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.”

Lessons learned in three rounds of Extreme E pay huge dividends in the Copper X Prix for Tanner Foust

Foust Copper X Prix
McLaren Racing
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To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, unique trip it’s been for Tanner Foust in his first season with the Extreme E series as he took his early season lessons to Chile to compete in the Copper X Prix. And he’s learned his lessons well.

In February, McLaren announced they would expand their motorsports program with an Extreme E entry. They signed two talented rally drivers in Foust and Emma Gilmour – and paired them for the opening round in Neom, Saudi Arabia with just a few days of testing under their belts. Baked by the Arabian desert sun, it was trial by fire.

The duo performed well in their debut, advancing into the final round and finishing fifth. As Extreme E headed to another desert halfway across the globe for Round 4, it was a good time to catch up with Foust and ask about McLaren’s progress. The Copper X Prix was held this past weekend in one of the most extreme regions in the world: the Atacama Desert.

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“The shock going into the first race was the speed,” Foust told NBC Sports. “It was much higher than we had tested. We spent a lot of time around 100 miles per hour [in race trim] and our testing speeds were more in the 60 to 70-mile range. Then, once we sort of got around that, the car got updated so you can drive it even faster.”

In rally racing, some incidents are out of a driver’s control. Even peeking around another car can be dangerous because of potholes that have recently been gouged in the ground or large bushes that seem to sprout up between laps. A couple of rollovers brought Foust back to earth – but the pace was there and that was important.

“We had some challenges this season,” Foust said prior to the Copper X Prix. “We had a good start; made the final, which is a difficult thing to do in this series. I had two rolls in the first three events, but I have improved each time. Now we come into Round 4 in Chile in a pretty strong position. We have competitive times as a team. We are communicating really well and have our heads around this Odyssey vehicle.”

Foust’s words proved to be prophetic.

He won the Crazy Race – Extreme E’s version of a Last Chance Qualifier – and did so after passing the field. It was the same manner in which he qualified for Saudi Arabia’s finale, but this time things would be better. There were those hard-earned lessons on which to lean – and Foust had reps under his belt. He was not going to be caught off guard by any random obstacles.

Tanner Foust passed Sebastien Loeb heading to the Switch Zone in the Copper X Prix. (Photo by Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

In the Copper X Prix finale, he pressured one of the best rally drivers in the history of the sport.

Pitching sideways through a tight left-hander late in his stint, Foust put his McLaren Extreme E Odyssey at the head of the pack in front of Sebastien Loeb as they headed to the Switch Zone. There, he would turn the car over to his co-driver Gilmour.

The Extreme E series pairs male and female drivers with both taking a turn behind the wheel.

After the driver change, Gilmour lost the lead momentarily to Loeb’s teammate Cristina Gutierrez, but as they charged toward the finish line, she surged ahead and crossed under the checkers first.

“What an improvement for the team over this year,” Foust said after the race. “We have struggled through some of the events, being in our first year in competition. We showed true pace this weekend; overtaking Sebastien Loeb was a highlight.

“Emma put in a great run in the Final. I was fortunate to go from last to first in the Crazy Race and then first in the Final but with some flag penalties, we had 20 seconds added to our time, which put us into fifth. It was a great feeling crossing the line first, I love this wide style track and the NEOM McLaren Odyssey was fantastic here.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum into Uruguay.”

Loeb and Gutierrez were elevated to the top of the podium, but no one can take away the feeling of crossing under the checkers first.


Racing Responsibly

Since cars were first invented, racing has played a socially responsible role by improving safety. As Earth reaches a tipping point with climate change, racing needs to adapt to these new needs and requirements, which is where Extreme E’s unique strategy becomes increasingly important.

The Extreme E experience is more than simple racing. Each race is accompanied by a legacy program designed to offset damage done by climate change and to erase the footprint caused by the events.

Foust, a biology major from the University of Colorado, was given the chance to rekindle his interest and give back to the environment ahead of the Copper X Prix.

The Atacama is the oldest desert in the world at 150 million years. It is the driest place on earth and has the highest degree of ultraviolet light. And yet somehow life perseveres through underground rivers with oases dating back to Incan times. Foust participated in preparing a local habitat for the reintroduction of a critically endangered water frog to Chile’s longest river, the Loa, which snakes its way through the desert.

“I’m loving the experience,” Foust said. “I’m putting on a lot of Chapstick, a lot of sunscreen. What a fascinating part of the world. I never would have come here otherwise.

“I honestly am very honored to be a part of this sport. I am a huge believer in the fact that motorsports has done us good in the last 100 years. I think we benefit every single time we put our seatbelts on and drive down the road to the lessons learned in racing since the turn of the century. And I really hope motorsports continues that tradition.

“I think that motorsports like [Extreme E] does it in a responsible way, a gender-neutral way and a carbon-neutral way.”