The 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship might be the most anticipated season yet, with several key storylines already developing.
The second in a series of articles, here are 10 big questions surrounding the WeatherTech Championship GT Le Mans (GTLM) and GT Daytona (GTD) classes heading into next season:
1. Can Corvette Racing three-peat in GTLM?
The world’s toughest GT class has been the domain of one team – at least in terms of championships – for the past two years. Corvette Racing, with its venerable, bright-yellow Chevrolet Corvette C7.R race cars, heads into 2018 riding back-to-back titles. In 2016, it was the No. 4 pairing of Tommy Milner and Oliver Gavin doing the honors; this year, it was Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen in the No. 3.
So, can this team make it three in a row in 2018, in what will be for all intent and purposes the fifth year of competition for the C7.R? If so, who will do the honors? Will it be back-to-back titles for Magnussen and Garcia, or will Milner and Gavin get it back?
2. Is 2018 the year Ford Chip Ganassi Racing adds a WeatherTech Championship title to its already-impressive trophy case?
Since moving into GTLM competition with the breathtaking Ford GT in 2016, Ford Chip Ganassi Racing has had plenty of success. The team earned its first victory at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in May of 2016 with Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook, who used that win as the springboard for three straight GTLM victories in the No. 67 machine. Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller and IndyCar star Sebastien Bourdais won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2016, and followed it up this year with a season-opening win in the Rolex 24 At Daytona in the No. 66 Ford GT.
Both the No. 66 and 67 teams were in contention for the title throughout much of the 2017 season, but couldn’t quite make it happen. So, will 2018 be the year?
3. With a full year of competition under its belt, will the mid-engine Porsche 911 RSR be a title contender in 2018?
In 2017, the Porsche GT Team introduced what many believed was the most revolutionary Porsche 911 yet. Breaking with its longstanding tradition, Porsche moved the engine in front of the rear axle with an eye toward more balance. In addition to the engine position, the new RSR also featured a distinctive and violent engine note that proved this car meant business.
In July’s Northeast Grand Prix at Lime Rock Park, co-drivers Patrick Pilet and Dirk Werner gave the new RSR its first victory anywhere in the world). It was the lone GTLM victory of the season for Porsche and begs the question, how many races will it win in 2018? Will it contend for the championship?
4. How will the new BMW M8 GTLM car perform in its first season?
It’s somewhat hard to believe that we’ll already see a brand-new BMW M8 GTLM car in 2018. After all, the BMW M6 GTLM only competed in the 2016 and 2017 WeatherTech Championship seasons and this past year was extremely successful. No. 25 BMW co-drivers Bill Auberlen and Alexander Sims won three races this year, while John Edwards and Martin Tomczyk added a fourth win for the manufacturer in the No. 24 entry at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
But in 2018, the new M8 will make its debut, not just in the WeatherTech Championship, but also at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and in the FIA World Endurance Championship. How will this new car perform? Will it win races in its first year? Which ones?
5. Does Ferrari and Risi Competizione carry its late-season momentum from 2017 into next season?
No GTLM team closed the year more strongly than the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE squad and drivers Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander. After a nightmarish start to the season where several incidents forced the team to take a midyear hiatus, the team came back strong in August’s Michelin GT Challenge at VIRginia International Raceway, challenging for the victory before ultimately taking third.
They finished second in the penultimate round of the season at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and finished the year on the podium with a third-place run in the Motul Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta. So, can the team carry that momentum through the offseason into the start of 2018? What will next year bring for the Risi team?
6. Can Scuderia Corsa win its fourth straight GTD title in 2018?
Several other manufacturers have more cars in the GTD class than the one full-season Ferrari fielded by Scuderia Corsa, but one Prancing Horse has been more than enough these past three seasons. In 2015, Bill Sweedler and Townsend Bell won the title for Scuderia Corsa in the final year for the Ferrari 458. Each of the past two years, the title has gone to Christina Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3.
Can the team keep it going in 2018? Cooper MacNeil will replace Nielsen as Balzan’s co-driver in the No. 63. How will that new partnership develop?
7. Will Mercedes-AMG get a championship in its second WeatherTech Championship season?
The 2017 season saw Mercedes-AMG win its first race in IMSA competition when Ben Keating, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Mario Farnbacher won the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring in the No. 33 Riley Motorsports-Team AMG GT3 machine. Then MacNeil and co-driver Gunnar Jeannette made it two in a row for Mercedes in the BUBBA burger Sports Car Grand Prix at Long Beach, followed by yet another win for Keating and Bleekemolen at Circuit of The Americas in May.
Ultimately, the No. 33 team and the manufacturer did win the Tequila Patrón North American Endurance Cup in the GTD class, while taking second in the final WeatherTech Championship standings. Will Keating and Bleekemolen move to the top step in 2018? Will Kenny Habul’s No. 75 SunEnergy1 Racing Mercedes break through with a victory? What will the full Mercedes lineup look like next year?
8. How will the Acura and Lexus programs evolve in 2018?
The 2017 WeatherTech Championship season saw the introduction of both the Acura NSX GT3 and Lexus RC F GT3 into the GTD class with factory-supported programs fielded by Michael Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian (Acura) and 3GT Racing (Lexus). The Shank team won twice, as Katherine Legge and Andy Lally claimed back-to-back victories at Detroit’s Belle Isle Park and the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen.
It was a tougher season for the 3GT Racing squad, but the car showed plenty of speed, most notably at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park when Sage Karam gave the manufacturer its first GTD pole position. For 2018, both programs will shift to customer racing platforms and are expected to continue amid the possibility of additional entries from one or both manufacturers.
How will these programs fare in 2018? Will Lexus break through and find victory lane? How many cars from each manufacturer will be on the grid?
9. What will 2018 bring for Audi and Lamborghini?
Both Audi and Lamborghini visited victory lane during the 2017 WeatherTech Championship season. Audi won at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park with the No. 57 Stevenson Motorsports Audi R8 LMS GT3 duo of Andrew Davis and Lawson Aschenbach, and closed out the year with a Motul Petit Le Mans victory by Connor De Phillippi, Christopher Mies and Sheldon van der Linde in the No. 29 Montaplast by Land-Motorsport team.
Change Racing broke through for its first victory with Jeroen Mul and Corey Lewis in the No. 16 Lamborghini Huracán GT3 at VIRginia International Raceway, marking the second consecutive year that the winning GTD car at VIR featured the Lamborghini bull emblem on its nose.
What’s on tap for both of these manufacturers in 2018? It’s been reported elsewhere that the Land team is planning a full-season WeatherTech Championship entry for Audi. Is that indeed in the cards? Are there more where that came from?
What will Lamborghini’s lineup look like next year? And, will either or both challenge for race victories and the championship?
10. What about Porsche and BMW in GTD?
Porsche closed out the 2017 season with four 911 GT3 R race cars on the grid at Motul Petit Le Mans, which was the largest amount of entries for any manufacturer in the class. BMW, meanwhile, had one GTD car, the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3.
Both manufacturers enjoyed success throughout the season. Porsche won twice – the Rolex 24 At Daytona with the No. 28 Alegra Motorsports team and drivers Daniel Morad, Michael Christensen, Jesse Lazare and the father-son duo of Carlos and Michael de Quesada; and the Northeast Grand Prix at Lime Rock with Patrick Lindsey and Joerg Bergmeister in the No. 73 Park Place Motorsports entry.
BMW had one win with the No. 96 machine and co-drivers Jesse Krohn and Jens Klingmann in the Continental Tire Road Race Showcase at Road America in August.
So, what’s going to happen next year? We mentioned earlier the introduction of the new M8 for the GTLM class. Does that have any short- or long-term correlation in GTD? Will there be one or more entries from Turner Motorsport in 2018? There’s always Porsches on the GTD grid, the question for next year is how many?
We’d love to hear your predictions on the answers to these questions on Twitter and Facebook. Use the hashtag #IMSA2018GT to share your thoughts.
As was the case with our 10 questions from the Prototype class last week, the answers will come anywhere between the next few days and the end of the 2018 season. It will be fascinating to watch it all play out.