PRUETT: Converging toward some home truths

Image by Levitt/LAT

PRUETT: Converging toward some home truths

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: Converging toward some home truths

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The wall that kept IMSA and the ACO from playing together with marquee prototypes is finally coming down. Of the many compelling aspects to highlight from the convergence between the ACO and IMSA, I’m encouraged by where the conversation started.

Let’s start by going back a few years to explore the bad times before we come back to the present-day positives and where this union is headed.

For those who recall the dismissal of IMSA’s new Daytona Prototype international formula in 2017, which was initially welcomed to race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans before the cars were written out of the ACO and FIA World Endurance Championship’s plans, it’s only natural to be skeptical about today’s announcement.

And for those who recall a similar surprise last March in Sebring where all indicators from France pointed to DPi being adopted as the ACO/WEC’s path forward, only to learn – in another last-minute plot twist – it had dropped DPi in favor of the Hypercar formula, casting a cynical eye at convergence is more than warranted.

On two occasions, IMSA’s popular but regional DPis weren’t deemed cool or interesting enough to be embraced by the all-powerful sports car sanctioning bodies in Le Mans and Paris, and it stung. The power dynamic in the relationship was skewed, which left IMSA standing alone at the altar. And then something unexpected took place with Hypercar when the Sebring 2019 gamble didn’t exactly pay off.

Toyota said it would stay and turn its LMP1 car into a Hypercar, which was crucial, and Aston Martin made an exciting announcement with its Valkyrie Hypercar project, which lent more credibility to the formula, but the ACO/WEC weren’t being overwhelmed with major manufacturers rushing to populate its new prototype concept.

Jim Glickenhaus stepped forward with his boutique Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus effort, giving Hypercar its first low-volume auto manufacturer, and the always-odd ByKolles outfit said it would build something, but we’ve yet to see those words manifest in tangible ways.

Together, the opening season of Hypercar would feature one giant Japanese manufacturer, a small, but historic British marque, a super tiny American brand that wasn’t sure if it would be there at the opening rounds, and Germanic vaporware. Hypercar, despite all of its promise, was struggling to leave the launching pad.

Next, and quite mercifully, Peugeot made a bold commitment to Hypercar, but it wouldn’t be there for the September 2020 launch. The French Lion targeted 2022 for its entry, forcing the ACO/WEC to face the specter of a humbling start to its Hypercar era.

Peugeot’s recent commitment to a Hypercar program came with the caveat that it won’t be on the grid for the first season of the new formula.

Although IMSA’s current portfolio of DPi manufacturers rests in a similar place with three brands – Acura, Cadillac, and Mazda – representing the category, the table has been filled with interested automobile companies wanting to get in on DPi 2.0, now known as LMDh. Asked which direction they preferred, the big brands made it clear that Hypercar wasn’t the winning formula; IMSA’s prototypes brought the Fords and Porsches and Hyundais and BMWs and Ferraris and more to the DPi 2.0 technical working group meetings.

All of this brought us to the sight of IMSA founder and chairman Jim France and ACO president Pierre Fillon standing in front of a room packed with manufacturers and media Friday morning in Daytona Beach to bring convergence and the replacement formula for DPi – LMDh – to the world stage.

With a glaring need to bolster its series with more manufacturers, IMSA’s frenemies revisited that imbalanced power dynamic, took stock of how their relationship with the Americans had soured with DPi, and came to a long-overdue conclusion that working together on prototype convergence was in everyone’s best interest. And not just to help increase the car and manufacturer count in the short term; a true spirit of forging togetherness evolved. Those introspective results came to light in the extending of a proverbial olive branch; this time, it was the ACO knocking on IMSA’s door with a proposal to converge Hypercar and DPi 2.0 into a single blended class where both styles of prototypes will share the road in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. That the ACO instigated this latest move speaks to a resumption of a direct alliance between IMSA and the 24 Hours of Le Mans that worked beautifully for many decades.

As IMSA grew from its 1969 birth into a serious player in endurance racing during the 1970s, American entries became routine at Le Mans. In the 1980s, the ACO added a dedicated class for IMSA’s GTP cars at the 24 Hour race and the European Group C prototypes were invited to compete in IMSA. And in the 1990s, IMSA’s lower-cost replacement for GTP, the World Sports Car formula, was also welcomed as WSC models built by Riley & Scott, Ferrari, and more raced without regulatory borders at Daytona and Le Mans.

Pierre Fillon, ACO President, and Jim France, IMSA Chairman sign documents introducing the LMDh category which will be shared by WEC and IMSA. Gerard Neveu, CEO of the FIA World Endurance Championship, John Doonan, IMSA President, and IMSA CEO Ed Bennett look on. Image by Levitt/LAT

IMSA’s decline and eventual disappearance – replaced by the American Le Mans Series brand when Don Panoz purchased IMSA’s assets – took American endurance racing away from its homespun roots in favor of adopting the ACO’s prototype and GT regulations, and that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It fostered the easiest and most open highway for LMP1s, LMP2s, GT1s, and GT2s to race as desired across both organizations.

We hit a rough patch when the ALMS and Grand-Am merged as new-era IMSA in 2014 and LMP1 was trimmed from the Tudor Championship class roster. And when DPi came to fruition for 2017, well, we know how that was received in France.

FIA WEC CEO Gerard Neveu has been an integral part of the new convergence initiative as well, but there’s a massive message to be received in the images of who signed the paperwork.

The man who created IMSA 51 years ago with partners John and Peggy Bishop, and his dear friend, Fillon, who’s presided over massive growth for the Circuit de la Sarthe and the world’s most famous motor race, have taken it upon themselves to cut away the rot that kept IMSA and the ACO apart, and became the pillars needed to prevent another convergence failure

The two most powerful leaders in sports car racing took charge of the situation, wielded their influence in imposing ways, and got the job done with sizable contributions from Neveu, IMSA CEO Ed Bennett, and new IMSA president John Doonan, who all, appropriately, stood behind France and Fillon in the signing photos.

And that’s where my confidence is held. As a tandem, France and Fillon have finally refused to be stopped by outside influences. Mentioned in our main convergence story, a unified ACO and IMSA prototype class with Hypercars and the horrifically-titled ‘LMDh’ vying for overall wins will need to be approved by the FIA before IMSA’s new LMDh formula will be permitted into the FIA-sanctioned WEC events.

It’s safe to say that with France and Fillon determined to move forward, the FIA is no longer holding the keys to global sports car racing. I can only hope the FIA World Motorsport Council accepts the convergence plan, as I don’t get the feeling IMSA and the ACO are waiting for their approval to go racing.

With or without the WEC, convergence is our new prototype future. Hypercars and LMDhs will fight in IMSA, at Le Mans, and wherever else they want to visit.

Borrowing a flubbed line from former president George W. Bush, “There’s an old saying in Tennessee… I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee… that says, fool me once, shame on… shame on you. Fool me… you can’t get fooled again.”

With IMSA and Jim France, and the ACO and Pierre Fillon at the helm of convergence, plus Neveu, Bennett, and Doonan serving as watchmen over the process, I trust we won’t be fooled a third time.

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