12 Hours of Sebring: Sports Car Racing Could Soon Look Much Different
With new cars and new approaches on the in the works, sports car racing is about to look a lot different.
Ahead of the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring this weekend, think back to 1964, when Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase "the medium is the message." Four years later Colin Chapman, the English engineer and owner of Team Lotus, convinced Imperial Tobacco to part ways with £85,000. With the deal secured, Chapman prior to the Monaco Grand Prix painted his Formula 1 car's liveries to resemble a packet of the company's Gold Leaf cigarettes. It was a fitting starting point for corporate exposure through motorsport and proof, then as now, of McLuhan's spot-on insight.
Six decades later, the world of auto racing—specifically the niche realm of professional sports car racing—finds itself at an inflection point. New rules are on the horizon, and the old ways of doing things are being upended and cross-examined.
IMSA, along with the ACO—the organization that runs the world's most prestigious sports car race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans—have agreed on a set of regulations for the new LMDh (Le Mans, Daytona, and an as-yet undefined "h") Prototype class of cars. The LMDh formula goes into effect in 2023, and it promises to be a most cost-effective way to participate in sports car racing's top class. In theory at least, cars in various series across the globe can race with these regs.
It's not a moment too soon. In less than a month, the FIA World Endurance Championship kicks off its 2021 season in Portimão, Portugal, where the Toyota GR010 Hybrid Hypercar will debut. The "Hypercar" class is the latest high-tech shiny object in sports car racing, and it is the successor to the hybrid LMP1 Prototype era in the WEC.
The Toyota version for this class looks very similar to its own LMP1 prototype, which won the WEC championship and the 24 Hours of Le Mans over the last several seasons. Peugeot and Ferrari are among the other heavy hitters who have committed to this Hypercar route.
Over the past several years, major car companies like Audi, Porsche, and Peugeot terminated their prototype programs after spending hundreds of millions of dollars. They did so only after chasing the laurels and marketing the glory of winning Le Mans, along with winning other less prestigious events in various regions.
Other companies such as Aston Martin, BMW, and Ford have slashed budgets or entire programs in the slightly less costly and slightly less glorious GTLM/GTE-Pro classes. Indeed, a reshaped 2021 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship grid will only have one full-time GTLM factory-backed effort fully committed to the entire schedule. That, as ever, is Corvette Racing. As with prototypes, GT racing's future looks much different.
Hitting the reset button in the prototype category means a far more cost-effective way to race, whether a team chooses the Hypercar or LMDh model.
The Hypercar is a bespoke prototype. Each manufacturer will develop its own monocoque, hybrid system, all-wheel drive, gearbox, and suspension. An internal combustion engine will power the rear end, and electric motors will drive the front wheels. This Hypercar path will cost double or triple as much as an LMDh program.
The LMDh car is more of an off-the-shelf approach to prototypes. A handful of relatively small companies (rather than big-name automakers), most of which the non-racing public has never heard of—Ligier, Oreca, Dallara, and Multimatic—will build the chassis. An off-the-shelf hybrid system will be used as well, thus saving each car company millions of dollars in development costs. The engines will be developed in-house, or by an outside firm with the associated car companies' logos stamped on the engine covers.
Whether the Hypercar or LMDh program is more successful than the other will have a lot to do with Balance of Performance (BoP). This is the set of rules and regulations that ensure all cars race on equal footing. It remains to be seen whether these two prototype classes will have the opportunity to coexist on the same track for data-gathering purposes prior to Le Mans. As of now, Hypercar isn't part of IMSA's future plans, and BoP would likely have to guarantee an LMDh car has as much chance of victory as its more expensive rival.
Integration has always been big in motorsports. Whether it's personnel or major parts, rarely, if ever, has a car company done 100 percent of its racing program itself. Often, an outside entity runs the program for the factory, employing its own mechanics and crew, while the engineering and technical folks come from both camps. When done properly, the daily grind is done by the hired guns, and any glory achieved goes to the manufacturer. The trophies are displayed near the carmaker's CEO's office.
Examples of this include Audi Sport Team Joest on the prototype side and Pratt & Miller Corvette in the GTLM class. These two racing subcontractors, one based in Wald-Michelbach, Germany, and the other in New Hudson, Michigan, are synonymous (and very well paid) with the marques they represent in Ingolstadt and Detroit.
The interesting yet tricky bit for global brands involved in sports car racing to figure out is, who will actually race their products and how will those programs be structured in the immediate years ahead? The successful ones will follow the Audi and Corvette model of keeping car design and powerplants under their respective roofs. With racing budgets slashed over the last several years and the demand for lower-cost racing regulations, it will be fascinating to see how many programs will be fully funded factory efforts, and how many will be economically pared-down, factory-supported deals. There's upward of a dozen manufacturers rumored to be interested in the 2023 LMDh prototypes, and even if they don't all materialize with entries, we are likely to see a bit of everything.
This is all dicey, however. The list of manufacturers interested in the new prototype class is now one name shorter than expected: Mazda in February announced it will quit prototype racing at the end of the 2021 season. This unexpected news came less than three weeks after the first race of the new season, and just four months after Mazda cut its program from two cars to one.
The Mazda prototype racing program was, until quite recently, the polyandry of sports car racing. Since Mazda first stuck its toe in prototype racing, and if you include the successful 24 Hours of Le Mans-winning effort of 30 years ago, at least seven entities have had their finger inside the operation. For what seemed like most of the time, Mazda appeared to have little ability, knowledge, or willingness on how to maximize these efforts.
Yes, a Mazda actually won overall at Le Mans in 1991, and the marque occasionally noted its place in the record books as the first and only Japanese manufacturer to do so for more than 25 years. The 787B prototype driven back then by Johnny Herbert, Volker Weidler, and Bertrand Gachot, and powered by a rotary engine, represents the only time a reciprocating engine has not won the race.
I'm not sure anyone at Mazda's corporate headquarters in Japan even knows about this. Mazda's relative lack of marketing and self-promotion since then has reduced its remarkable achievement to nothing more than an ignored asterisk compared to the recent victories of Toyota, the second Japanese manufacturer to win Le Mans overall.
Mazda experienced mixed results in North America over the years. It bagged an American Le Mans Series championship as an engine partner in 2011, and it claimed a handful of race wins, but none of the latter occurred in the classics such as the Twelve Hours of Sebring or the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
In 2018, the company hired Team Joest to run its RT24-P prototype program. This was the same Team Joest with all of those Le Mans victories with Audi on its resume. A brilliant move, it appeared. Or so everyone thought. But it seems a race program run by experienced and assertive Germans, with a racing budget significantly tighter than a multiple Le Mans-winning program, plus a chassis built in Canada and an engine not built by the Japanese, was not the right recipe as promised.
For sure, the engine was one key difference between Joest winning for Audi and struggling with Mazda. Audi had complete control over the development of its engine and the packaging around it, Mazda less so. Quickly, repeatedly, and seemingly at too many events, the engine with the Mazda logo on the covers revealed itself as an aging four-banger that blew without hesitation. Whether during practice sessions or races, too often a Mazda was stopped along the side of the circuit with fluid seeping out of more orifices than anyone knew it had.
The Mazda/Joest relationship dissolved, and Multimatic took over the program. To the Canadian's racing outfit's massive credit, dramatic improvements were made, climaxing in Mazda finally winning another classic sports car race, the Twelve Hours of Sebring in November 2020. Finally, it seemed, Mazda had made it.
Not that anyone at corporate seemed to be around to notice. The manufacturer's longtime corporate champion, John Doonan, became IMSA president after Scott Atherton retired, a golden career opportunity. And by late 2020, most of Mazda's public-relations folks had either been pushed out or jumped ship. Mazda had already announced its decision to reduce the program to one car for the upcoming season, and now the whole operation is finished after this year.
You can't help but feel it shouldn't be this way. Yes, manufacturers come and go from racing all the time. But after years of Mazda struggles, to see it walk away so soon after finally getting its act together is disheartening.
The good news, and a better example of what to expect in the future, is Acura and Wayne Taylor Racing.
The Team Penske racing juggernaut ran the Acura prototype program for three seasons. It never really felt like an Acura factory program, despite the tens of millions of dollars poured into the effort; it always felt more like a Penske Racing team. This is no slight on Acura, just a recognition of the strength of the Penske brand. And Team Penske developed the cars, ran a tight operation, and delivered wins and a manufacturers' championship to Acura.
But with the contract completed between the two entities, Acura can spend significantly less money supporting two teams with each running a one-car effort. Wayne Taylor Racing and Meyer Shank Racing are flying the colors in 2021. Each has at least one Acura factory driver on the team, each receives chassis- and engine-development support, and financial backing. It's just not Penske-level financial backing. This, of course, frees up corporate funds for more marketing, more activation, or other projects.
The early result? Wayne Taylor Racing won its first race running an Acura, and a big one: the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Team Penske never delivered that win to the brand.
What does it mean? Fully funded, factory-supported prototype racing programs may be a thing of the past. Sports car racing's future might very well be the "less is more" model. Car companies can commit to racing, to controlling their programs' two key aspects—design and powerplant—and supporting the right teams to represent them while spending substantially less money to accomplish their goals.
This is all likely to result in an updated version of what Marshall McLuhan proclaimed nearly 60 years ago: A more creative way to market, a more imaginative way to activate, and a message that reflects a more sustainable way forward through a four-wheeled adaptable medium.