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Flat Spot On: Daytona Needs Faster Prototypes

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, January 26 2013

The Corvette Daytona Prototype of Wayne Taylor Racing. A little too sluggish? (Photos courtesy of the Rolex Grand-Am Series)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – On the eve of this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, count me among those lamenting the passing of the American Le Mans Series at the end of the season and one who appreciates the future of a single unified endurance racing series in America under the Grand-Am. Also include me among those participants who wonder if the king isn’t fully clothed.

The more things change, the more they stay the same when it comes to sports car racing – not just in the U.S. but around the world.

Now that the rule makers at Le Mans and the FIA have abdicated much of a role in the U.S. – yet again – we’re back to our own devices. Oh well. The situation is significantly advanced from the days back in 1971 when John Bishop called every road racing car owner in America to launch his new IMSA series, which also briefly organized Formula Ford events to try to keep the entry level high enough to sustain the front office with back-gate fees.

Of course, last year’s World Endurance Championship was a cobbled together affair once Peugeot dropped out and Toyota stepped up for a suddenly revised championship format to accommodate the Japanese manufacturer’s late, and it must be said, gallant entry. At least with the arrival of Porsche’s new hybrid prototype in 2014 we can look forward to a robust WEC.

It must be said that the current state of affairs in American sports car racing is an offshoot of the decision by the

Factory-backed Peugeots are gone but not forgotten. (File photo courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

ACO in Le Mans and the FIA to create a world endurance championship that siphoned off any possible budget for sustaining the American Le Mans Series. Given the long history of feast and famine in the sports car ranks – note last year’s withdrawal by Peugeot – one wonders how this latest world championship foray will go over the long haul.

By the way, did you notice the footnote about “green technology” in the new combined Grand-Am and American Le Mans Series for 2014? While Le Mans and the rest of the world are pursuing extraordinary hybrid technology, U.S. fans will in the meantime be treated to a car where lightweight, a small engine and a highly exposed driver are purported to be the wave of the future. We’ve seen the small car approach already on the highways, which usually translates as poor, so how does this make sense in big time racing or make a statement about the future? (Give me a big ol’ V-8 with a hybrid option and plenty of electric low-gear torque any day, or a Porsche Spyder 918 for that matter.)

If this seems a little caustic, well, the merde-colored skies have been glimpsed previously and they require merde-colored glasses. Sports car racing is about technology and the excitement that it can bring. Fortunately, we will have that going forward in the extraordinary GT classes in the U.S., but alas it remains to be seen what happens with the prototypes.

I didn’t see the Can-Am die its prolonged and painful death. But I witnessed the GTP arrive, thrive and die. It was a far better idea than what was happening in Group C with the absurd fuel rules – where basically Porsche’s Motronic fuel injection ruled the day with some fundamentally sound cars designed by Norbert Singer – the redoubtable Porsche 956/962. Alas, America rarely saw the FIA/Group C version of the Porsche 956/962 or Lancia, etc. because, well, there were different rules for everybody outside the U.S.

Does this currently ring a bell? Does the footnote about green technology really cover the extraordinary technology development currently being undertaken by Audi, Toyota and Porsche? To me, the hybrid revolution in the current FIA/Le Mans format of the World Endurance Championship more than makes up for the ridiculousness of the late and rarely lamented fuel rules of Group C.

Back in the day, John Bishop shrewdly stoked the fires of the GTP category by not accepting the concept of fuel rules and instead allowing the fastest car to prevail. Manufacturers arrived and GTP thrived as a result.

What we have in America going forward is not about the fastest, or coolest or most sophisticated cars – unless one considers the GT concept. We have a restricted formula known as Daytona Prototypes to which any remaining Le Mans Prototype 2’s are going to be equated to create the leading prototype class.

Chip Ganassi Racing has two BMW Riley DP cars in the field for this year's 24.

We’ll see how things develop in the GT class, which will require cooperation with the rule makers at Le Mans going forward. The current vehicles are totally cool and draw more than fans – new manufacturers and car models keep showing up on a regular basis. And let’s give credit where credit is due: the ACO created this class in 1999 with a solitary Porsche entry launching it at Le Mans, the first in the highly successful GT3 R series. Since then, Dodge ,Corvette, Ferrari, BMW, Audi, Aston Martin and Dodge (for a second go-round) have followed suit. The Grand-Am has recently jumped into the game by getting some of these same manufacturers involved.

Alas, sports car racing has been about the prototypes since the days of the Ferraris, Lolas, Matras and Porsches of the 1960’s at Le Mans, not to mention Ford’s GT 40, Mk. II and Mk. IV. Prototypes are the only way to brand sports car racing as a distinct entity versus other major forms of professional racing.

So wither the future of prototype racing in the U.S. – given the latest developments at Le Mans? The current merger exercise is about eventually branding the Daytona Prototypes as the American way of professional road racing. And let’s give credit to Jim France for creating a class that has continued to thrive while the ALMS prototypes have dwindled precipitously.

But if the Grand-Am wants to draw the consistently larger crowds that the ALMS has enjoyed – despite lower car counts in the ALMS – the Daytona Prototypes must be stepped up to the level of performance of the current LMP-2 category. That can be done by increasing the RPM limits, introducing turbos, and allowing bodywork changes such as larger front splitters and lower rear bodywork. It also means eliminating spec tires in favor of open competition among tire makers.

To hear the snobbish types in Europe tell it, only cars with carbon fiber tubs can really corner fast. That’s rubbish, built on the age-old concept of driving technology and costs in a way that allows a select few to fulfill the marketplace. To me, that’s the beauty of the American way – practicality in place of coffee house philosophy.

Going forward, the Daytona Prototypes can command the fan appeal engendered by sheer speed in cornering as well as on the straights without requiring a factory budget, especially with the possibility of a fourth generation in 2015. When the WEC inevitably hits a rough patch and there’s a new and pressing need for cars, the ACO will consider itself all the wiser for maintaining an opportunity for the Daytona Prototypes to race at Le Mans.

But that can’t happen if the Grand-Am doesn’t speed up its prototypes – starting in 2014.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, January 26 2013
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