It’s natural for fans to clamor for a wild-wild-west, run-what-ya-brung level of open warfare between car manufacturers and racing teams. But that model from decades past is never coming back.
For a variety of reasons – mainly economics – most forms of racing are now tightly managed competition. There are basically two ways to achieve that.
Spec Racing or Balance of Performance. Pick your poison.
How did we get to this point?
For starters, modern racing is a conglomeration of business and sport, with a social obligation to make the competition as safe as it can possibly be for participants and spectators. So, while speed and excitement are the ultimate objectives, the pursuit cannot come with a human cost.
Up through the 1970s, technological advancements made racing cars faster and faster. But this was a deadly era across the motorsport spectrum, with driver deaths all too common. So, the focus shifted toward reducing and controlling speeds in an attempt to make the sport safer.
Into the ‘80s and ‘90s, designers grappled with increasingly restrictive rulebooks, resulting in copycat cars that even trained experts found difficult to tell apart. Creative breakthroughs, like the Ilmor-Mercedes overhead valve engine that won the 1994 Indianapolis 500, were hastily outlawed if they gave one manufacturer or team a competitive advantage or represented an economic threat.
Continuing with IndyCar racing as an example, economic constraints created natural attrition among manufacturers, and the result, somewhat organically, was a move to spec racing. CART was first, adopting a Lola/Ford-Cosworth/Bridgestone combination in 2003, followed a few years later by the IRL’s Dallara/Honda/Firestone package. The current NTT IndyCar Series, with league-mandated Dallara chassis and bodywork, Firestone tires, and a choice of two highly regulated V-6 twin turbo engines, is all but a spec series.
The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship is the polar opposite, especially in the GT3-based classes, with no fewer than 10 competing manufacturers. This is a Balance of Performance series, with the sanctioning body managing a group of discernibly different cars to a common performance target. The only constant is control Michelin tires.
Given IMSA’s links to NASCAR, it’s not surprising that BoP is the favored form of inducing parity because that’s the way NASCAR has handled things for decades. Things are a little more advanced now, but the fundamental thought process is still: Brand X can’t keep up with the Brand Y? Give or take a little spoiler to help ‘em out.
Both methods of rulemaking have their pros and cons. By design, spec racing is clearly more cost-effective, and by definition, it levels the playing field and therefore highlights the skill and ability of individual teams and drivers.
On the downside, not allowing any significant development on the cars goes against the fundamental spirit of competition. There’s no outlet or reward for creativity or ingenuity. You end up with a generic field of cars that all look and sound the same. This is especially troublesome when a formula stagnates without change; fans want to see something new and different, especially in a technology-driven sport like racing.
In a BoP series, there’s genuine incentive for innovation and effort, resulting in a variety of technical solutions to chase the same performance benchmark – like front, mid, or rear engines ranging from four to 12 cylinders. The variety of participating manufacturers creates a perception of real competition, which has marketing benefits – especially for production-based classes.
For negatives, costs are higher than they would be for a spec series, and that technical diversity is clearly more difficult for the sanctioning body to regulate. There’s also more potential for the rulemakers to micromanage, creating dissent among competitors.
Oddly, with the move to the Next Generation car this year, NASCAR has become somewhat of a hybrid spec/BoP series. While engines remain manufacturer exclusive, the chassis and many other key components on the car are now standardized, and the body is a single spec with individual Chevrolet, Ford, and Toyota noses and other styling cues that were approved after working in close conjunction with NASCAR.
IMSA is currently by far the most technically diverse form of racing in America, and that diversity is set to increase in 2023 when the new GTP class will utilize BoP and a common hybrid system to create theoretical parity between prototypes built to IMSA’s LMDh formula and the FIA World Endurance Championship’s Hypercar.
It’s a tough task for IMSA, but it’s an exciting problem to have. With Acura, BMW, Cadillac, and Porsche (in conjunction with Team Penske) already committed to fielding LMDh prototypes in 2023, and Lamborghini and possibly other manufacturers arriving in the future, it’s critical for IMSA to get the GTP BoP correct (or at least somewhere close) from the jump – especially given the head start in testing that Porsche Penske Motorsport has already achieved.
Spec racing has its selling points. The competition is usually close and compelling, and the majority of viewers probably don’t care that it’s somewhat of an artificial closeness because all the cars are the same. In that regard, spec racing is ideal for ladder series like Indy Lights and IMSA LMP3, for young drivers proving themselves on the way up or gentlemen racers a bit further down the road.
Balance of Performance is easy to criticize, but sports car racing is using it effectively in the USA and internationally to sustain an open market that has resulted in a growing field that is astoundingly diverse – grids full of racing cars from a variety of manufacturers that truly look and sound different than one another, yet are clustered within a few seconds (or less) after 12 or 24 hours of competition.
It’s clearly the lesser of two evils.