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Penske vs. Acura now shifts to Penske with Acura for IMSA return

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The halcyon years of the American Le Mans Series, from 2006 through 2008, saw Team Penske’s last major factory effort with the Porsche RS Spyder in the LMP2 class debut the 2005 season finale and the full 2006 season, then witness Acura ramp up its efforts for a 2007 debut with the first iteration of the ARX chassis, the ARX-01a LMP2 car.

Much has changed since. The economic crisis of 2008 had a major impact into 2009 and by that year, the Penske and Acura factory efforts were out, and the ALMS needed to create a spec, lower cost prototype class called Prototype Challenge to keep its car count afloat.

A merger happened in 2014, bringing together ALMS and the GRAND-AM Rolex Series into the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship (then called the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship), and the late 2015 reveal of the new Daytona Prototype international (DPi) format promised a new rebirth for the top flight of prototype racing in North America.

That period has seen Cadillac, Mazda and Nissan debut DPi programs this year and with Acura’s fully fledged return in 2018 with Penske, it brings together the two past rivals in a united goal for overall glory, and an attempt to topple the existing manufacturers.

ST.PETERSBURG, FL – APRIL 4: The #6 LMP2 Penske Racing Porsche RS Spyder driven by Sascha Maassen and Patrick Long during practice for the American Le Mans Series Acura Sports Car Challenge of St. Petersburg on April 4, 2008 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

“Back then really the interest we had as Penske in getting involved wasn’t so much the P2 class, but it was Porsche was working towards a customer program at the time,” Team Penske president Tim Cindric told reporters on a Tuesday teleconference.

“What we were interested was competing towards overall wins… and we could compete against Audi for those overall wins. And that was before Acura got in. Once Acura got in, that raised the bar – before that, we just were P2 versus Zytek cars, in a privateer setting.

“We were fortunate to race against the Audis and I think that made it fun to try to understand when the underdog could compete. Once Acura got in, it was super competitive, with that second year. Unfortunately that type of racing, that class (at the time) fell apart.

“For us, we see three other manufacturers in. The DPis do allow the privateers to compete with P2 in WEC-type form. There’s a lot of competition. I’m really surprised that only one manufacturer (Cadillac) has won, but that will change as others catch up. For us, it’s not a slam dunk we’ll be winning races right in the beginning.”

LEXINGTON, OH – JULY 19: Timo Bernhard, drives the #7 Penske Racing Porsche RS Spyder during the American Le Mans Series Acura Sports Car Challenge on July 19, 2008 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Honda Performance Development Art St. Cyr backed up that assessment.

“That’s a great thing about working with Team Penske – there’s a uniform sense of purpose to win overall races,” he said.

“In P2, we had a P2 car that won overall victories. But in P2 we were about winning P2… then moving to P1 was everything we had, with the Muscle Milk Pickett days. It was about how could get stay in front.”

HPD’s recent decade of top flight sports car racing sees the new ARX-05, set to be developed in-house at HPD and based off the successful Oreca 07 chassis, comes after a period of four prior models that raced from 2007 through 2015.

The previous generation ARX-01 had a five-year life span from 2007 to 2011 with various iterations primarily in LMP2 spec and then a one-off LMP1 spec at the 2011 Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring – where ironically, it finished second to an Oreca-run privateer Peugeot 908 HDi FAP. The HPD ARX-03 achieved success in both LMP1 and LMP2 specifications, primarily with Muscle Milk Pickett in ALMS as mentioned and also with Tequila Patron ESM, Level 5 Motorsports and Starworks Motorsport (won the LMP2 title in the first FIA World Endurance Championship season of 2012), but the ARX-04b, a new LMP2 car developed by Wirth Research for the 2015 season, raced only once at that year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona before being tossed aside following significant weight and teething issues.

With the news officially released that the program is happening will come a summer and fall of preparation before the DPi car’s race debut at the 2018 Rolex 24 at Daytona. Details were sparse today, but here’s the bullet points from today’s call:

  • No drivers have yet been signed, nor was a timeline given for their reveal. But if we’re thinking logically, the Verizon IndyCar Series season ends in mid-September, and Roger Penske said at the Iowa weekend he decides on (or reveals) his lineup once a season is over. We’ll know by then whether Helio Castroneves has won his elusive first championship or not, and Juan Pablo Montoya’s excited Instagram post with the combined Penske and Acura logos today was as good of a confirmation of his expected role. Between current Acura sports car drivers and talented sports car veterans who may be available, there’s a lot of intrigue to come here.
  • Full testing begins next month. Cindric confirmed the first shakedown at Paul Ricard at the end of the month before the car is shipped Stateside, ahead of its Monterey reveal in mid-August. Cindric said the car he hopes will be on track by the end of August. St. Cyr also said the engine will be slightly different than its previous prototype run.
  • What does this mean for other Acura/HPD programs? St. Cyr wouldn’t entirely bite there but did tease there will be “some announcements in the near future.” Full factory support/branding from Acura to its pair of NSX GT3 teams, Michael Shank Racing and RealTime Racing, is expected to be drawn down at year’s end. He also said it was premature to talk about customer programs for the Acura DPi.
  • How does Penske balance Acura/HPD (sports cars), Chevrolet (IndyCar) and Ford (NASCAR)? Like always. “For us it’s old hat,” said Cindric, who described all the internal safeguards that are set up to preserve IP and keep a clear separation of church and state.
  • Does Petit Le Mans happen with a separate car? Possibly, maybe, potentially. Cindric wouldn’t rule out the potential of running a standard LMP2 spec car at this year’s Petit Le Mans but only if the preparation and testing goes well enough with the DPi. “We wouldn’t rule it out, but we’re a long way from confirming it or saying it would happen.”
MONTEREY, CA – OCTOBER 18: Ryan Briscoe driving the #5 LMP2 Penske Racing Porsche RS Spyderchases Franck Montagny driving the #26 LMP2 Andretti Green Racing Acura ARX-01B during the American Le Mans Series Monterey Sports Car Championship on October 18, 2008 at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, California. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

Overall though today’s announcement brings to an end the saga over how long the return has been in the pipeline and concludes the waiting for the official news to drop.

“During this iteration of the Acura Motorsports programs, it’s been a three-step revival,” St. Cyr said. “It started with the TLX GT car, the NSX GT3 this year and now the DPi program we’re announcing today.

“It started really when the DPi formula was released, we started talking about this vehicle and making it part of Acura’s precision crafted message to align everything… and to have Acura Motorsports be the capital P of performance. Roger Penske being one of our largest Acura dealers created the synergy.”

Cindric added, “On behalf of Roger and everyone at Team Penske, we appreciate the confidence Acura and HPD have in our organization. Sports car racing is where our heritage began. We enjoy competing in it. We haven’t been since 2009.

“When the DPi formula was announced it looked to revive the prototype racing formula in the U.S. It was a natural fit to find the manufacturers in the future. We were interested from day one… now it’s happened. It’s a good format for us. It’ll be competitive and a good challenge for us.”

IMSA Prototype Season in Review

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IMSA Wire Service

It was a year of change for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda. The longtime sprint series evolved in 2018 to six one-hour, 45-minute endurance races that allowed teams to run single or two-driver combinations with a required minimum-time pit stop. The result: record-high car counts in the LMP3 class with Kris Wright ultimately winning the series championship for Extreme Speed Motorsports, while Cameron Cassels took home the LMP3 Masters title. In the MPC class, meanwhile, series veteran Jon Brownson won his first championship in the final season for the class with a breakthrough win one week ago in the season finale at Road Atlanta.

This season-in-review takes a look back at the path each of the three champions took on their way to history.

1. Daytona International Speedway, January 6

Winners
LMP3: Roman De Angelis, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Gary Gibson, No. 44 Ave Motorsports Ave-Riley AR2
MPC: Robert Masson, No. 11 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
Not only was the season-opener during the Roar Before the Rolex 24 weekend the first endurance race for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda, it also was the first race for the series at the iconic Daytona International Speedway. Wright, driving the No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3 scored his first podium of the season alongside co-driver Daniel Morad with a third-place finish behind Porsche GT3 Challenge driver and winner Roman De Angelis and co-drivers Austin McCusker and David Droux, finishing second for the upstart Forty7 Motorsports team. Masson scored the MPC win, lapping all but one car, while Brownson came home fifth.

2. Sebring International Raceway, March 16

Winners
LMP3: Leo Lamelas / Pato O’Ward, No. 7 Charles Wicht Racing Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: James McGuire Jr., No. 26 K2R Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Dave House, No. 86 ONE Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The round at Sebring featured a late-race restart that saw eventual 2018 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype Challenge champion O’Ward drive from fourth to first in the closing laps to secure the win for full-time driver Lamelas. Wright, meanwhile, finished third for the second consecutive time to start the season with a new co-driver, Michael Whelden. The No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports entry again finished second with McCusker now joined by TJ Fischer, who would go on to run the full season with the team. Coming out of Sebring, McCusker would lead Wright by four points, 64-60. Between Sebring and the next round at Barber Motorsports Park, Wright would decide to contest the full season for Extreme Speed Motorsports.

It was a special victory in the MPC class with House becoming IMSA’s oldest race winner at the age of 75. Foreshadowing a points race that what would ultimately come down to the season finale at Road Atlanta, the top five in the MPC standings are separated by two points leaving Sebring, with Brownson seventh, 12 points out, after a ninth-place finish.

3. Barber Motorsports Park, April 21

Winners
LMP3: Kris Wright / Yann Clairay, No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Rob Hodes, No. 51 K2R Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Michal Chlumecky, No. 31 Eurosport Racing Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The only standalone event for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda would prove to be the turning point in the LMP3 class. Leading all but one practice session on the weekend and starting the race from the pole, Wright and co-driver Clairay dominated the event, only losing the lead briefly on a cycle of green flag pit stops. Wright’s biggest competition for the championship, meanwhile, the No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports team, seemed poised to score its third consecutive runner-up finish of the season to hold onto the LMP3 points lead, but contact between Fischer and an MPC car with five minutes remaining relegated the team to a 16th-place finish. Entering the weekend down four points in the standings, Wright left Barber up six points, 95-89, over Lamelas.

Chlumecky scored his first MPC class win since 2012, while teammate Brownson, the Sebring pole winner, capped off a Eurosport Racing 1-2 finish placing second in the team’s No. 34 entry. Masson rounded out the podium with a third-place finish in the No. 11 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02 to regain the class lead. Brownson left Barber eight points behind Masson, fifth in the standings.

4. Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, July 8

Winners
LMP3: Austin McCusker / TJ Fischer, No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports Norma M30
LMP3 Masters: Dean Baker, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Howard Jacobs / James French, No. 77 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The long overdue first victory for Forty7 Motorsports finally came at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park for McCusker and Fischer, but a second-place finish for Wright meant McCusker could only gain three points on the series leader, with Wright keeping the deficit at 13 points. Dean Baker would score the LMP3 Masters win, the fourth winner in four races following Gibson at Daytona, McGuire Jr. at Sebring and Hodes at Barber. Cassels finished on the LMP3 Masters podium for the first time in 2018 at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, finishing the race seventh overall and third in LMP3 Masters.

Leading the MPC standings coming into Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, Robert Masson enlisted son and defending series champion Kyle Masson as a co-driver for the remainder of the season. The plan appeared to work with the duo crossing the line first, but upon post-race analysis of drive-time requirements, it was concluded that Kyle Masson did not record the minimum 40 minutes of drive time and the car was moved to the back of the MPC results. That penalty elevated Jacobs and French to the race win in Performance Tech’s No. 77 entry and moved Brownson, who finished second for the consecutive race, to the class championship lead. Coming out of Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, the top six in points were separated by just two points with two races remaining.

5. VIRginia International Raceway, August 18

Winners
LMP3: Kris Wright / Stephen Simpson, No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Dean Baker, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Howard Jacobs / James French, No. 77 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
Wright enlisted IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship regular Stephen Simpson as co-driver at VIR and delivered a knockout punch in the LMP3 title fight, scoring the win and opening a 23-point lead over McCusker, who finished sixth. Baker would win his second consecutive race in LMP3 Masters with a second-place finish overall alongside Zacharie Robichon. Hodes would lead the LMP3 Masters points by two points over Jim Garrett, eight points over Cassels and nine points over Joel Janco.

Robert Masson seemed poised to take the points lead and win alongside Kyle Masson as the duo drove brilliantly in the rain, building a nearly one-lap lead. A mechanical issue with 17 minutes remaining, however, set up a late-race sprint to the finish with French winning on the last lap for Jacobs.

With only one race remaining, House moved into the class lead by three points, 143-140, over Jacobs. The top seven teams were mathematically eligible for the championship and separated by a mere eight points.

6. Road Atlanta, October 12

Winners
LMP3: Austin McCusker / TJ Fischer, No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports Norma M30
LMP3 Masters: Cameron Cassels, No. 75 Performance Tech Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Jon Brownson, No. 34 Eurosport Racing Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The second win of the season for the No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports entry and co-driver McCusker and Fischer was not enough to take the championship away from Wright, who finished second at Road Atlanta to sweep podiums in all six races on the series schedule.

Cassels scored his first LMP3 Masters win of the season, and despite entering the weekend eight points behind in the standings, would also win the LMP3 Masters championship after each of the title contenders ran into various issues on-track.

Brownson called it an “honor” to win the final race for the MPC class. Brownson, who started in the first race for the series in 2006, scored his first win of the season in the No. 34 Eurosport Racing entry to win the final championship for the class.