When the checkered flag falls on the 24th running of the Motul Petit Le Mans, it will mark the end of an era as the GTLM class will have run its final race. Developed from the old GT2 class, with rules parallel to the FIA/ACO GTE category, the class produced some epic battles and impressive racing. And while this season’s three full-time entries bring it to a somewhat ignominious end and underscore the reasons for its demise, the memories of what it was will never be erased.
“You look back on the glory days when there were the Fords, the BMWs, the Porsches, the Corvettes, the Ferraris … week in and week out, it was the highest level of competition I’ve ever experienced in my life,” says Corvette Racing’s Nick Tandy, who previously battled Corvette as a driver for Porsche. “Having full factory efforts with the best-of-the-best teams, the best-of-the-best drivers, week in and week out, missing a tenth and knowing that could be three rows on the grid or three places down the results … it was just a brilliant time for everyone involved. I know the fans loved it — they loved the inter-brand competition. End of an era, I’m sad to see it go, but I’m glad I was there at the start and glad I’m still here at the end.”
In 2022, the class will be replaced by GTD Pro, which will feature the same FIA GT3 cars as GTD but with all-pro (Gold- and Platinum-rated drivers) line-ups. Lexus has already committed to the class with its RC F GT3s, and Corvette Racing will be back with a modified version of its C8.R ahead of introducing a homologated GT3 car for 2024. More manufacturers — likely BMW, Porsche and Lamborghini — are expected to commit to the class before it launches at Daytona in January.
Corvette’s adaptation to the new class is the story of its modern history in GT racing. From the GT1 class to GT2 as entries for the faster class waned and on to GTLM, through four different chassis, the Corvette Racing team has been through the thick and thin of production-based GT racing, and Antonio Garcia, on the cusp of claiming his fifth ALMS/IMSA GT title for Corvette Racing, has been there for much of it.
“For us it felt like a big drop when we went from GT1 to GT2,” Garcia explains. “We ran the C6.R in GT2 spec, then the C7. You felt like it was a pretty smooth transition from car to car. Every year we just kept getting better and better, and because manufacturers were introducing new cars at different points, everyone was kind of pushing each other. If you look back, you realize we’re faster now than GT1 was.”
Garcia notes that he likes the freedom that GTLM presented. While it is a Balance of Performance class, there was some freedom to improve, unlike the current generation of GT3 cars. GTLM cars have more technology, yet fewer driver aids. The difference in lap times between GTLM and GTD is not tremendous; it’s not the few seconds per lap that drivers and fans will miss, it’s the variety and what the cars demanded of the driver.
“I think the knowledgeable fan appreciates the differences in the cars,” opines Tandy. “You probably can’t see a difference in two or three seconds, but knowing that these cars don’t run ABS, that they’re typically a little bit more technically advanced, there’s more for the driver to do inside the car … I think people appreciate that and look at that as a slightly higher level of car.”
And the fans certainly did appreciate it, especially when it was Ford vs. Corvette vs. Porsche vs. BMW vs. Ferrari….
“Any of those years, it was mega,” says Garcia. “Having 10 cars fighting for the win you could see, like what happened to us in ’18, when we [Garcia and Jan Magnussen] won the championship without winning a race. That means how many different winners throughout the year, and we were the only ones finishing a million times second. It was super exciting, and overall racing in the U.S. makes it really fun. When you have 10 cars on the grid, strategy is very important and everybody starts to gamble.”
Tandy recounts that there have been countless times that, going into the final stint, a driver had to give 100 percent or lose to the guy hounding him. Or that after a late-race restart, having to battle through GTD cars, the slightest bit of hesitancy meant losing a position. But he also knows that those times aren’t necessarily coming to an end.
“When I watch racing, I want to watch a good race,” Tandy says. “GTD always produces good racing, so looking to the future, I’ve got no doubts that the GT division in IMSA will always be good racing. I’ve got no doubts that whatever the future regulation of the future cars will be, you’ll still have manufacturers wanting to beat each other and the competition will still be high.”