will go one of two ways – either they’ll get it wrong and it will disappear; to fall into sub-categories of the European classes, or they’ll hit the jackpot, and create something sufficiently attractive to both manufacturers and privateers to which spectators, journalists and media will come in numbers.
On the international stage, sports-prototypes are getting themselves into a bit of a knot. There’s a good case that the knot exists already. The ACO’s LMP1 category is (unintentionally) excluding privateers as the manufacturers raise the bar to higher and higher levels. LMP2 is becoming a headline category, but with no chance of achieving outright wins in the World Endurance Championship.
What is needed is a prototype category in which manufacturers can showcase their technology, and privateers can compete against them, by being fast, efficient and – yes, by exploiting loopholes in the regulations.
So, then, just imagine you have a blank sheet of paper, no particular political allegiance one way or the other, and no axe to grind; and consider this: Prototype Pro and Prototype Am. Or perhaps better expressed as “Prototype Manufacturer” and “Prototype Privateer”. Hopefully the distinction is clear. If you build the car, then you’re a manufacturer. If you buy it, you’re a privateer. If a manufacturer gives you a car, (look out, Nick Wirth), then sorry, but that still counts as a manufacturer. Maybe the distinction needs to be made clearer still, by saying that if you’re a manufacturer entrant, then your car has to be a closed prototype; if you’re a manufacturer selling to privateers, then your car has to be open-topped.
Do you see where I’m going here? If you’re a manufacturer and you want to go prototype racing, then you have to build a specification (closed) chassis. Not a Daytona Prototype in the current sense, but a World Prototype, sanctioned by the FIA. Think of the potential – Audi, Peugeot, Toyota, GM, BMW, Ford. It’s too late now to do it for 2014, but it could be the basis for 2016 regulations. And there’s no reason why it couldn’t be driven by energy consumption, to take the 2014 regulations further in that direction.
The existing LMP2 category is close to providing what the privateers want – the only thing that it doesn’t do is to enable them to compete for outright victories. This is where the clear definition between closed and open cars comes in – the regulations can allow for more horsepower or ‘higher energy consumption’, if you prefer to phrase it that way, for the open, privateer prototypes.
In the field of GT racing, there is in some senses an embarrassment of riches: there is currently a very good level of interest from manufacturers and drivers alike, but critics will point at the confusion of classes. With the possibility to race your GT car for 24 hours at Dubai, Daytona, the Nürburgring, Le Mans and Spa-Francorchamps, it seems somewhat bizarre that technical regulations are different at each event. Surely, if unification of the Prototype classes is being discussed, unification of GT regulations must happen too?
The biggest decision faced by the rule-makers in GT is to establish whether it is a raw meritocracy, or whether the objective is to encourage close racing. Manufacturers’ figures show that the performance of a Ferrari 458 Italia is better than an Aston Martin Vantage, but it’s also £40,000 more expensive. If you’re spending that kind of money on a car, there’s more to your purchasing decision that merely 0-60 times. And whether it wins or comes fourth in some motor race is not such a significant factor (in my book) as the fact that it is in the race. Prestige, both for the manufacturer and the event, comes from participation.
Looking back, 1999 was the high point in recent years at Le Mans for manufacturer participation, with eighteen works cars from six different manufacturers (BMW, Audi, Nissan, Toyota, Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz). That should really be twenty-three, including the cars from Riley & Scott, Courage and Panoz, since they were also entered by the teams that built them. There was no magic formula that attracted manufacturers in such large numbers then, and there was no performance balancing; rather it was quite simply that everyone wanted to be in the race. Clearly, not every manufacturer entry was in with the same chance of winning; the objective of some was just to finish. But with every manufacturer entry came added prestige and that in turn provided a sense of importance to the race, and to the World Championship series of which Le Mans was just a part.
The same is true today.