The big news of last weekend in the world of sports car racing was the 63rd running of the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, the second race in the season for the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship sanctioned by the International Motors Sports Association (IMSA).
But profoundly important for the future of both the sanctioning body and series was an announcement made moments before the green flag: IMSA had signed a six-year extension through 2020 with the Automobile Club l’Ouest (ACO), which organizes the annual 24 Hours of Le Mans and whose rules govern professional endurance sports car events throughout Europe and beyond. IMSA and the ACO will work together to grow sports car racing on both sides of the ocean.
“We are very delighted to strengthen even more our partnership with IMSA," said ACO President Pierre Fillon.
Added IMSA Chairman Jim France: “Since announcing our original strategic partnership here at Sebring two years ago, the bond between IMSA and the ACO has gotten stronger. This partnership will make it easier for our top teams to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and for top international teams in Prototype and GT racing to join us for our marquee events such as the Rolex 24 At Daytona and Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring."
There are big changes coming. IMSA President Scott Atherton, who has worked with three ACO presidents during his tenure as an executive involved in sports car racing, took time to field a few questions about what the partnership means, and what to expect in the near future. Atherton served in a similar capacity for the American Le Mans Series, which had the relationship with the ACO, and when the ALMS and the GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series merged, the ACO partnership became part of the package.
[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]Question: How important was it for IMSA to confirm the partnership with the ACO?
Scott Atherton: I look at the relationship we have with the ACO as one of our strongest assets. We are formally aligned, and we genuinely like working with each other. This has been a very friendly, very productive, mutually beneficial alliance. Don Panoz, who founded the American Le Mans Series, deserves the credit for recognizing that opportunity way, way back. When we first started with the merger, I was concerned our link to the ACO and Le Mans was going to come to an end, because I thought Jim France [GRAND-AM founder and current chairman of IMSA] had his own vision that might not include continuing the relationship. But I was pleasantly surprised that he recognized the value from the start of maintaining that partnership. Under Jim’s leadership as our chairman, and under Pierre Fillon’s leadership as ACO president, I think the business and personal relationships in place today are as good – or better – than they have ever been. The fact that we now have a six-year agreement means we can focus on a lot of long-range strategies.
Q: Many of us are, frankly, surprised at how the very different missions of the ALMS and GRAND-AM series have meshed rather seamlessly in the TUDOR Championship.
SA: IMSA and the ACO are committed to the growth and development of top-level professional sports car racing. We are focused on North America, the ACO focused on Europe and with their World Endurance Championship, around the world. There’s no doubt that Le Mans is the benchmark example of endurance sports car racing, but I think our championship in North America would be referenced in the same way as being the benchmark of a domestic sports car championship. The two of us work well together in that regard.
Q: We have a new Prototype car coming in 2017. What’s the status of that, and how much do the teams know about what to expect?
SA: It’s very much a work in progress. There are meetings continuing to occur – in fact, there was one as recently as 4 a.m. this morning with their technical team and ours. The teams are eagerly awaiting final details, and we’re working toward that as rapidly as possible. It’s safe to assume the Prototype will be a shared platform with some unique elements that the ACO will prescribe for their purposes and for the European Le Mans Series, another ACO-managed championship, and there will be unique aspects that are specific to the TUDOR Championship. But the core of the car – or the spine of the car as I call it – will be common to all the cars. Our teams will have the opportunity to race our Prototypes at Le Mans – our partnership with the ACO enables selected TUDOR Championship competitors to earn automatic entries – and the teams that are competing in the other ACO championships will have the opportunity to participate in our TUDOR Championship events, be they Daytona or Sebring or any other venue.
Q: We only have to wait until next year for GT changes – in GT Le Mans, how will the cars differ from what we have now?
SA: Visually, subtle changes. Mechanically, more dramatic changes under the skin. There is a general move to increase the performance of the GTLM cars, which are a mirror image of the ACO’s GTE cars, and the reason is twofold: One, it has been the desire of the manufacturers to give these cars a higher level of performance. And two, with our GT Daytona category evolving to FIA GT3 specifications, it will enable us to properly separate the performance of the four classes to keep the appropriate separation on track. If you look at Sebring’s numbers, we were very happy to see this year that every class was about four seconds per lap apart from the next closest one. No guarantee, but it appears that some of the manufacturers will be evolving to turbocharged configurations, and that’s a byproduct of the 2016 regulations.
Q: You mentioned that the FIA’s GT3-specification cars will be legal in the GT Daytona class next year. Are you expecting to see some new manufacturers and new teams enter the GTD class next year?
SA: Yes. There are a lot of GT3 cars that already exist, and there are a lot of manufacturers already producing cars to that specification. There’s no question that there are manufacturers who do not have a car consistent with our GTD regulations but do have a GT3-spec car, and they will have an opportunity to begin competing as of Daytona next year with no alterations to the car. We do reserve the right to adjust the performance of those cars as needed through weight and an engine restrictor, but we are not looking to make any radical changes that depart from the GT3 rules.
Q: Is there a concern that the changes could alter the personality of the GTD class – make it more like GTLM?
[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]SA: We will work diligently to maintain GTD as a category for independent teams. In other words, we’re not looking to have factory-backed programs with all the trappings that come with a full factory effort. We would want to limit that level of involvement to our GTLM class. That doesn’t mean the factories can’t have some level of involvement in the GTD class, but it has to be limited.
Q: Any final thoughts?
SA: We just have a general positive energy in our paddock right now – be it from a driver, team owner, sponsor, event promoter – we seem to be in a really good place. Our challenge is not only to maintain that energy but to build on it. We just spent two days of strategic planning with our senior management team that stayed over at Sebring, and one of our longtime employees said that in all his years in racing, he thought it was the most productive, positive two days of meetings that he’d ever been a part of. I’m not going to spill the beans as to what the byproduct of those two days will be, but stay tuned, because we’ll present it in the not-too-distant future.