Porsche drivers adjust career paths to position for LMDh opportunities in IMSA


DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – The only downside of the stirring display of sublimely spirited driving and sportsmanship between Mathieu Jaminet and Laurens Vanthoor on the last lap of the Rolex 24 at Daytona?

It’s hard to predict when – or if – there will be a rematch of the Porsche drivers in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Series.

While Jaminet is ticketed for a full-season campaign with Pfaff Motorsports’ No. 9 Porsche 911 GT3 R in the GTD Pro category, Vanthoor’s short-term future will be outside of IMSA —  despite nine GT victories from 2018-21 and championships in two of the past three seasons (including last year with the Pfaff team that kept him from winning his first Rolex 24 watch Sunday).

A factory driver with Porsche Motorsport, the Belgian star is slated to race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and Nurburgring in a to-be-announced European program for 2022.

“My future in the long term is with Porsche, that’s for sure,” Vanthoor told NBC Sports at the Roar before the Rolex 24 at Daytona. “What, exactly, it’s not been 100 percent decided or communicated. It’s no secret that LMDh is my target and the place that I want to be in, so we’ll see how it turns out.”

Porsche is slated to enter an LMDh car in the rebranded GTP premier class that will replace DPi in the 2023 season.

That’s turned the 2022 season into somewhat of a gap year for drivers angling for a future LMDh ride with Porsche or the other four automakers that have committed to GTP.

And it’s affected the career paths of two drivers who were on both sides of Sunday’s thrilling GTD Pro finish at Daytona — Vanthoor and Felipe Nasr, each of whom was an IMSA champion in 2021.

After winning his second title with Action Express last season, Nasr turned down offers to stay in DPi and elected to join Team Penske to help prepare its new Porsche LMDh program for next year. Nasr’s new job as a Porsche driver got off to a smashing start with his first Rolex 24 win in his GT debut as Pfaff’s driver for endurance races in the No. 9 this year.

Along with a heavy load of testing the new LMDh, the Brazilian also will be driving for Penske in the LMP2 division of the World Endurance Championship, including Roger Penske’s first 24 Hours of Le Mans start in 51 years. Though finally winning Daytona and driving for “The Captain” is a coup for Nasr, it also has been a major challenge in switching from prototypes to IMSA’s production-based class.

“It’s all new,” Nasr said at the Roar before the Rolex 24. “Different dynamic of racing. Different car, different tires. But yeah, I’m up for the challenge. Since I’ve chosen to be a race car driver, challenges make part of your career. I’m here to take it. It’s a great part of team building. I’ll be very busy flying overseas and helping develop the (Porsche LMDh).

“For sure would it be nice to come back here as a DPi champion and defend my title. But I’m thinking on the years ahead where we have to prepare ourselves for what’s coming, and it’s time to move on. There’s a bigger project that I’ve put myself in, which I feel is going to be a great opportunity not only for myself but for the whole series, drivers and teams. I’m here to win, and I feel this is a winning project, that’s why I took the opportunity.”

It’s an interesting dynamic of sports car racing. Sometimes, it’s more important for drivers to be aligned with manufacturers than committed to a certain team or category.

Laurens Vanthoor

“Everybody wants to be in LMDh,” Vanthoor said. “It’s kind of the class of the future. You see a lot of drivers going to compete in LMP2 cars with private teams and even investing a bit of their own money to do that.

“I see it the other way. I’m currently with a brand, which there are a lot of other ones, but most likely it’s the best place to be at when LMDh is going to start. So I just need to be loyal and do the job they tell me to do at 105 percent and deliver my work. That’s the way I see I’m going to get the best chance to be in that car in X amount of time.

“When you’re with a manufacturer such as Porsche, OK, sometimes maybe for a year, you’re not exactly doing the dream thing or your ultimate target in your career, but you’re staying loyal to a brand and showing your commitment. Normally, that showing is being repaid in the future and your dreams will come true. That’s the way I see it.”

Vanthoor already experienced having to take a step back to some degree last year. After the demise of the GTLM category (which he won in 2019 with Earl Bamber, who is now with Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 02 Cadillac), Vanthoor moved to GTD and won the 2021 championship with co-driver Zacharie Robichon for Pfaff.

“Last year was a tough year, and GTD is very competitive, but it’s not DPi,” Vanthoor said. “And for sure I’d prefer to be racing in the main class and the overall race and the overall championship. But I see it as a future investment, so it was a big achievement.”

There certainly would be many American fans who would like to see Vanthoor racing more often in IMSA after Sunday’s finish.

Aside from deftly executing several fender-banging moves for the lead late in the race that would have been received well in the NASCAR Cup Series, Vanthoor also tweeted an eloquent statement on the finish of the 60th Rolex 24 at Daytona.

His gracious and heartfelt reflections drew universal plaudits, namely from NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr. (who was in the NBC booth that called the final lap and tweeted his gratitude to Vanthoor).

Vanthoor is confident he will be returning to the Rolex 24 in the future – and eventually in the top class.

“I’ll be here,” he said. “Whatever way, I’ll be here at one point. I have one big dream to win the four big endurance events overall, which are Spa, Nurburgring, Le Mans and Daytona. I’ve got Spa and Nurburgring and Le Mans in GT and obviously still need the overall victory in Le Mans and Daytona.

“That’s my career dream. The only place to do that is in an LMDh or Hypercar. That’s the place I want to be.”

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images

Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.