Ingram's Flat Spot On
Sports Cars After The Flood
by Jonathan Ingram
Suffice it to say that sports car endurance racing has survived the worldwide recession. The formal announcement of Peugeot's new entry for the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup is the latest in a string of new equipment and other developments that bode well for the coming season and beyond.
To begin at the beginning, once again the Rolex 24 at Daytona brought in the new season with gusto in front of a capacity (infield) crowd. The Daytona Prototypes and the Grand-Am series may be on a separate page when it comes to endurance racing, but the result continues to be a constant effort to improve the Rolex Series and its centerpiece race. Next year's race, in fact, will feature a new generation of Daytona Prototypes likely to be more svelte and racy than the current models, i.e. more like prototypes found elsewhere.
In the next week, official testing will begin for the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, an event that continues to out-draw Daytona when it comes to fans. For the first time the event will be the opening round of Le Mans' new seven-race Cup series. In addition to what amounts to a world championship race at Sebring for the first time in a little over a decade, it means Peugeot's 908 versus Audi's R15 "plus plus" as the headline act. But the 12-hour will also introduce several other significant new departures.
Honda Performance Development's new 2.8-liter V-6 twin turbo will power at least the new Lola-Hondas of Level 5 Motorsports. Coupled with the return of CytoSport with a Lola-Aston Martin, this means the LMP class in the ALMS will at least sustain itself this year. It remains to be seen if last year's prototype champions, Patron Highcroft Racing, return this year with HPD's new ARX-01e for competition in the LMP1 category. In any event, HPD and Wirth Research have a new car under way with eyes squarely on the Le Mans 24-hour in the near future.
And, speaking of new equipment, we pause here to ponder the future of the Porsche 918 RSR. Of all the new cars on the horizon -- or already introduced -- this hybrid supercar is the lone vehicle that may change the face of the sport of endurance racing. Although Porsche has yet to reveal any plans to race the 918 RSR, it is a reminder that the sport continues to grow in strength in the GT categories in such places as Spa and the Nurburgring in addition to locales that run under Le Mans rules or Grand-Am sanction.
Because of its radical and powerful hybrid technology, it seems most likely that we'll first see the 918 RSR at the Nurburgring. Perhaps we'll also see its predecessor, the 911 GT3 R Hybrid, as the guest entry at Le Mans. It bears adding that Porsche's board chairman, Matthias Mueller, has indicated that endurance racing is likely to be the company's future focus rather than getting involved with Formula 1's new initiatives toward smaller engines.
To sum up, Peugeot, Audi, Honda and Porsche all have programs in place committed to the future and winning major endurance races. BMW, we should add, just won at Daytona in one of Chip Ganassi's Riley chassis.
There was a time when the slightest problem on the manufacturer side or in the economy tended to completely dismantle endurance racing. This time around not only has the sport been sustained during the recent severe economic downturn. New initiatives are blossoming which continue to align car makers with the sport.
In the GT ranks, the Panoz Abruzzi and West Racing's new Lamborghinis are set to launch at Sebring. Ferrari has a third generation turn-key GT racer that will arrive some time later this year. The F458 Italia not only will join the GT ranks in Europe and the ALMS, the car will be adapted to work in the Grand-Am's Rolex series with a few minor adjustments. This further underscores the level of long term commitment by manufacturers.
Sometimes the stars align just right. Political issues like the high cost of fuel and emissions have pushed manufacturers into demonstrating their technological wares in motor racing with cars the public can relate to. Plus, there's a real need to accelerate the learning curve using motor racing as the catalyst.
Meanwhile, the high cost of F1 continues to make sports car racing more attractive from a budget point of view. Speaking of budgets, Porsche has figured out how to make money from GT racing with its line of 911 GT3 racers, which seems to have become a business model for Audi with its R8 LMR's and Ferrari as well.
The usual bloody sparring between the FIA and the Le Mans organizers is a thing of the past, in part thanks to the new European Union's rule of law and in part due to the investment of Don Panoz, also responsible for providing the Grand-Am and the France family with some real competition in the form of the ALMS.
Everybody is getting into the act. Walker Racing of Indy car fame will take over the GT entries in the ALMS financed by Falken Tires. Mike Lanigan, also of open-wheel fame, has joined the Rahal Letterman team in time for the new ALMS season. There's word that some American teams may step up to the seven races in the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup.
Sure, hope springs eternal every year before the motor racing season begins in earnest. But have there ever been richer portents for sports car competition in the long history of endurance racing?
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at email@example.com.