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

Photo: Tony DiZinno

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.