|Lexus RC F GT3|
The 2016 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season will mark a fresh start for the Gentilozzi family as their longtime RSR Racing operation morphs into F Performance Racing for the factory backed Lexus effort in the GT Daytona class.
Announced at SEMA in November, the East Lansing, Mich.-based team will campaign the Lexus RC F GT3 car in the new-look GTD category next year before ramping up to a full two-car, championship-contending effort beginning in 2017.
According to team principal Paul Gentilozzi, discussions to bring the luxury automaker into top-level IMSA competition had been many months in the making.
"We'd heard industry rumors that Lexus was considering participating," Gentilozzi told Sportscar365. "We knew they were participating in Japan and had talked to teams in Europe.
"So we opened a dialogue with the North American folks and flew out to California a year-and-a-half ago and met with them to discuss what their long term objectives were.
"We just stayed in communication to see what they wanted to do in the future and how we could develop a company based on their objectives. That's what we sought to do."
While having received bids from multiple teams, including at least two leading IndyCar outfits, Lexus North America selected Gentilozzi's new company as its partner team in September, which came after months of work to secure the multi-year contract.
"We worked exceptionally hard because it was a clean sheet of paper and new company," Gentilozzi said. "It required a lot of detail.
"We spent a lot of time working on that format and what it needed to be. We also spent a lot of time listening about what they wanted it to be.
"RSR is still there but we gave everybody the opportunity to come and work for F Performance. We've added a lot of new people to the new company that will really help us.
"I have some long term relationships with guys that have followed me from program to program and company to company. We're proud of that long-term relationship.
"Guys like Mark Strickland, who have been with me for 31 years, in every venture we've had. That's pretty uncommon in our sport. Troy Cowgill, who has been with us for 25 or 26 years… Those guys are great members of any team you develop."
The F Performance effort marks the first U.S.-based Lexus motorsports program since 2009, when the manufacturer supplied DP engines for leading Grand-Am teams, including Chip Ganassi Racing.
Gentilozzi feels the arrival of the factory backed, production-based effort will help pay dividends for the brand in North America.
"Lexus is determined to enhance its performance globally," he said. "They make great cars that have a high performance ability and they really needed to authenticate that by competing in motorsports.
"That's a fact around the world. You can talk about how your car performs but the public really requires you to authenticate that.
"When we listened to what they were saying about the future, it seemed like a great relationship to build on and develop.
"They're quite successful in the Super GT series in Japan with the GT500. The GT300 is essentially a GT3 car, which is essentially a GTD car.
"Once we realized this was a real program with a short term and long term plan, and the legs to get it to the podium, we were all in."
One of the key components of the new GTD program has been the arrival of Scott Pruett, who reunites with Gentilozzi, in a relationship that dates back nearly 30 years.
Pruett's departure from Ganassi proved to be one of the surprises of the off-season, yet it was a perfect fit for both Gentilozzi and Lexus, whom the five-time Grand-Am champion had served as an ambassador for since Ganassi-Lexus DP days.
"About every ten years, we've managed to do something together that's successful, whether that was winning overall at Daytona, or Trans-Am championships," Gentilozzi said.
"Scott's more driven than anybody I've ever met. He raises the level of your whole team because he challenges every member to do more and to do better.
"To have the kind of relationship we had… When you look at the Ganassi organization and how sophisticated they are with great drivers like Scott Dixon, they stay a long time, they win a lot of championships and that's what we needed.
"When it came time for Scott to accept another challenge, I couldn't think of a better guy to do it with."
While having completed a season in Super GT300 and test races in VLN competition, the RC F GT3 is not expected to be formally homologated by the FIA until later next year, when a new build of the car is completed and presented for Balance of Performance tests.
In the meantime, F Performance will test, develop and race an interim version of the car, which it had taken delivery of in early October.
Gentilozzi is targeting a race debut sometime after the Twelve Hours of Sebring, and possibly as early as the third GTD round of the season at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in May.
"What we're doing in '16 is learning our way," he said. "We're understanding the level of competition, the expectations of the sanctioning body. We really need to know what we don't know and the best way is to take the green flag on track.
"I was looking for a partner that had a plan for participation and a vision for what they wanted to do. In GTD, you need a manufacturer partner that can build a competitive car.
"The guys we're racing against have a lot of years of experience on us. We have to get to the front of the line pretty quick." John Dagys/Sportscar365