Acura: To LMP1 or not to LMP1

The Patron and XM Radio Acuras

One of the big questions of this year’s American Le Mans Series figures to be resolved at this weekend’s Detroit Sports Car Challenge Presented by Bosch, namely, Acura’s plans for the 2009 season, in particular whether Acura will join the LMP1 fray. And if so, with which team or teams and how many cars?

Ever since announcing its plans to go sports car racing in the 2007 Series with a trio of LMP2 Acuras, Honda has maintained its eventual goal is to compete in LMP1 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Indeed, then-president of Honda Performance Development Robert Clarke attended the 2007 24 Hours of Le Mans and returned convinced Acura should only compete in the event in the LMP1 category.

“I was pushing the company to go to Le Mans as soon as possible," he said. “But I’d never been to the event until that year. But after being there and seeing it, I’ve done a quick 180.

Incoming HPD boss Eric Berkman (L) and outgoing boss Robert Clarke (R)

“LMP1 is for manufacturers; LMP2 is for privateers," Clarke added. “For Acura to compete in LMP2 would be all wrong for that brand. One, if you win you should have won because you just beat-up on a bunch of privateers. And if you lose you look like complete idiots because you got beat by a bunch of privateers. And losing is something that is very possible just because of the nature of the event.

“So we shouldn’t go there until we’re in P1 and we shouldn’t go there until we are completely confident that we can win."

Fast forward to 2008. When Clarke and his successor Erik Berkman introduced Gil de Ferran and his new Acura LMP2 team at the preseason test at Sebring, they made it crystal clear they would not field questions about a move to LMP1. Perhaps that was because speculation was already rampant that de Ferran Motorsports was a stalking horse for Acura’s LMP1 program; or maybe they had not yet made a final decision about LMP1 and didn’t want to muddy the waters surrounding de Ferran’s entry into the American Le Mans Series.

That may be about to change as Acura has requested time for a press announcement be set aside during the Detroit race weekend. Still, it’s not quite a forgone conclusion that Acura is taking the LMP1 plunge.

“There’s a lot of factors that enter into the decision," Berkman told me at Road America. “What will the competition do? Who will lay their cards out first? We’re talking with our competitors, the teams, ALMS and the tire manufacturers trying to get a sense of how many cars will be competing in what class next year. We’re doing it in a respectful way, so as not to ambush one another.

“Right now there’s great competition in LMP2 but, as a manufacturer, it’s clear the ACO and the American Le Mans Series see LMP1 as our proper domain," he added. “Robert (Clarke) made it clear LMP2 is, ultimately, a stepping stone to LMP1 with Le Mans as the ultimate aspiration. So we started on that path but, as with any path, you reach forks. There are questions of cost, time and the rules makers are trying to balance stability with close competition – which are sometimes at odds. Given today’s business climate, now is not the time in racing for uncertainty."

While Berkman’s response may be clear as mud, it could not be more evident that Acura’s current teams – Andretti Green Racing, Lowe’s Fernandez Racing, Patr¢n Highcroft Racing and de Ferran Motorsports – are jockeying for position in the event Acura does, in fact, go LMP1 in ‘09.

De Ferran himself, of course, won a pair of CART titles for Honda before serving as sporting director for the Honda F1 team from 2005-2007. The team hit the ground running at Miller Motorsports Park and has been at, or near, the head of the Acura LMP2 queue ever since. And while nobody would suggest merit was not the primary consideration in de Ferran’s choice of Simon Pagenaud as co-driver, the fact that Pagenaud hails from Montmorillon, France was not lost on one competitor who said, “Simon Pagenaud? That’ll go over well with the ACO," when informed of the decision.

So too, would another Frenchman named Franck Montagny who joined AGR after a mid-season purge put Herta and Christian Fittipaldi on the street and produced an uptick in the XM Satellite Acura’s performance.

Speaking of performance, it’s hard to argue with Patr¢n Highcroft’s record, one that saw the team finish atop the Acura heap in the 2007 points race and claim four wins so far in ’08, including Acura’s first overall victory at Lime Rock.

“When we formed this team we mapped out a business plan with distinct milestones," says team owner Duncan Dayton. “First was getting the funding to race professionally in 2005. We wanted to race with a proven chassis the next year, so we acquired Lolas from Dyson Racing. In ’07 we wanted the backing of a manufacturer, which we did in Acura and this year we wanted to secure a title sponsor and win a minimum of two races.

“Our milestone for ’09 is to move into P1. Now that’s Patr¢n Highcroft’s milestone. How it matches with Acura’s plans is another thing. This is racing and we all know money and politics come into play, but we think we’ve deserve a crack at P1."

“That competition (among teams) is certainly going on," adds Tom Anderson, who together with Adrian Fernandez is co-owner of Lowe’s Fernandez Racing. “You certainly want to hold up your end of the bargain Acura expects. But the situation is interesting and I think you’re seeing it on all the cars except the Audis, which are obviously being bankrolled by Audi. Even the Penske Porsches have DHL sponsorship.

“So I think the sponsorship package is going to be very important going forward with Acura into P1. For the car and the parts side of your budget you could be looking at a 60 to 80 percent increase. I haven’t been told what kind of engine they’ll be running, but usually a bigger car with more bells and whistles and more horsepower translates to more money…"

That’s in sync with Berkman’s observation that, “Penske and Champion/Audi are clearly works teams. Acura does not have works teams. Our teams have to bring the right financial package as well as talent. So it’s a different equation than what you see with some other manufacturers."

Whether that equation adds up to an LMP1 program for Acura in ’09 remains to be seen, not to mention what that would mean for their LMP2 program and teams. We should get some of the answers on Belle Isle this weekend.

David Phillips is one of North America’s most respected and renowned motorsports journalist. His ‘Another Turn’ features will appear periodically on throughout the season. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Le Mans Series.

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