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

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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.”