Confirming rumors that have been speculated for weeks, on Sunday morning the American Le Mans Series announced a class structure change in advance of the 2010 season. The series maintains a four-class structure but has made regulations adjustments to allow for a single main prototype class, a main Grand Touring class, and ladder classes within the series for both divisions.
All changes have been agreed upon and supported by the Automobile Club l'Ouest (ACO), the sanctioning body for the 24 Hours of Le Mans and establishes the rules for Le Mans-style racing worldwide.
ALMS President and CEO Scott Atherton held roughly a one-hour press conference with members of the media this morning, outlining the changes and their details, with a bevy of new information released from Atherton, series vice president and technical director Scot Elkins, and series participants.
"I think last night went very well when we announced these changes to our stakeholders, but that may be a biased opinion," Atherton said. "I would advise you to scour the paddock yourselves. I don't expect everyone to embrace it without some hesitation. There are, no doubt, some purists that will see what we did as a step in the wrong direction. But the decisions are the results of much fact finding of international travel, that the top level decision makers made."
The four classes for 2010 are as follows: Le Mans Prototype (LMP), Le Mans Prototype Challenge (LMPC), Grand Touring (GT), and Grand Touring Challenge (GTC).
There will still be two prototype classes but a more substantial difference within the two. LMP will allow for all current manufacturers and models currently competing in ALMS P1 and P2 to combine in a single class.
That means both of Acura's current cars, the P1 ARX-02a, P2 ARX-01b, the Lola B09/86 Mazda and B06/10 AER, Porsche RS Spyder, and the current Audi, Peugeot, Aston Martin Lola and Pescarolo among others are all eligible.
The main prototype class, LMP, combines the two classes and Atherton stressed it is small, subtle changes to the cars that can help balance the competition. In many respects, it's a return to the past for the ALMS, when in 2007 and 2008, P1 and P2 cars were not separated by much with several races won by a P2 car overall.
"If you look back, we deliberately made adjustments such that the top level P2 cars and top level P1s could consistently race together," Atherton said. "Those subtle changes created some of the most compelling, entertaining races this series has ever produced."
"The expectation is to work within the three points of adjustment, so it's weight, fuel capacity, and restrictor size," Atherton described when asked how to balance the cars. "We're not so na?ve to think we can balance everybody, there's so much diversity there."
The endurance races are separate from the rest of what the ALMS has outlined, in terms of prototype equivalency. The 2010 12 Hours of Sebring and Petit Le Mans will still run to ACO rules and regulations, with prototypes split into LM P1 and P2 as they would at Le Mans. How points will be awarded for these races is still to be determined.
The question was also posed whether this combining of the current prototype classes was as a result of a lack of factory manufacturer participation. In both 2008 and 2009, Audi and now Acura have in essence, run unopposed for P1 and by default, overall supremacy.
"The decision wasn't motivated by Acura; it was motivated by the overall challenges we're facing right now within LMP," Atherton said. "We made a similar decision in 2008 that Audi would run effectively unopposed and made some decisions then to bring some competition into the prototype ranks."
"They are an example of a manufacturer, who I consider them to be purist, as they build cars optimized for ACO specifications," he added. "We would never make decisions that would purposely detract from their intentions to race with us, but we also can't make decisions based on the bet of whether Audi or anyone would come or not."
In contrast to what the main LMP class will be, the new Le Mans Prototype Challenge class (LMPC) will be a single-supplier platform for prototypes with lesser room for adjustments. The LMPC class will run to specifications outlined by the ACO. It will basically resemble the Formula Le Mans class that ran as a support to this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans.
This class will run a car designed by ORECA in France, a team that will make its return to ALMS competition at next month's Petit Le Mans. The ORECA Courage FLM09 chassis, fitted with a 420 bhp Chevrolet LS3 engine, will be tightly regulated with sealed engines, a single tire supplier, and limited changes to suspension adjustment and gear ratios. The cars are fairly loud and Atherton said there may be discussions in terms of reducing the decibel levels.
"All the components here have been value engineered, to make the platform what we describe it as," Atherton said. "This is an affordable entry level into LMP racing, with an expected purchase price of $380,000 U.S. plus tax and shipping. We're not suggesting that there isn't a way to spend more money with it, but it will be very tightly controlled."
Estimates for a full-season cost of racing in the LMP Challenge class were potentially under $1 million. Atherton said some teams have already inquired about racing in this series. The car will debut in a one-day open test the Sunday after this year's Petit Le Mans.
There will still be requirements for determining the drivers for the new class, and Elkins said it will more or less resemble what the ALMS Challenge drivers have gone through this year. Atherton also said somewhat in jest teams can't go out and sign a driver the caliber of a Tom Kristensen or Emanuele Pirro for their LMPC efforts.
GT and GTC are in essence the same as this year's classes, both undergoing name changes. GT is no longer GT2 and GTC is no longer the ALMS Challenge class. Atherton said that the GT regulations right now needed no tweaking, with the current level of competition.
The GTC class will allow for more models of Porsche 911 GT3 Cup cars to race, besides the ones that compete in the Patron GT3 Challenge that have been allowed to compete this year. That opens it up to cars that compete in, for example Grand-Am's Rolex Series' GT class or the SCCA SPEED World Challenge GT class, to be eligible for the GTC class.
Opinions on the changes throughout the ALMS paddock were generally positive, even if some drivers hadn't heard exactly what the changes were. Most were in agreement the direction of the championship was as much about the show for the fans as it was the technology.
"I hadn't heard it until now but I think it's great for the series," Marino Franchitti of Dyson Racing said. "We had P1 and P2 battling when they ran together. A lot of the job to bring the cars closer now is for IMSA to work to balance the two classes. We all have experience from '07 and '08, and that made it a great show. It can be fantastic for us as drivers and for the fans."
"The big thing is to maintain a staple of consistency," said Franchitti's team owner, Rob Dyson. "When the ACO or rules guys come out with a wing change or a restrictor change, it is not a bolt-on part. It takes a lot of testing to see whether it works or not. They have to tighten these rules up for next year right now, so everyone knows what we're racing for next year."
John Doonan, motorsports manager for MAZDASPEED Motorsports, said he and the Dyson team is committed to developing the Mazda further in advance of 2010, but agreed from a P2 perspective that ensuring close competition for the fans is a must.
"We have our passion with our years of experience and we have a continued passion to go further," Doonan said. "We will be back in 2010. I've seen Formula Le Mans, and they're awesome vehicles that add to the show for the fans. We're going to continue to develop this car, and showcase our latest technology."
A somewhat differing perspective was offered by Robert Clarke, the former head of Honda Performance Development (HPD). Clarke now serves as executive director of de Ferran Motorsports, who campaigns one of the two Acura ARX-02as in P1.
Clarke wasn't overly specific on the team's plans for next year other than the intentions announced by Gil de Ferran last weekend at Mid-Ohio to run two cars in both ALMS and IndyCar. But he admitted some concern at introducing a single-make prototype class running on the same track as some of the most advanced architectural marvels that will run in LMP.
"From a team perspective, our focus is one on being involved with the highest technology, as long as there is a category for us to work at that level," he said. "We've all seen kind of the decline of prototypes, so we kind of saw this combination coming, it is not a surprise. With the (LMP) Challenge cars, I understand the concept. But we have to worry about that move long-term that it might degrade that category."
Someone who can speak to the challenges faced by the privateers is Chris McMurry of Autocon Motorsports. McMurry, who drove an impressive race at Road America running as high as second in P1 in the ex-Chamberlain-Synergy Motorsport Lola B06/10 AER, said even despite the combination it will always be difficult for those without factory support to compete.
"It was explored and experienced already," McMurry said. "We had effectively one prototype class before the P2s got dialed back this year. The biggest difference between the two classes now is cornering speed. It will always be tougher for smaller, privateer teams."
Another key aspect of the changes is the relevance to green technology and how ALMS is sincerely committed to shaping the impact a motorsport series leaves on the planet.
It's no shock when you find out there are certain key guests in attendance observing a race weekend, usually a corporate higher-up or something to that degree. But it's not every weekend your series president and CEO admits there are members of the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy are in attendance.
Atherton said there were roughly a dozen members from the two agencies in person this weekend, seeing the series.
"They are not here because they are race fans, believe me," Atherton said. "They are here because they view this series as the only opportunity they can recognize to help them in their initiatives. The Obama administration has tasked both these agencies with developing solutions, all of it. It's the only one option they see right now. They literally call ALMS "the" series."
"With governmental agencies charged with next step of mobility and managing our nation's resources, the fact they have identified an auto racing series to align with to help in that pursuit, I think is the most underreported story of this industry," he declared. "We are willing to take the risk of peaks and valleys with that type of platform."
But despite all the tech-speak that came out of the day, Atherton used a simple analogy to describe the current situation and the future of the series going forward.
"If you're a 'glass half-empty' person, you describe the current circumstances as somewhat dire," he said. "You could make all the right points to support that. But if you're opposing, from a 'glass half-full' perspective, there are equal if not greater data points to make that claim."
"When you look at how this series is structured, it is an open platform for different manufacturers, with more recently, an emphasis of technology and green initiatives. Many forms of motorsport have taken that out. We don't believe that is a successful formula, if you look at how people vote with their tickets, their remotes. Those don't appear to be viable."
"Now everyone is being held accountable for their motorsports investments. I believe that we are by far, the best positioned, most relevant, most linked series to generate new technology with an application, not just for racing, but for developing future transportation that will translate to road running."