IMSA has cast its future with LMDh, the new-for-2023 prototype formula that will replace today’s DPi class. In doing so, the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship knows where its marquee category is headed, and with a few high-profile announcements by Audi and Porsche, LMDh could be a resounding success.
But the big new class due to arrive in a few years won’t solve IMSA’s problems today with limited prototype numbers. And that’s where its renewed focus on growing the Pro-Am LMP2 paddock, and introducing LMP3, the entry-level training formula, into the WeatherTech Championship, makes for an interesting development.
Although the Rolex 24 At Daytona entry list has not been released, LMP2 is flirting with a double-digit car count; for its debut, and LMP3 is holding steady with at least six cars expected to take the green flag. With DPi factored in, a combined prototype field in the low 20s should join nearly 30 GT cars for the 24-hour season-opener as a grid of 50 or so entries appears to be headed for Florida.
Starting with LMP3, IMSA president John Doonan says elevating the class to become the fifth WeatherTech Championship category will pay dividends in more than one way.
“We announced LMP3 as an addition to our four current classes, and we did that for a couple of reasons,” Doonan told RACER. “We have some great single-make series with Lamborghini, Porsche, Mazda and other developmental series, including the Michelin Pilot Challenge, but this provides a step up into the multi-class racing at the top, and so far, we’ve had great, quality teams answer the call. CORE, Riley, Performance Tech, and Sean Creech Motorsports are some of the names that have announced their LMP3 plans, and it’s just the kind of response we were hoping for. And probably more than anything else, it’s a terrific addition to the IMSA ladder. It is our hope that teams, engineers, mechanics, and drivers have another stepping stone into the WeatherTech Championship.”
Launching a new class loaded with brand-new cars – mostly made by Ligier – at a 24-hour race is a brave decision. With LMP3 models rarely asked to run longer than four hours at the various domestic and international championships where they’re found, reliability will be the question mark hanging over LMP3’s two-day WeatherTech Championship debut.
Recognizing the formidable challenge in Daytona, the series will require LMP3 teams to make a mandatory eight-minute pit stop to change brakes, and across the paddock, input has been sought on how to improve the odds of finishing all 24 hours without mechanical or electrical interruption.
“I did have the chance to go over earlier this month when the Riley and Sean Creech teams were testing at Daytona,” Doonan said. “And so far, all the teams have expressed quite positive experiences with the LMP3 evo cars literally right out of the crate, from what they got delivered to when they put them on track. In the IMSA Prototype Challenge’s current format that we’ve run them in, they do an hour and 45-minute sprint race, so we do plan to give them an extended window of time to spend in the pits to do a service and inspection. Eight minutes is the current target time.
“And thanks to the partnership with the ACO, Matt Kurdock and everybody here has been working really closely with Thierry Bouvet, as well as all the chassis constructors in LMP3 on an endurance kit focusing on the endurance capabilities of key components. And it’s been a really good collaboration in looking at areas of the car – take brakes as an example, or the clutch, and things like that, where the goal is that everybody makes it to the end. And so there’s been a lot of investigation and collaboration back and forth to make sure that we’re putting all the customers and their drivers in the best place to make it to the end from a reliability standpoint.”
Like the Pro-Am LMPC and GTC classes created by the former American Le Mans Series when its overall car counts began to decline, LMP3 is meant to serve the same purpose in the WeatherTech Championship. A downturn in GT Le Mans and LMP2 entries was counterbalanced with LMP3, which begs the question as to whether the new class will be parked in the coming years if the other categories are thriving.
“When we kicked off the LMP3 class, we committed to the format for a few years up front, and I think it’s fair to give it a try,” Doonan said. “We still have to do the first race, so it’s early to try and predict its future, but candidly, it may become something we stick with longer-term. But we need to evaluate it, watch the trends of car count, watch what’s happening globally, obviously with LMDh coming in 2023 and what may be happening with GT racing strategy going forward.
“So hopefully we reach our target of 10 LMP3s next year, and we’ll see what transpires here in the next few weeks. We have a bell here in the office and they continue to ring the bell when entries come in, which is exciting. And we’re really encouraged about the overall car count, but the interest overall in LMP3 has been really solid.”
The greatest surprise at the Rolex 24 is what’s coming in LMP2. For reasons that aren’t immediately apparent, the relative disinterest shown for the class during last year’s race where five cars turned up has been replaced by a 100-percent increase in size. A spike in interest from European teams accounts for most of the newfound Rolex 24 growth.
“We have some great teams returning like PR1 Mathiasen, Era Motorsports, Starworks with Tower, and DragonSpeed,” Doonan said. “And we had the chance to go to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in September for other meetings, and the excitement about coming over to Daytona was bubbling up a little bit among some of the European teams, so we’re doubling essentially what we saw last year. And I like to think that, and this is the optimist in me, that people see the convergence in the top prototype category in a positive way.
“I like to think some LMP2 teams might be seeing where the prototype world is trending, and maybe they want to start sampling what we’re doing in IMSA with an eye to the future where they are able to do the big international races when convergence happens.”
Once the Rolex 24 is over, IMSA hopes to retain at least half of the LMP2 grid to contest the full-season championship.
“We’ll see where the final entry lists end up, but I would say if you need two hands to count the Rolex entry, probably one hand–a full one hand–gets you to what we’re looking at for a full season,” Doonan said. “We’ve had sometimes two or three full-time cars in LMP2, so if we can get that to four or five, that’s encouraging.
“And you know, we’re in a place where we’re concerned in some places about having enough pit stalls at certain tracks, which is, knock on wood, a nice problem to have.”