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Flat Spot On: Click Here to Link Daytona, Le Mans

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, January 24 2020

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Race tracks in repose are often telltales, even on race weekends. At the Daytona International Speedway late on Wednesday night prior to the Rolex 24, the breeze remained stiff, bringing some much-needed warm, dry air after a rainy day of 30-degree temperatures. The multitude of flags were flying and snapping as their hardware occasionally caught the flagpoles, sometimes with a dull leaden clunk and occasionally with a bright, chiming ping – a prelude to the engine cacophony to come.

As qualifying on Thursday afternoon and night practice confirmed, the noise level from engines in the giant bowl of Daytona remains significant. But, as virtually everyone has acknowledged about this year’s Rolex, there are fewer cars producing it. As usual, racers have a black-and-white outlook and a low car count is always disquieting – a dull, leaden clunk. On the other hand, it only takes two cars to make a race, or in the case of sports car racing, two manufacturers. This year there are three DPi manufacturers and seven entries with a reasonable chance of making it to Victory Lane, a bright, chiming ping despite a relatively short field.

By Friday, those warm winds brought something that sounded more like a pealing bell. For the first time since the Great Schism of 1981, Daytona and Le Mans announced an agreement on a joint set of rules for their respective premier prototype classes. Over the last four decades, it seemed like the twain would never meet. But now that officials at Daytona and Le Mans have formally announced their plans, what can we expect beyond the new era of LMDh prototypes and the new Hypercars appearing jointly at the Rolex 24 and Le Mans 24-hour?

In no particular order, I would expect continued participation by major manufacturers, an outside chance some rich privateers might be able to participate, and maybe there will be enough excitement and hubris to bring back the romance of endurance racing.

The Rolex rolls off this weekend at Daytona.

Back in the day, before the Great Schism, there was always a little “je ne sais quoi,” of mystery about who might do what in order to win. Then came boring fuel rules in Europe and Group C, plus declining interest by manufacturers and teams participating on both sides of the Atlantic with the exception of guys like Walter Brun or Preston Henn. Gone was the inventiveness of privateers like Jean Rondeau or Yves Courage. Meanwhile, the Porsche 962 won on both sides of the Atlantic under different rules.

The turnaround started with Don Panoz, who deeply understood the significance of linking with the folks in France by creating the American Le Mans Series in 1999. In addition to establishing joint rules in the GT categories, Panoz spent a ton of money launching a Le Mans Series in Europe. How many millions did he spend? Suffice it to say that it was enough to scare the FIA into cooperating with the Automobile Club de l’Ouest at Le Mans. Instead of playing the ACO like patsies with rules shenanigans, the FIA got caught between the European Union’s concern about monopoly practices and Panoz’s obvious willingness to do whatever it took to succeed in his partnership with Le Mans. (It resulted in the birth of GT3, among other things.)

The Great Schism II arrived, of course, shortly after the ALMS in the form of Jim France’s Grand-Am Series. As the owner of several major circuits, France correctly foresaw that he could either beat Panoz, or he could buy him out, which he first tried in 2008. (I happened to know this because I visited Panoz as a guess at his cabana behind his house in Surfer’s Paradise in Australia in the fall of 2008; it was an annual invitation Don issued each year to everybody who attended the “State of the Series” address at the Petit Le Mans. And yes, I paid my own air fare.)

Eventually, in 2012, Jim France and Panoz got back together and agreed to terms. Reliable sources put the buy-out figure, including Road Atlanta and the lease at the Sebring International Raceway – at close to $30 million. It was the same price Panoz had put on his racing empire anchored by the ALMS in 2008, before the economy crashed. Interestingly, after finally closing a deal France immediately began talking about visiting Le Mans with his father “Big Bill” and soon would be dropping the “drapeau” to start the great French 24-hour. Now we have the rest of the story.

For many years, the Great Schism II trundled along in the form of Panoz constantly citing false rumors about him and his health emanating from Daytona Beach. In other words, baiting the “enemy” by revealing the shady practices of the Grand-Am, although generally such rumors never hit the media from any other source than Panoz. Everybody in the Grand-Am, meanwhile, hated the ALMS for denying the NASCAR-owned sanctioning body its due. The Grand-Am attracted significantly smaller crowds with, ahem, a lot more DP prototypes, which seriously rankled its participants.

A few of those in the Grand-Am actually attempted to see the horizon. Max Angelleli once asked me, “Why does the ALMS have so many fans with so few cars?” The answer was as old as the Old Beach and Road Course stock car races. In creating NASCAR, “Big Bill” France defeated fierce competition from other race promoters, in part, by always showing up at short tracks in the Southeast and elsewhere with the same drivers and cars that raced on the sands of Daytona. In the case of Panoz and the ALMS, he brought Audi prototypes that raced at Le Mans, along with the Le Mans GT classes. That gave his relatively shorter fields a certain panache and generated larger crowds than were following the Grand-Am. People wanted to see the same cars that raced at Le Mans.

Don Panoz and the ALMS brought the exciting factory prototypes to IMSA.

Friday’s announcement is an attempt to double down. Adding the cars at Le Mans to the cars from America in major events hedges against high costs and low car counts. It attempts to curb costs by requiring a standard, universal chassis for the new LMDh and Hypercars. And, it will introduce KERS on a cost-effective basis to the U.S. as well as continue the hybrid approach in the World Endurance Championship that is anchored by the ACO’s Le Mans 24-hour.

The fly in this sticky stuff remains the BOP. The Hypercars, which are road cars and prototypes made to look like road cars – will also be equated by Balance of Performance rules. The fact the new generation of cars will be hybrids means performance criteria for the BOP will sometimes be measured in fractions of kilojoules. (Say watt?)

So, the fans, who seem to have accepted, or choked down, the BOP, a rulebook method that purists despise, are left with a choice. Admire the manufacturer-focused platform, built on the BOP, and the variety of cars and technology it produces along with, one hopes, close races. Or, put on the IMSA-sanctioned glasses and see races through the prism of team and driver performance being decisive even if it’s not about who builds the best, fastest race car. 

The big picture is more than ironic. Manufacturers commit to spending tons of money to gain performance from incredible automotive technology, only to be hobbled by incremental changes in the rules if they’re “too fast.” The plot only thickens when you bring together two distinctive categories to race in a major event where rule makers try to divine a fair balance. Apparently, that’s what we’ll see within two years at the Rolex. My money is on the LMDh prototypes to beat the Hypercars, because the latter group will find themselves at a deficit in dealing with the IMSA rule makers. At Le Mans, these roles will be switched as the Hypercar entrants “divine” the breaks from the French rule makers.  

At least there’s a carrot for American participants in the coming new the prototype formula in 2022 – the opportunity to race their cars at Le Mans. The current Hollywood popularity of the great French race and knock-on awareness of the brands that compete there certainly sugar coats the inevitable bitterness of BOP. On the other hand, the most expensive race in the world is held in the wheat fields about 200 kilometers southwest of Paris, so the cost of the car is only the beginning.

Alas, if you’re looking for romance, Paris and France are not bad places to start. 

(Editor’s Note: Jonathan Ingram is entering his 44th year of covering motor racing and IMSA. He is the author of six books and was a major contributor to “IMSA – Celebrating 50 Years.” His current book is “CRASH! How the HANS Device Helped Save Racing.” Visit www.jingrambooks.com for more information and book excerpts.)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, January 24 2020
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