McNish: Low WEC LMP1 entries a ‘speed bump’, not long-term issue

© Audi Sport
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Three-time Le Mans winner and sports car icon Allan McNish does not think the FIA World Endurance Championship’s LMP1 class faces a long-term issue despite Audi’s withdrawal at the end of 2016.

Audi announced last fall that it would be ending its LMP1 program after 18 years following the 2016 season, signing off with a one-two finish in the 6 Hours of Bahrain. McNish won all three of his Le Mans crowns with Audi, as well as claiming the WEC title in 2013.

Audi’s exit leaves just four manufacturer entries in LMP1 for 2017 – two from Porsche, two from Toyota – plus a single privateer in the form of the ByKolles team.

Concerns have been raised about the future of the WEC’s top category due to the perceived lack of fresh manufacturer interest, with rising costs understood to be the biggest turn-off.

However, McNish feels the drop in entries is only a temporary setback for the LMP1 class, but stressed the need to focus on making the regulations appealing to boost grid figures in the future.

“I think the championship is in good health. I think the different categories, you could discuss; you could definitely discuss LMP1-H at the moment,” McNish told NBC Sports.

“LMP1-L, with Ginetta or the rumors of others, I think we’ve got to be practical here. I don’t think you’re ever going to have a situation where consistently privateers are going to beat factories. That’s a simple fact.

“Then it’s a case of making sure there’s a differentiation between the two. And I don’t mean performance differentiation, I just mean differentiation because those guys have to have their own race, their own championship.

“We want to see everyone competing, but we have to be practical about it, knowing the investment and energy and the requirement to win Le Mans, it’s unlikely you’re going to have privateers beating factories.

“So, I think the focus is, right, where are we now? What do we need for five years’ time? What regulation base do we need? What do we need to actually look at? The motor industry is changing very quickly right now, and motor racing has got to actually be in line or a little bit ahead of the motor industry so it has that relevance.”

McNish spoke warmly of the efforts being made in GTE Pro and LMP2, arguably the WEC’s strongest two classes at the moment, but is confident that LMP1 can bounce back in the future.

“When I started there it was GT1, which is now roughly the same times as a GTE car; a 3:48 in qualifying, a 3:45 on qualy tires, a 3:49/3:50s in the race, first time I went to Le Mans,” McNish said.

“If you look at the GTE times, they’re not a kick in the backside off that. So there is a very strong category there. You now know that BMW is coming in for ’18, you know there’s others looking at it. So that’s a strong category. You’ve got GTE Am on the other side of it, that can evolve. Then you’ve got LMP2 which is very good in depth right now. It’s going to have some trials and tribulations.

“It’s a case of what do you want for the future. And so I don’t think long-term, [LMP1 is] a problem. I think right now it could be seen as a problem.

“It’s a little bit like Peugeot pulling out on the day that the WEC entries closed for its first ever season. 4:30 in the afternoon they said they weren’t coming. Then it was the end.

“But it wasn’t. And I think this is a speed bump.”

Meyer Shank Racing wins Petit Le Mans to take final DPi championship in dramatic finale

Petit Le Mans championship
IMSA
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Meyer Shank Racing outdueled Wayne Taylor Racing to win the Petit Le Mans and clinch the championship in a thrilling final race for the DPi division.

Tom Blomqvist, who started from the pole position, drove the No. 60 Acura ARX-05 to a 4.369-second victory over Pipo Derani in the No. 31 Action Express Cadillac.

“That was incredible,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports’ Matt Yocum. “I’ve never dug so deep in my life. The adrenaline. I did that for the guys. I was so motivated to win this thing this weekend. But I’ve got to thank everyone on the whole team.”

With co-drivers Oliver Jarvis and Helio Castroneves, Blomqvist helped MSR bookend its season-opening victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona by winning Saturday’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale at Michelin Road Atlanta.

In between those two victories, the No. 60 earned five runner-up finishes to stay in the thick of the championship hunt and trail WTR’s No. 10 Acura by 14 points entering Saturday’s race.

WTR’s Filipe Albuquerque had a lead of more than 10 seconds over Blomqvist with less than 50 minutes remaining in the 10-hour race.

But a Turn 1 crash between the Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillacs brought out a yellow that sent both Acuras into the pits from the top two positions.

Though he entered in second, Blomqvist barely beat Albuquerque out of the pits, and he held the lead for the final 45 minutes.

Blomqvist said he gained the lead because of a shorter fuel fill after he had worked on being efficient in the second-to-last stint.

“The team asked a big job of me with the fuel; I had a big fuel number to hit,” Blomqvist said. “We knew that was probably our only chance. The yellow came at the right time and obviously we had a bit less fuel to fill up, so I was able to jump him and then it was just a matter of going gung-ho and not leaving anything on the line. And obviously, the opposition had to try too hard to make it work. I’m so thankful.”

Albuquerque closed within a few car lengths of Blomqvist with 14 minutes remaining, but he damaged his suspension because of contact with a GT car in Turn 1.

It’s the first prototype championship for Meyer Shank Racing, which also won the 2021 Indy 500 with Castroneves.

“We’ve had in the last four years, three championships for Acura, the Indy 500 win and the Rolex 24, it doesn’t get any better,” team co-owner Mike Shank told NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee.

It’s the third consecutive runner-up finish in the points standings for Wayne Taylor Racing, which won the first Daytona Prototype international championship in 2017. The premier category will be rebranded as the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class with the LMDh cars that will establish a bridge to racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Kamui Kobayashi finished third in the No. 48 Cadillac of Action Express that also includes Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The podium showing marked Johnson’s last scheduled race in IMSA’s top prototype division. The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion has raced in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac lineup as the Action Express entry has run the Endurance Cup races.

Johnson said a lack of inventory will preclude him having a 2023 ride in the top category. But he still is hopeful of racing the Garage 56 Next Gen Camaro in next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans and possibly running in a lower class for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“I’d love to be at Le Mans next year,” Johnson told NBC Sports’ Dillon Welch after his final stint Saturday. “I’d love to be at the Rolex 24. The series is going through a shake-up with the reconfiguration of the rules and classes, so I don’t have anything locked down yet, but I’m so thankful for this experience with Action. The support Ally has given us, Mr. Hendrick, Chad Knaus, all of Hendrick Motorsports. It’s been a fun two years, and I certainly hope I’m on the grid again next year.”