LMP3 finds its home in IMSA, in renamed Prototype Challenge series

Photo: Tony DiZinno
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After some consternation and debate over where it would land, the LMP3 formula will come to North America after all in IMSA’s rebranded Prototype Challenge presented by Mazda series in 2017.

The introduction of the LMP3 chassis – which is open to six different constructors – comes at a time when the Prototype Challenge class (unrelated) will be retired and not replaced from the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship at the end of 2017, bringing to an end the active life of the venerable Oreca FLM09 cars.

Instead of a like-for-like class replacement, LMP3 won’t go into WeatherTech, and it won’t go into the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge either following some blowback from series stakeholders after the idea was floated earlier this year.

Given the IMSA and Automobile Club de l’Ouest’s relationship though, there always was going to be a landing place found for LMP3, and it comes in this prototype-only championship that’s gone through its own series of identity changes the last couple years.

Previously called the Cooper Tires Prototype Lites Powered by Mazda in 2015, the series was renamed the Mazda Prototype Lites Presented by Cooper Tires this year. But the upheaval will come at its greatest degree next year.

The series name changes again, and the LMP3 cars will be introduced as the “PC1” class. The six constructors eligible are the six homologated by the ACO – Adess, Riley, Dome, Ginetta, Onroak (Ligier) and Norma – and those will feature an unbadged Nissan-based V8 engine.

Existing Prototype Lites cars, the Mazda-powered Élan DP02 chassis, will be slotted into the “PC2” class. There won’t be Balance of Performance (BoP) assessed in either class.

The LMP3 rollout in North America has been, to put it politely, a bit rocky.

An initial test of the Ginetta LMP3 chassis at Watkins Glen in June 2015 drew a number of interested stakeholders but didn’t produce the desired results with the car’s performance not matching up to realistic expectations.

Ultimately, the PC class was then issued a series of upgrades to the aging cars and a two-year lifespan for the rest of the class through 2017.

That made LMP3’s place in IMSA a question mark. But the opportunity for LMP3 to go into Prototype Challenge (now Prototype Lites) became the most viable option in recent weeks.

As IMSA President Scott Atherton explained, the LMP3 conundrum was something that needed to be solved, and the overall health of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship needed an eventual drawdown in classes.

“We never seriously considered it,” Atherton told NBC Sports about having LMP3 replace PC in the WeatherTech Championship.

“From the outside looking in, it looks like the natural replacement, why wouldn’t you? Candidly, our focus has been on simplifying our product and taking the opportunity to have a single prototype class. We believe we’ve taken a big step in that direction.

“It’s a wonderful car, but it’s not necessarily intended to be a full endurance car. So that car competing at Daytona for 24 hours or 12 hours at Sebring, perhaps it could do that successfully but that wasn’t its original intent. It was intended to be more of a sprint format car.

“By placing it where we have, rebranding that championship to IMSA Prototype Challenge presented by Mazda, we’ve got one an outstanding opportunity for teams and drivers to take advantage of utilizing that car in very high-profile, professionally-organized conducted events.”

The challenge for IMSA from here is to ensure the PC stakeholders – the current team list includes CORE autosport, Starworks Motorsport, BAR1 Motorsports, JDC/Miller Motorsports, PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports and Performance Tech Motorsports – remain active IMSA team participants with their current class going away.

BAR1, JDC and Performance Tech all run in the Prototype Lites series currently and more-or-less have an internal “ladder” system for any of their Lites graduates to move into a PC car. Whether drivers can or not comes down to budget, but at least it’s an option.

Meanwhile CORE has expanded its horizons by adding a GRC Lites program in Red Bull Global Rallycross this year, Peter Baron has worked tirelessly to keep his Starworks team with some level of prototype participation through thick and thin, and PR1/Mathiasen has been in PC since the start of the class in 2010.

It’s worth noting that those six teams put nine cars on the grid at Road America, which tied the factory GT Le Mans class and was one more than the Prototype class had. So ensuring these teams remain viable businesses should be an important part of the scenery in IMSA’s overall landscape.

The question is whether these teams’ customers have interest in the LMP3 car. Per RACER.com, JDC/Miller has placed the first order on a new LMP3 car via customer Gerry Kraut ordering a Ligier JS P3.

One team considering an American LMP3 program is United Autosports, the Zak Brown and Richard Dean-led Anglo American team that has thus far cleaned up the category in the European Le Mans Series this year.

Dean was on site at Road America for an exploratory mission with the new car on display.

“It’s interesting. That’s why we’re here,” Dean told NBC Sports. “We have a facility in Indianapolis that’s underused. We have a facility. We can store cars and equipment. We’re looking to see if we can do it. I wanted to see what the announcement was about. We have the facility here; we have a good background to the series in Europe, and it’s something we could maybe complement it.

“If P3 had come into WeatherTech it would have been straightaway with a yes,” he added. “I think it would warrant it and you’d justify it because you’re into true endurance.

“I really don’t know enough about this proposed new series to make a judgment today. But if the interest is there and we could run a couple cars with the right drivers, we’d look at it.”

Atherton said the LMP3 component wouldn’t have been added if there wasn’t customer interest.

“It’s a big step up from the current prototype car that’s occupying that space,” he admitted. “But when we talked again to those team owners, they say I have customers eager to go into something new, something bigger, something faster, something more sophisticated, closed top, safety aspect goes up as well.

“It’s a tremendous car. The folks at Onroak really had the hustle to get it here and we’re really thankful for that.”

The question now is what teams and customers have the hustle – and the budget – to run LMP3 cars starting in 2017.

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team
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As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”

 

James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E Team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship team from Mercedes-EQ. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”