OPINION: Charting a new direction for IMSA GTs

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OPINION: Charting a new direction for IMSA GTs

Insights & Analysis

OPINION: Charting a new direction for IMSA GTs

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IMSA has received clear instructions for where it needs to take its GT classes in 2022.

Facing the smallest full-time GT Le Mans grid since the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was formed in 2014, GTLM’s slow decline in manufacturer participation will force the series to rethink its viability once the new season is finished.

The long-rumored consolidation of GTLM, the professional playground designed for auto manufacturers, and GT Daytona, the home where pros and amateurs share customer cars built to GT3 regulations, has reached a point where, sadly, it needs to be formalized.

The decrease comes after recent factory exits by Ford at the end of 2019, and Porsche in 2020. And with no new GTLM manufacturers preparing to join the class this year, or on the horizon, the outlook for GTLM has gone from worrisome to grim. The pipeline is dry.

Corvette Racing is the only factory set to contest the full GTLM calendar, and they’ll be joined by a single privateer Porsche 911 RSR run for WeatherTech Racing. That’s three guaranteed GTLMs at seven of the 11 rounds for the class.

BMW, as we’ve reported since November, is cutting back from full- to part-time, joining in for the long enduros on the calendar, and with that change alone, IMSA is left without much to promote.

In charting the peak of four full-time factory programs and eight cars throughout 2019, three full factories and six cars in 2020, to a new season with two Corvette C8.Rs and one independent Porsche, the GTLM market has clearly spoken. It’s time for a change, and not because GTLM is anything less than brilliant, but due to the fact that that there’s no apparent pathway to fix the category’s collapse.

It leads IMSA to a rather easy choice which has been floated for many years, and that’s the dissolution of GTLM in favor of adding a new all-pro GTD class for the factories to continue racing. Using the same GT3 cars found in the current pro-am GTD category, replacing GTLM with GTD Pro, GTD Plus, or whatever it might be called, fits the needs of the factories who’ve spent small fortunes to build cars that conform only to GTLM and GTE in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

While the WEC’s GTE-Am class is healthy, its GTE-Pro category is also suffering from a culling of manufacturer participation. BMW departed at the conclusion of the 2019 season and Aston Martin recently shuttered its factory effort. Altogether, in the three IMSA and WEC classes where GTLM/GTE cars perform, only one is stable.

Although the WEC has given no hints towards impending GTE changes in its series, a frequent topic of conversation among GT manufacturers and entrants during IMSA’s brief offseason has involved the inevitable march towards GT3 cars as the only solution for the immediate future.

Something nearly identical happened after the 2006 American Le Mans Series GT1 championship concluded. With Aston Martin’s glorious V12-powered DBR9’s gone from the ALMS, Corvette Racing was left to represent the class — often by themselves — as the GT2 class started to thrive.

Amid infrequent opposition, the Corvettes raced themselves, battling for 1-2 finishes in 2007 and 2008 with the C6.R chassis, until the brand grew tired of the solitude. The manufacturer returned in 2009 with a smaller, less ferocious version of the C6.R built to GT2 specifications, which evolved into today’s GTLM regulations.

More than a decade later, Corvette must be feeling a bit of deja vu as it faces more solitude and internecine fights between teammates at seven of the 11 races where the C8.Rs are all but assured podium finishes.

Corvette’s GT1 C6.Rs were left to fight among themselves in 2008, and the team now faces a similar scenario again. Image by Marshall Pruett

There’s no word yet out of Corvette as to whether it will build GT3 versions of the new C8.R. But as we saw in the ALMS, there’s an established precedent for the brand to adapt with the times, and the times call for GTLM to embark on a farewell tour.

BMW has a new M4 GT3 model coming that will fit quite nicely into a factory GTD Pro effort while selling plenty of copies to Pro-Am GTD customers. And the rest of the manufacturers involved with GTD today — Acura, Aston Martin, Audi, Lexus, Ferrari, Mercedes-AMG, and Porsche — are more than capable of joining in the GTD Pro fun at a significantly reduced price point compared to GTLM.

What would IMSA do to speed up GTD Pro or slow down Pro-Am GTD to create a similar separation of performance found with GTLM and GTD? And would the likes of Corvette and other GTLM entrants continue filing GTE entries at the 24 Hours of Le Mans if and when the IMSA class is phased out?

Those are easy questions to answer, which involve well-known BoP options, and a private decision by Corvette to continue sending GTLM cars across to France in 2022, or whether it should step away from the tradition while a new, unified solution for IMSA and the WEC is found.

When we reconvene in 12 months at Daytona, it seems all but guaranteed that GT3 will be the only GT formula in motion. Which means, for those who love GTLM, be sure to attend the Rolex 24 if you can, where six GTLMs are scheduled to appear. Or Sebring, where at least five should be in attendance, and Watkins Glen, or Petit Le Mans, as the grid swells to five or six with endurance-only entries.

Elsewhere, at most rounds, when it’s down to three, a touch of sadness and nostalgia could set in, just as it did for some of us when GT1 was a shell of its former self in its final days.

GTLMs look, sound, and perform in unique ways compared to GT3 cars, and when they’re gone, they will most definitely be missed.

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