PRUETT: A time of reckoning for global prototypes

Image by Levitt/LAT

PRUETT: A time of reckoning for global prototypes

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: A time of reckoning for global prototypes

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As professional endurance racing awakens and comes together this week for its first race of the year in Florida, participants will have an intriguing topic to debate during the long days and nights at Daytona International Speedway.

If the impending convergence of prototype rules between IMSA, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, and FIA World Endurance Championship is going to happen as anticipated, there’s only one path to consider. And while we don’t know the details of what’s likely to emerge, pain and sacrifice will be required by some of the three sanctioning bodies if they want convergence to succeed.

With IMSA’s LMP2-based Daytona Prototype internationals positioned as North America’s top category for the next decade, and the ACO/FIA WEC’s upcoming Hypercar formula, which welcomes purebred prototypes and road-based supercars in September as its leading category starting, diverging ideologies and timelines would be the first orders of business to reconcile.

Some have suggested convergence should involve a blending of houses. Take Hypercars, which are set to start competing in eight months at the 2020-2021 FIA WEC season-opener in Silverstone, and IMSA’s second-generation DPis, which debut in competition two years from now at Daytona in January of 2022, and put them together in a unified class. If that’s the road the trio choose to follow, convergence is a failure waiting to happen.

For a meaningful French-American partnership to work, one formula will need to die, and for some incredibly pragmatic reasons, it can’t be DPi. For those who’ve championed a blended solution where Hypercars and DPis share the track and race wheel-to-wheel using Balance of Performance rules to equalize the machines, a key problem stands out.

With a huge disparity in estimated annual costs to field Hypercars and next-gen DPis, IMSA’s formula becomes the obvious option to pursue. Not because it’s better or more exciting than Hypercar, to be clear. I’m more interested in seeing new Hypercars in action than DPi 2.0, for whatever that’s worth. DPi is more affordable, and by a mile, which holds the greatest attraction for the majority of today’s auto manufacturers.

Hypercars will be cheaper than the LMP1 Hybrids that they’ll replace – but they’ll still cost a multitude more than a DPi program.

The death or decline of top-level prototype racing has always come as a result of unchecked costs, and with a quick comparison of probable DPi 2.0 and Hypercar expenditures, the ACO/WEC formula would be untenable for IMSA’s manufacturers and teams.

High costs killed IMSA’s glorious GTPs due to runaway budgetary needs for auto manufacturers and privateer entrants alike. GTP’s European counterpart, Group C, and its short-lived successor, the World Sports Car Championship, crumbled for the same reason. When the American Le Mans Series and Grand-Am merged as IMSA in 2014, LMP1 was the one significant category cut from the multi-class roster for price alone. The WEC’s incredible LMP1-Hybrid formula was among the greatest offerings sports car fans have received, but it also collapsed under the weight of runaway costs. The pitfalls, in this regard, are well known.

With Hypercar, the WEC has done its best to bring the annual running costs down from LMP1-H’s great excess, which reached hundreds of millions per year when Audi and Porsche were spending Formula 1-level dollars, to something far more sustainable. The WEC estimates a minimum annual Hypercar budget to run in the $22 million range for two cars, which does not include the price to create and develop a car by the factories.

And while this $22 million figure is a giant reduction from LMP1-H’s peak, yearly Hypercar budgets would continue to vastly exceed the price to play with DPis. A stout single-car DPi budget has reached $6 million per year, and depending on whether it’s a factory or customer program, a two-car effort can fall in the $10-12 million range. Like Hypercar, there’s no budget cap in place, meaning huge sums could be spent by DPi manufacturers if desired, but the rules for both classes are written to keep the silliness in check. The silliness, though, is relative.

Where the two formulas also find little common ground is in the costs to create their cars. What will the final bill look like for Aston Martin’s Valkyrie Hypercar? Or Toyota’s Hypercar, which takes most of its TS050 LMP1-H technology and repackages it in a slightly different shape? On the creation side, matching or exceeding the $22 million minimum it will take to run those cars seems like a safe bet. Whatever the numbers happen to be, we know they are significant, and will dwarf the costs of creating new DPi models for 2022.

Glorious as they were, GTPs were eventually priced into oblivion. Image by LAT

Estimates to take a DPi from concept to creation fall in the $6-8 million range, and coupled with the $10-12 million minimum to field a pair of DPis, today’s cost-conscious manufacturers will gravitate towards value.

If lap times are balanced through technical regulations, and increased road-car styling cues are brought forth as promised with IMSA’s DPi 2.0s, the argument in manufacturer board rooms to spend double or more on Hypercars will falter in most cases. Even if the ACO/WEC and IMSA elect to keep both formulas, the majority of manufacturers will build DPis as going for the overall win at Le Mans at a 50-percent savings is the smartest decision to make.

And that’s where DPi elevates itself as the winning formula to support from the outset of convergence.

If a single DPi formula were to be adopted by the three sanctioning bodies, what would happen to Hypercar? This one is harder to answer. The clock is ticking on its September WEC debut, and with IMSA’s new formula two years away, hitting the pause button on Hypercar to wait on DPi 2.0 doesn’t sound feasible.

And do we think two proud French sports car organizations would actually halt their years-in-the-making Hypercar formula before it debuts, announce the money spent by manufacturers on the cars they’re readying for testing as we speak was wasted, and extend the current LMP1 formula until DPi 2.0 materializes? Not a chance. Hypercar is happening, which is awesome.

Where it might fit into the future, however, is ripe for some heated politicking, provided the three sides opt for a single formula based on DPi 2.0. And how would boutique Hypercar constructors like Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus and other low-volume manufacturers be affected by a short-lived 2020-2021 WEC campaign followed by convergence?

That would be the toughest pill to swallow if IMSA’s formula is chosen. Big expense, and an even bigger effort, to put Hypercars in motion for one championship run, followed by a new top class using IMSA’s prototype rules? As I said in the beginning, only one formula makes sense in convergence, and if it comes to pass, those on the side of the unchosen formula will suffer all the wounds.

I’m left to wonder whether Hypercar, with its rules altered where only road-going supercars form the basis of the class, would make for an epic update to the teetering GTE/GT Le Mans formula. On both sides of the Atlantic, car counts in the factory GT classes aren’t nearly as strong as they once were.

Could morphing Hypercar and GTE/GTLM into the new and leading GT class for IMSA and the WEC in 2022 be considered as a worthy option? One that would preserve entrants like Jim Glickenhaus while maintaining the traditional homes for Aston Martin, BMW, Corvette, Ferrari, and Porsche, if they stay in Hypercar/GTE/GTLM? Transitioning Hypercar from LMP1’s replacement to a proper GT category could jump start the ageing platform. It wouldn’t be a crazy proposition to float to the current and incoming manufacturers.

Convergence could work wonders for global endurance racing. The strongest versions of IMSA – in its original guise – the ALMS, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans I’ve witnessed in my lifetime have been when the parties commit to finding common regulatory ground.

My fear for a convergence that protects two formulas comes from how much it would feel like the ACO/WEC and IMSA have entered marriage with prenuptial agreements. If both sides start the relationship looking to safeguard their core assets and interest by keeping Hypercar and DPi 2.0 once 2022 arrives, divorce is always an easy and lossless option to use.

A bold commitment to doing what’s best from the outset, with the lone formula everyone can afford, is the only way to converge.

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