DiZinno: IMSA’s platinum potential evident in Petit Le Mans finale

People, and Penske. Buzz for IMSA is growing. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The plaudits and hype coming like a tidal wave to IMSA and its marquee IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship of late is properly deserved, as for the first time in decades, it feels like North American sports car racing is truly on the verge of a “big thing.”

Both the American Le Mans Series and GRAND-AM Rolex Series had their selling points but neither was as good as they could be until they came together in 2012, debuting as a merged series in 2014. And even in a merged series, it’s still taken four years of putting the pieces together and IMSA crafting its own, distinct Prototype formula in the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) platform to truly put the series on the precipice of greatness.

Potential is justified only if it can be met; otherwise, it is the single scariest word in the English language. But right now, IMSA’s potential energy is such that if it can be properly converted into kinetic energy, the series is well-positioned to take off and not just hit a golden level of market penetration, but a platinum one (if you get the driver ratings joke here, congratulations: you’re a proper sports car junkie).

The first real sign of that evidence took place at last weekend’s Motul Petit Le Mans, the capper to the 2017 season but almost a race that was more a dress rehearsal for 2018. The fact the 2017 championships were largely determined going into the event meant the race itself and the quality of content on the grid, and number of announcements being made, took precedence.

IMSA makes no secret that it has a lot of “stakeholders,” and those could be anything from drivers and teams, to manufacturers (OEMs), major Fortune 500 companies and others within the digital space. A one-hour run of announcements that included key pieces of content revealed from Michelin, Motul and Forza Motorsport – as well as the confirmation that toy giant Hasbro is entering via the D3+Transformers Racing team – all served as intriguing subplots to the weekend. One could argue the fact all these were back-to-back didn’t allow any of them to shine properly; instead, they’ll need to be flushed out over the coming days.

Photo courtesy of IMSA

On-track, the return of Team Penske to the sports car paddock was the biggest talking point. When Penske arrives, it means that the entity it has selected is proper, serious business. Simply put, Penske does not enter things purely for fun; it does so if it makes good business sense and adds to the legacy of racing’s most prestigious brands.

A disclaimer first: nearly all the teams and manufacturers in IMSA present a very professional package… but there is still something special about the Penske presentation that stands out. It’s evident on IndyCar weekends, and it was particularly evident on this IMSA weekend. If the armada of full-time IMSA teams are going to compete with Penske from an optics standpoint, they will need to step their game up based on what was witnessed at Petit. They can remain status quo, but the disparity will be visible.

It’s the little things like having pit lane barriers separating its pit box from the walking path behind it, having the car looking spotless at all times, and creating specific one-off crew uniforms for all members that will all but certainly never be worn again that stood out. That presents a “one team” approach that comes from strong leadership from the top; Tim Cindric looked and sounded happy to be back in a sports car paddock and by every measure, this was a Penske operation drilled down to the last detail.

That the car was even there at all also spoke volumes of how serious Penske is taking IMSA, and how much value it placed on making this one-off entry. A heavy accident in testing by Helio Castroneves meant the car was shipped to France, returned to North Carolina by Tuesday and unloaded at the track on Wednesday.

“It would have been easy to not enter,” Cindric admitted. “The folks at Oreca worked all weekend to get us what we needed. We did the same thing with the guys that are here. Some of the guys are half tanks right now!”

Castroneves promptly rebounded from the accident by being the fastest driver of the trio along with Juan Pablo Montoya and Simon Pagenaud all weekend, scoring pole, and finishing on the podium. Ho hum.

But Penske’s, and for that matter Acura’s, arrivals into the series’ top class is not all that IMSA has to offer. Far from it.

Mazda Team Joest’s entry is also a fascinating thing to consider. Reinhold Joest and Ralf Juttner have taken Porsche and Audi to the top. To do so with Mazda, they’ll have to revise a culture that embraces loyalty and a never-say-die attitude, but has been perpetually hamstrung by a consistently unreliable engine… which is inarguably the worst thing you should be dealing with as a manufacturer. Mazda, like IMSA, has had the word “potential” attached to it for years. The Joest team now has the proper ability to unleash it.

While Penske (right) arrives, Patron ESM and Action Express won’t sit still. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The late-season form shown by Tequila Patron ESM with its two Nissan Onroak DPis keep them in the frame, and with more continuity there than at the other teams plus the positive momentum of the actual Petit Le Mans win puts them in good form for next year.

Ricky and Jordan Taylor are split in 2018. Photo courtesy of IMSA

And then of course, there’s the Taylors. Jordan and Ricky Taylor will be apart but they’ll both have a title to defend, albeit on different teams. With Ricky Taylor and Dane Cameron now at Penske, Action Express Racing, now will feature revised lineups to their two Cadillac DPi-V.Rs with a pair of flying Felipes – spelled differently between Felipe Nasr and Filipe Albuquerque.

The DPi platform has emerged as the way forward for top-level prototype racing at least in the short term over the next two to three years, as the Automobile Club de l’Ouest figures out its course of action with LMP1 in the wake of drawdowns from Audi and Porsche, and with the uncertainty about Toyota. With that as the flagship, and the content level of drivers throughout the field, IMSA has its headliner all set.

As for the others, there is tempered excitement – not because they don’t have headline quality, but because you don’t want to overlook the additional good there. As an example, what JDC/Miller Motorsports did as the top-performing LMP2-spec car, with the Oreca 07 Gibson, was perhaps the most under-appreciated story of the year.

Will the “JDC Banana Boat” be reduced to a supporting act if the Balance of Performance between DPis and LMP2s – JDC one of several quality teams in that category that also figures to include operations run by Troy Flis (VISIT FLORIDA, but potentially back to Spirit of Daytona name), Bobby Oergel (PR1/Mathiasen), Jon Bennett and Morgan Brady (CORE), and Brent O’Neill (Performance Tech Motorsports) among others – is unable to keep the privateer entries in the frame? Sports car racing’s biggest activators are its manufacturers; its biggest heart is spent by its privateers and gentlemen drivers.

Similarly, quite how the GT classes move forward is another question, and this is where we again look back to that glorious, yet dangerous “p-word,” potential, again.

GTLM field. Photo courtesy of IMSA

GT Le Mans seems finely poised between its five manufacturers: Chevrolet, Ford, Ferrari, Porsche and BMW. The latter brings a new car to the fight next year in the M8 GTE, up against a range of cars that will be anywhere from year two to year five in their cycles.

For a class where the cars, more than the drivers, are the stars, will the door-banging beasts that have kept both ALMS and IMSA intrigued for more than a decade get overshadowed by the allure and top draw of the DPi category? The leading GT class now is stronger than ALMS GT2 was in the last prototype heyday of 2006-2008 when GT2 was on the ascendancy and GT1 was on its way out. It must not get overlooked, and will be a critical class as Michelin’s lone class next year in the year before Michelin takes over everything in 2019.

How will GTD look in 2018? Photo courtesy of IMSA

The second GT class, GT Daytona, seems to have an even bigger dilemma going forward. The variety and parity in the class is excellent, from the nine manufacturers that populated the class this year. However with skyrocketing budgets – from $2.5 to $3 million annually for most teams – a couple team reductions from this year (Stevenson and CORE won’t be back as CORE moves up to Prototype; Acura and Lexus factory efforts are dropped) and an overall dwindling number of seats for hired guns in the wake of a theoretical pro/am format that sees some pros seek to be rated as ams (Silver) to keep their careers afloat, the class now falls to third on a stacked depth chart within the framework of the series.

There’s significant reason to be excited about what Michelin will bring to the table as IMSA’s official tire partner from 2019, with a year’s worth of testing and activation buildup planned before it takes over as the single supplier for all three classes (although GTLM remains open). However it would be remiss to forget or ignore what Continental has done, often sticking through sports car racing through its rough years as the merger took hold and being massive activators. That they’re unable to continue is an unfortunate business reality of this new era of top-level sports car racing.

This is before you get to all of IMSA’s other series, from its Challenge to its one-make championships, all of which feature a bevy of talented drivers, teams and characters that add to IMSA’s weekend presence. They’re worth exploring too if you take the time to do so.

So IMSA has three-plus months to build between on a year of incredible announcements and buzz over this offseason, with testing and more lineups to get sorted in the run up to next year’s Roar Before the Rolex 24, and then the Rolex 24 at Daytona itself.

The buzz is palpable; the atmosphere bordering on electric. The question – and the key – is whether IMSA can live up to the hype that has built up this year, and will build over the winter.

IndyCar drivers say Thermal Club could host race after successful opening day to test

IndyCar Thermal race
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images

THERMAL, Calif. – The “motorsports country club” passed the first test (figuratively and literally) with NTT IndyCar Series drivers pleased enough to proclaim The Thermal Club as race-eligible after its debut.

Though there were a few minor incidents on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course east of Palm Springs in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, there was no significant damage for the 27 full-time cars that turned 1,119 laps Thursday.

Perhaps more importantly, drivers seemed to enjoy the ride around the track, which is unlike anything on the current circuit.

“I would love to race here,” said Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong, who posted the 10th-quickest time (1 minute, 39.9077 seconds) in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda that he will race on street and road courses after coming from the F2 Series. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: First session l Second session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners. In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking. You’d have to commit hard (in) maybe Turn 1. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake. As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

Juncos Hollinger Racing No. 77 Chevrolet driver Callum Ilott, another F2 veteran who is entering his second year in IndyCar, was seventh fastest. Ilott said Thermal would “set a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series.

“It’s really, really high level, high tech,” said Ilott, whose rookie teammate Agustin Canapino went off course twice but incurred no major trouble. “As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners. I think the overtaking — we’ll find a way, we’re IndyCar — someone always sends it down the inside. I think if we can extend the straight and get some overtaking between Turn 6 and 7. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.

“I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who turned the fastest lap (1:39.3721) in his No. 26, also was optimistic despite the passing challenges.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and IndyCar still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

The possibility of adding an IndyCar race at The Thermal Club has been floated, but there would be some challenges. It likely would be a made-for-TV event given it’s a private club (and filled with multimillion-dollar homes filled with vintage cars). The test is closed to the public and open only to members and VIPs.

There also are some areas that would need to be improved, namely the galvanized steel Armco barriers that ring the track and generally are considered antiquated in motorsports.

“I think the Armco might propose a little bit of an issue,” Ilott said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously. It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Said Herta: For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work. They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second fastest (1:39.3767), followed by Alex Palou (1:39.3970) and Romain Grosjean (1:39.4826). Will Power was the top Chevrolet driver in fifth (1:39.5690).

Though Andretti had two of the top four times, Herta downplayed the significance other than getting reacclimated to his team.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” he said. “It’s quite a long offseason without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.

“It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell. It’s nice just to be back in the car and get lap times down, get everybody working again.

“The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in IndyCar. It’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses. But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go (race).”

The test will continue with another six-hour session Friday.