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Le Mans/IMSA: This is the Future of Big-League Sports Car Racing—Or Not

What do the new 24 Hours of Le Mans Hypercar rules mean? A lot.

This is the future of big-league sports car racing. Or not.

The FIA—that stands for Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile—was founded in 1904, and has grown into the world’s most influential motorsports governing body. Among others, it sanctions Formula 1, Formula E, the World Rally Championship and—this is why we’re talking about it today—the World Endurance Championship, which includes the cars that race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and elsewhere. But Le Mans is what really matters.

Just like IndyCar has the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR has the Daytona 500, the WEC has Le Mans. In all three series, that’s the only time they can expect worldwide recognition. For the rest of the racing season, they’re playing to the hometown crowd.

On Friday, June 14, when America was still asleep, the FIA announced some new regulations for the upcoming 2020 “Hypercar” class, a name that will be replaced by something more appropriate, because the “Hypercar” the FIA talked about on Friday isn’t quite as hyper as we’d been led to believe.

Here’s what the FIA said: “The 2020 [Le Mans Prototype] Technical Regulations have been expanded to a ‘Hypercar’ developed from the road cars sold by the manufacturers, of which a minimum of 20 road models must be produced over a two-year period, in addition to the amended prototype regulations approved by the Council of 5 December 2018 … This expansion will enable additional manufacturers to enter the championship. Additionally, the implementation of Balance of Performance (BoP) will enable the different types of cars to compete on the same level.”

What came a few sentences later was especially interesting: “The hybrid system would not be mandatory.” So there would be scratch-built Prototypes and street-car-based Hypercars running in the same class, with the Balance of Performance regulations (adding weight, subtracting weight, changing aerodynamic wing sizes and angles—whatever they can think of to level the playing field) making both hybrid and non-hybrid cars competitive with each other.

This is something that IMSA—the sports-car series on this side of the pond—learned is easier said than done as it tried to balance the performance of its Daytona Prototypes with that of the LMP2 cars so that they too could race against each other.

Those FIA regulations announced December 5 of last year described “Hyper Sport Endurance Racing,” beginning in September 2020, and running through 2025, claiming “the new regulations for the top class in endurance racing will introduce into competition sleek, high-performance hybrid cars, with much more reasonable budgets.” The WEC envisioned a field that consists of cars “fielded by constructors [meaning factory-backed teams] and private teams,” with a performance goal of turning a lap of Le Mans at 3 minutes, 22 seconds for qualifying, and 3:27 for the race.

That’s slower than the current LMP1 factory-backed cars—which includes a whole two Toyotas, after Porsche, Audi, and Peugeot bid the series farewell—with driver Kamui Kobayashi turning a lap of 3:15.497 for this past weekend’s 24 Hours of Le Mans pole position. The quickest LMP2 cars, which all run the Gibson V-8 engine and are similar to the Daytona Prototype international-class cars that ran in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in 2018, were about 10 seconds slower than the pole-sitting LMP1 Toyota.

So what does this mean for U.S.-based IMSA, which—along with its Prototype teams—has hoped for years that the next-generation Le Mans Prototype (LMP) would be close enough to IMSA’s top class, DPi, that the IMSA teams might be able to run the 24 Hours of Le Mans with only minor changes?

It means thanks, but no thanks. The late Don Panoz founded the American Le Mans Series on the idea of using the FIA’s rules for a racing series in the U.S. But ever since the Grand-Am series merged with the ALMS in 2014, America’s top sports-car league has gradually become more and more estranged from the FIA, the ACO (which sanctions the 24 Hours of Le Mans), and the WEC.

Too bad: Factory-backed teams like Cadillac and Mazda and Acura would love to be able to compete at Le Mans, but building a completely separate car is a stretch. While the FIA claims the new cars can be built with “reasonable budgets,” the cost will be far, far more than the IMSA DPi, even factoring in IMSA’s plan for a new prototype car for 2022.

Bottom line: The new, fastest class of cars at Le Mans will be slower than the current king of the hill, the Toyota, by maybe six or seven seconds. And once again, IMSA’s hopes to be able to send its Prototype teams to compete at the top level at Le Mans have been dashed. At this point, it sort of feels like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football, and the evil Lucy snatching it away, time after time, at the last second.

IMSA is doing just fine, by the way, regardless of Friday’s news. Being able to race at Le Mans would be nice, but the series is still on an upward trajectory without it. As for the FIA and WEC, the jury is out until we find out how many manufacturers are hyper-interested. Toyota and Aston Martin have signed on; Ford respectfully declines. Rumors suggest Porsche and Mercedes-Benz are definitely interested.

And while there is also interest from several privateers, let’s face it: manufacturer involvement is key. Manufacturers buy ads, run commercials, invite journalists to come cover the race, have a huge hospitality presence at the track, hire the absolute top drivers to race their cars, celebrate victories with massive campaigns, and spend a fortune on development, because they have an in-house battalion of engineers and designers.

Privateers don’t have that kind of budget.

And in the LMP2 class, which very nearly won Le Mans a couple of years ago when the LMP1s kept breaking down, don’t have a budget to celebrate their wins because they all run the WEC-mandated Gibson engine and will through 2020, and Gibson isn’t trying to sell its product to consumers. Imagine how much more attention Le Mans would get if you added Cadillac, Acura, Mazda, and maybe even, say, Nissan to the mix. But the FIA remains steadfast.

Indeed, this past year, the FIA wavered repeatedly on what it wanted the next LMP1 successor to be. Now we know. And it will be fascinating to see if it works.