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International Sports Car Racing: Convergence one more time?

International Sports Car Racing: Convergence one more time?

Daytona Beach, FL, Jan 24/20 (GRW): In a press conference prior to the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) and North America’s sanctioning body for endurance racing, the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) announced plans for unified rules for the top classes of sports car racing in both organizations. The ACO is the local club which organizes the annual Le Mans 24-Hour race and it has become practice that the ACO takes the lead in working with the FIA to establish the rules for international sports car competition including the World Endurance Championship (WEC).

As of the start of the 2021-2022 season in the World Endurance Championship and the 2022 season in IMSA, the top category – to be called LMDh – will be for cars built to a common chassis design and powered by an internal combustion engine supplemented by a KERS (energy storage) system on the rear axle.

The existing LMP1 rules will be no more but the LMP2 prototype rules will continue. The chassis in both LMDh and LMP2 will be built to common rules by a number of approved manufacturers including the Toronto-based Multimatic.

In addition, the previous announced hypercar prototype class will be part of the new rules.

While the press announcement makes no mention of the other classes which compete in the races sanctioned by the ACO and IMSA, presumably they will continue – that is, the GTLM (also known as GTE) class and IMSA’s GTD (GT3) class.

The significance of this agreement is that race teams in America will be building their prototypes to rules which will enable them to enter their cars in both IMSA events in America and In WEC events (including Le Mans 24-Hours) in international competition. In the past it seems as if rules which were specifically written to cater to American-based private entrants and American-based auto maker enterprises have been more successful than when the rules written for European-based manufacturers who want to compete in Europe and Asia were used. Perhaps the time has come when the Daytona and Sebring endurance races need to become an integral part of the world championship again. But it does beg the question of how well the other IMSA races in America will do when they lack a strong contingent of manufacturer-based teams from Europe.

The way I read this announcement it seems as if the new LMDh rules will produce a race car that is essentially an update of the current IMSA DPi car (rather than the FIA LMP1 car that currently runs in the WEC) PLUS a spec KERS unit driving though the rear axle. If so, the would-be IMSA runners will not have to make much change from their current cars. Hopefully this apparent concession to the IMSA side will encourage US-based entrants to compete in the IMSA events here and perhaps add to the numbers in some or all of the WEC events (including Le Mans).

The quest for common rules for both the events under the ACO (Le Mans and WEC) and IMSA has been pursued for decades. When IMSA was formed as a breakaway organization from the SCCA, they wrote their own rules but they were closely related the FIA/ACO rules. Indeed, in some years, the Le Mans 24 included categories for ‘IMSA’ class cars. IMSA abandoned the FIA Group C rules in 1981 and replaced it with a class called GTP which catered to privateer entrants based in the US. American competitors embraced this new GTP category and it was quite successful for many years.

Compatibility with the FIA/ACO rules continued to be quest and in 1999 Don Panoz founded the American Le Mans Series which ran to ACO rules. This series had some success but it was hampered by the lack of entrants. In Europe, the ACO rules favoured a diesel-powered car and Audi took up the challenge. As the only maker building cars to the diesel rules (which were skewed to favour this kind of engine) Audi dominated the Le Mans races in that era. Here in North America, the ALMS was reliant on the Audis to provide marquee entries. Some Audis did come to America as works entries and as satellite entries but the racing suffered from their lack of competition. In Europe, Peugeot took up the challenge and built their own diesel-powered cars to compete with the Audis. Given that Peugeot is not sold in America, it was no surprise that they did not choose to compete in the ALMS series leaving the Audis without any real competition in the American domestic events.

In 2012, Don Panoz, despite his earlier willingness to subsidize out of his own pocket the ALMS concept as a rival series to the France family’s Grand Am series which was based on the unique GTP rules which catered to American non-factory entrants, chose to merge his operation into a unified American sports car racing class which was owned by the France family and which revived the IMSA name for the unified series.

As an IMSA series, they continued to write their own rules for the ‘Daytona Prototypes’, later known as Daytona Prototype International (DPi) from 2017. IMSA has always written its rules for internal combustion (non-hybrid) or ICE race cars only. The new LMDh rules will be a departure for IMSA competitors.

The ACO (in collaboration with the FIA) has tried to come up with new rules for race cars that would recognize that mainstream auto makers are looking for a new kinds of motive power for cars to replace the long-established ICE engines. The first attempt was to make rules that favoured diesel engines in a time when, in Europe at least, it looked like diesel was going to become the dominant kind of engine in pursuit of better fuel economy. Of course, we now know that diesel has become something of a dead-end alley and car makers are losing interest in this direction.

This was followed by the ACO/FIA adopting rules for a hybrid-powered race car instead. Audi, Toyota and Porsche all entered cars built to this concept but in recent years this class (LMP1h) has dwindled to just Toyota and their ICE-powered competitors were unable to match the performance of the Toyota hybrids - making the competition uninteresting.

Now we have word that FIA + ACO + IMSA will adopt a KERS-based hybrid with a spec chassis for all international and American-based sports car competition. Let’s hope that these new rules will encourage a number of manufacturers and private entrants representing different makes of cars to fill out these fields. If either the LMDh or the hypercar class ends up being dominated by a single make of race car, sports car racing may continue to suffer from the ennui of competition only among single-make teammates.

What follows is the text of the ACO/IMSA press announcement:

ACO and IMSA forge future of endurance racing

The Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) and North America’s sanctioning body for endurance racing, the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA), have today announced that agreement has been reached for a common future with convergence of the top categories of endurance racing.

On the occasion of the 2020 Rolex 24 At Daytona, the two sanctioning bodies unveiled the guiding principle for this platform – the introduction as the top category of competition of LMDh, which will be eligible for both the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. This joint platform responds to the wishes of numerous manufacturers.

The chance for automotive manufacturers to compete with the same car at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Rolex 24 At Daytona, at SuperSebring or at Spa-Francorchamps, at the Motul Petit Le Mans or even Silverstone, will soon become a reality.

The ACO and IMSA have together established the basis for joint regulations to govern the new LMDh category. The objective is that, from September 2021 in the FIA WEC and from January 2022 in the WeatherTech Championship, manufacturers will be able to enter the top category and compete in the two leading championships in endurance racing with this new model of car, LMDh.

The two sanctioning bodies were inspired by elements from each of their respective regulations, namely from the ACO’s Le Mans Hypercar and those in preparation by IMSA for the DPi 2.0.

The result of this convergence, the LMDh car will be:

Based on a new chassis common to both ACO and IMSA, using elements of the Le Mans Hypercar and LMP2 chassis, and built by the four current LMP2 manufacturers: Dallara, Ligier, Multimatic and Oreca. This chassis will also be used for the new generation LMP2.
The car will use a common hybrid KERS system, on the rear axle.
Its silhouette and design will be modifiable, developed according to the brand or style of the manufacturer which will provide the engine power for the car.
More technical details for the car will be revealed in March at SuperSebring, in a presentation from the ACO and IMSA Technical Departments.

In the future the top category of endurance racing will include both LMDh and Le Mans Hypercar. A balance of performance system will ensure fair competition.

Pierre Fillon, President of the ACO: “This announcement today is the crucial starting point for a joint endurance racing future, supported by both the ACO and IMSA. The platform represents the convergence achieved by both organisations which is a great success story for endurance racing. A manufacturer will soon be able to compete in the top category of two championships, the FIA WEC and the WeatherTech Championship. We can’t emphasise enough, as it’s exceptional, how many opportunities this long-term sporting and marketing vision will open up.”

Jim France, IMSA Chairman: “When my father, Bill France Sr., brought the first Daytona Continental sports car race here to Daytona International Speedway back in 1962, he wanted to bring together sports car drivers, teams and manufacturers from around the world. With the ACO, IMSA and manufacturers aligned, today’s announcement proudly takes my father’s vision to the next level.”

Gérard Neveu, CEO of the FIA World Endurance Championship: “The big winner today is endurance racing as the door is now opened to many additional competitors to compete at the highest level on both sides of the Atlantic with the same car. The two sanctioning bodies should be congratulated for their vision and spirit of collaboration. Le Mans Hypercars and the new LMDh cars racing together at Le Mans or Daytona will be an incredibly exciting prospect for endurance fans across the world.”

John Doonan, IMSA President: “On the eve of IMSA’s 51st season of competition, future race fans will regard today as one of the most significant of all time for IMSA, the ACO and the world of sports car racing. Providing a common platform for top-level prototype racing globally has been a goal for the sanctioning bodies, our manufacturers – and most importantly, sports car racing fans everywhere – for many years, and we are proud to say the opportunity has finally arrived. We are grateful for the collaboration with our partners at the ACO and the open dialogue with our manufacturer partners that led us to today’s introduction of the LMDh platform.”

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