2014 Merged American Sportscar Class Structure

I’m a fan of the American Le Mans Series. As I described (potentially quite poorly) in a couple of recent posts, that series has been purchased by the rival Grand-Am organisation which runs the Rolex Series. Thankfully rather than an IndyCar-style rushed takeover or a straight wipeout of ALMS/IMSA assets, the top brass from both organisations are continuing with their separate series, albeit under a united banner, during 2013 while working together to create a truly merged series come 2014.

The merger threw the plans of several teams and drivers well into the air. Why buy a new car this year if they can’t run it next year? What about cars they bought last year? Some much-needed clarity came on Friday with an announcement about the general structure of car classes.

They had a tough job.

The Present

The IMSA ALMS currently runs five classes:

  • P1 for top-spec Le Mans Prototypes, just like the LMP1 cars we see at Le Mans, albeit lacking the top manufacturer entries but still featuring good privateer teams. Lately there have only been two entries but more are coming this year.
  • P2 for cost-capped Le Mans Prototypes like the LMP2 cars at Le Mans. Again very low on car counts with only a few lately and zero currently registered for 2013, but is very popular in Europe and in theory ought to be in the US too.
  • PC for ‘Prototype Challenge’, spec ORECA-Chevys which are basically detuned LMP2 cars from 2009, cheap to buy and run to encourage new teams to enter.
  • GT for production-based cars such as Ferrari, Porsche, Chevrolet Corvette, BMW and so forth, exactly the same rules as the GTE classes at Le Mans (but not split into Pro and Am). The ALMS has the best example of GTE racing anywhere.
  • GTC or ‘GT Challenge’ for spec Porsche Cup cars run along the same lines as PC above.

The Grand-Am Rolex Series currently runs three classes:

  • DP for ‘Daytona Prototypes’ which aren’t really ‘proper’ prototypes in the same way the LM cars are, they have a lot of horsepower but relatively no downforce so their laptimes aren’t that impressive. However the racing is good and it attracts manufacturers – there are multiple engine suppliers.
  • GT for production-based cars such as Ferrari, Porsche, Chevrolet Corvette, BMW, Audi, and so forth. However these are slower and much less advanced than ALMS GT cars and run at ALMS GTC pace. But there are a *lot* of entries.
  • GX which is a new class this year for GT cars running ‘experimental’ green technology. There seems to be a lack of information on what this actually means.

In addition both organisations run several support race categories.

The Future

On Friday they revealed the general class structure in force for the 2014 and 2015 seasons. The details are yet to be worked out but this announcement was always billed as setting the direction of the new unified series, not answering technical specifics.

To quote the release:

The lineup – in effect for the 2014 and 2015 seasons – is based on a philosophy of inclusion. The majority of classes from both the GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series and the ALMS will be retained with the exception of the ALMS’ P1 prototype class.

Individual class names have yet to be determined. The planned structure:
• GRAND-AM’s DP and the ALMS’ P2 classes will combine into one, headlining prototype class that also will include the revolutionary DeltaWing prototype, with performance of the cars balanced to maintain close competition.
• The ALMS’ Prototype Challenge (PC) class for spec prototypes will continue to run as a separate class.
• Both of the organizations’ production-based GT classes will continue as separate, distinct categories based on performance, preserving each class’ proud history and loyal fan following. As part of this plan, the ALMS’ GTC cars will join the GRAND-AM GTs.
• GRAND-AM’s new GX class, which is debuting at this year’s Rolex 24 later this month, is being explored as a possible addition to the GRAND-AM half of the GT mix in 2014-15. There also is the possibility that GX will run separately as a fifth class.

The Reaction

Trying to shoehorn 8 classes into a more manageable structure was always going to be a difficult job with few right answers as there were always going to be winners and losers. They’ve struck an interesting balance in trying to keep as many of their most popular classes as possible, even if it is popular with teams/drivers (and thus entries) more than with fans.

Prototypes

A real shame to see the headline P1 cars disappear. They’re almost as fast as IndyCars which for cars of this size is an impressive sight, they look fast at Silverstone so I can’t imagine how quick they look at some of the US tracks! They’ve been the signature top class of the ALMS since 1999 and it’ll be hard to see them go. It also means two things:  1) No European LMP1 team can come to compete at Daytona, Sebring or Petit Le Mans. That includes privateers and the big factories like Audi. 2) If a US team wants to run a P1 car it can now only do so in the FIA WEC. That could be a bonus for that series.

A merged top class and performance balancing. This is a little worrisome because the laptime differential between P2s and DPs is quite large. According to JM Graham at the Radio Le Mans Collective (forum comment link) who has researched the laptimes, a DP is on average 5.6 sec/lap slower than a P2, is 3.4 seconds slower than a PC and only 2.3 seconds faster than ALMS GT. That’s going to be some hell of a performance balancing adjustment to speed them up to clear those other two classes let alone catch the P2 cars!

The real worry for me is the potential slowing down of the whole series. What if they choose to slow the P2 cars to help out the DPs? That wouldn’t look all too impressive out on track. Sure the racing might look good but the top class should also be about pure laptime. And it would surely hinder any US teams looking to race at Le Mans who’d have switch back to ACO setup, which they won’t be familiar with any more (over time), rendering them uncompetitive. Again a US team would be better off racing LMP2 in the FIA WEC or even the ELMS.

It has all the hallmarks of not being able to put either existing class at the top of the pile for political reasons. Personally if we’re dropping P1, I would’ve kept P2 at the top and put DP underneath it faster than at present. I’d have put some restrictors or weights on the PCs just to swap the DP and PC pace around. As it is yes I’m glad both categories are there, but I think this implementation is going to end up as a mess.

The mention of the DeltaWing was interesting. It’ll be in the ALMS this year on a trial basis. I struggle to see how a little lightweight car like that can be on the same track at the same speed racing directly against the big bulky DP cars. It managed against the big GT cars because it could nip past them and be gone again. It seems unnecessarily dangerous to do this.

GT Classes

No complaints from me whatsoever. The GT racing in both series is fantastic! To hear both top GT classes are coming in unchanged is really good news. I’m fascinated about the dynamic in traffic between the two – how will it play out with so many more ‘GTC-speed’ cars for the faster guys to work through? That’s what sportscar racing is all about. It is also great news for the teams who won’t need to buy new to be able to race – unless they think they’re not competitive, just like any other year.

GTC being rolled into GA-GT makes perfect sense as the latter already contains variants of the Porsche Cup car, which is what GTC is. I think there are already kits to convert one to the other. The laptimes are so close as to make no difference. It also gets rid of a spec class which is a plus in my book.

There’s no word on the future of the GX class and I suspect they’re waiting for data from this season as it hasn’t actually raced yet. It could be rolled into one of the above or continue as a class of its own.

Further Thoughts

It is good to get a sense of direction. Remember this is just the start not the beginning. They’ll review things constantly over 2014 and 2015 with a few to further restructuring, if needed, for the 2016 season and beyond. Hopefully they will be quick about getting to specifics. The teams need to know, especially the prototype teams.

If you want to hear more I suggest the following resources:

- RadioLeMans.com podcast of the announcement, teleconference, and featuring the live reactions of John Hindhaugh of RLM, Sam Collins of Racecar Engineering, and Graham Goodwin of DailySportscar.com. I’ve linked their various Twitter accounts which you should follow and their websites which you should be reading.

- A reaction column from the excellent and reliable John Dagys of SpeedTV.com, who you should also follow on Twitter.

- Dagys also came up with the following after attending the presser in person and asking various people in the know:  DPs may run in an exhibition class at Le Mans (!!!), and there may be some split fields due to the sheer number of GT cars.

- Keep an eye on my ALMS/WEC Twitter List for talk among competitors (check back along the feed too). I guess I’ll have to start adding GA people!

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