Talks between IMSA and its counterparts at the French ACO and FIA World Endurance Championship about the next generation of manufacturer-related prototypes continue to make progress. I can only hope our domestic needs are not lost in the process.
Announced in early September at the Mexico WEC round, the idea of the Franco-American sanctioning bodies joining hands to establish a new set of prototype rules that closely mirror what IMSA has achieved with its ‘LMP2-with-modest-manufacturer-twists’ DPi platform was received by many as a godsend.
In theory, it would open the door for IMSA teams to take their 2020 DPis (or whatever they’d be called) to compete at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and, one would assume, at any other FIA WEC rounds, due to the shared rule package. It would represent a 180-degree change in policy by the ACO/WEC, which banned IMSA’s DPis from any level of participation outside of the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship when the cars from Cadillac, Mazda, and Nissan began racing at Daytona in January.
The ACO/WEC’s parochial disdain for IMSA’s DPi concept was also made clear long before their Rolex 24 At Daytona debut; it came while the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the full WEC calendar had Audi, Porsche, and Toyota pouring hundreds of millions of Euros into their LMP1 Hybrid coffers.
With truckloads of marketing cash arriving from its three P1 manufacturers, and huge interest for the 1000hp prototypes from fans, taking a dismissive stance towards IMSA’s manufacturer-based P2 cars was easy.
Having gone from a position of unchallenged strength to surprising weakness in a 12-month span, the loss of Audi at this time last year, and the upcoming loss of the Porsche 919 Hybrid program in a few weeks have humbled the Le Mans- and Paris-based organizations. Toyota, the most fiscally conservative of the three P1 entrants, is expected to be the only one left standing as the sad but predictable demise of P1-Hybrid racing nears.
It makes the ACO/WEC’s motivations behind the newfound desire to couple with IMSA on a common LMP1/DPi platform more than questionable. I’m thoroughly convinced that if one or two new P1-Hybrid programs were announced tomorrow, the ACO/WEC’s interest in a joint DPi-style 2020 car would be quickly forgotten.
After the ACO/WEC initially embraced DPi before rejecting it altogether, the 2020 plans, born out of desperation as its P1-Hybrid class implodes, reek of convenience. With IMSA’s DPis going from strength to strength and the ACO/WEC’s marquee class down to two cars, DPi – last year’s bad idea – has somehow evolved into the right path forward? I’m skeptical on many levels, and would hate to see IMSA allow the other sanctioning bodies to meddle with its best idea.
Having been on the receiving end of the ACO/WEC’s bait-and-switch with the current DPi regulations, IMSA president Scott Atherton (below) told me the 2020 talks have been positive and, critically, have also been carried out with a firm recollection of how the 2017 DPi talks came up short in a few key areas.
“The goals remain unchanged, and this is a classic example of the devil’s in the details,” he said. “And there’s also an element of international protocols that I think we were naïve to when the earliest conversations begin on this topic. What I’m referring to there is because these regulations involve FIA-homologated vehicles, there is a well-established protocol within the FIA system that must be followed in order to alter any technical specifications, and that’s an onerous process.
“So while it may seem on the outside that little progress has been made or it doesn’t appear to be a collaborative effort, I would disagree with that, and I would say the goals remain absolutely intact.”
Having seen the in-depth questionnaire that the ACO/WEC sent out to manufacturers which seeks detailed input on what each marque would want or not want in the 2020 prototype rules, and where those brands find value in prototype racing, the process of creating the new regulations is more complicated than getting the three sanctioning bodies in a room and hashing out the details.
Steered by the incoming manufacturer input, Atherton says true progress on a common, next-generation DPi will come once the questionnaire feedback is turned into some sort of road map.
“The level of cooperation, or mutual involvement, hasn’t been at the level we would have liked, but it’s not because anyone has been prevented,” he said.
“It’s a matter of following the process to a point at which it does enable our interests, our hands-on involvement, to come into play. And that’s not to say we are unhappy in any way, because that’s not the case. We’ve been educated by the ACO, because that’s our closest link, that there must be a recognition of what our manufacturers want to see in this next generation of prototype specification.
“Knowing that at the end of the day, if the manufacturers don’t agree that these are good and viable, it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks. So they have taken the lead in that process. Now keep in mind, the manufacturers involved here, by virtue of them all being involved with us, the open dialogue we’ve had there has benefited everyone such that we feel very confident that not only is the original goal intact, but the process is headed in that direction. Never fast enough, and we’re eager to be a more active participant, which I believe we’re to that point now.”
Asked if he’s gotten the impression the ACO/WEC have had a proverbial ‘Come to Jesus’ on the real value and merits of adopting IMSA’s cost-effective manufacturer prototype solution, Atherton did his best to speak on what he’s seen and heard in the planning meetings.
“Do they believe it in their heart that it is the way to go? I believe there’s a desire to have Le Mans remain the proving ground for future technologies,” he said. “I also think that from the heart and all the other body parts, there’s a realization of how sustainability and value must remain a priority. It has to make sense that we want to keep prototype technology relevant to the manufacturers involved.
“And it’s important for motorsports to play a leadership role, but at the pace of technology today, it’s hard to provide the historical proving grounds racing has offered while still keeping budgets in check, as evidenced by the most recent LMP1 [problems].
“We believe that’s possible [in 2020], given the current DPi formula, and the next evolution of the DPi, with an embrace of sustainable technology.”
To assuage any fears that IMSA might surrender control of where its DPi regulations are headed, Atherton spoke boldly on where the series’ interests fall.
“The collective ‘we’ recognize, absolutely, that we’ve had the introduction and successful launch of the DPi, and its interaction with the WEC LMP2 car,” he said. “That includes our chairman Jim France, and there’s an absolute mandate to work with the ACO and FIA WEC to align the next rules with the top prototype example at Le Mans. But under no circumstances will we jeopardize what we have going here in North America.
“We would love to have the collaborative efforts of the ACO, FIA WEC, and IMSA produce that common prototype spec, and we’re optimistic that’s still an achievable goal. But to reiterate, we won’t jeopardize or compromise on what we feel is the right prototype formula for what we need here.”
Don’t waver on that promise, IMSA.