Ingram's Flat Spot On Post Time And Sebring by Jonathan Ingram To the casual observer, the American Le Mans Series may appear to have hit a slippery spot due to the absence of any commitment from a major manufacturer to run the entire season...
Ingram's Flat Spot On
Post Time And Sebring
by Jonathan Ingram
To the casual observer, the American Le Mans Series may appear to have hit a slippery spot due to the absence of any commitment from a major manufacturer to run the entire season in the premier LMP1 category. One might surmise the ALMS is turning into a GT series once the big guns at this weekend's Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring return to Europe to prepare for the Le Mans 24-hour.
Naturally, in a pre-season discussion with Scott Atherton, the president of the ALMS, that was the first question. Is the ALMS going to turn into a GT series?
The GT class said Atherton "has never been better. But the prototypes will continue to play a critical role. Nothing will diminish that."
At Sebring, the mighty Peugeot armada will square off against one Lola-Aston Martin and one Lola-Judd, the only real contenders in a slender prototype field now absent the crashed Lola-AER of Intersport. In the absence of Audi's new Evo version of the R15, the brace of Peugeot 908 HDi FAP's may well steamroll the other LMP1's and the LMP2 entries from Highcroft Racing, Dyson Racing and Muscle Milk (the Porsche Spyder of Greg Pickett).
At Sebring, the LMP2's must run according to the Automobile Club de l'Ouest rules established for the Le Mans 24-hour. That means severe restrictions versus the LMP1 category. It's only after Sebring that the ALMS will alter the air restrictors to equate both LMP1 and LMP2 for the sake of putting an emphasis on one over-all prototype class, one that is expected to feature Acura, which is supplying engines on a lease basis to Highcroft, versus Mazda, i.e. Dyson Racing's factory-assisted Lola.
It is, as the saying goes, a transition year for the prototypes.
"We're in a period now where at the top of the list, of course, are economic issues," said Atherton, "and a close second behind that are new rules. We have a situation where 2011 marks an entirely different set of technical rules for prototypes. With the exception of Audi, which was originally unplanned, that's the only example where I'm aware of a new 2010 prototype. So I believe prototypes will continue to play a key role and I believe that manufacturer-backed teams in the prototype category will return to the series."
A short-term fly in the ointment may be the desire to race hybrids. While that poses some exciting new technical developments including the flywheel technology to be employed by Porsche GT3 R Hybrid at the Nurburgring's 24-hour in May, in the short term the issue of creating an equivalency formula for prototypes is very thorny.
If, for example, Porsche arrives with a prototype using flywheel technology, all-wheel drive and electric motors at the front wheels, how can that be equated to, say, an Audi running on diesel? Or a prototype powered by a V-12 Aston-Martin running on standard fuel?
Peugeot already has a diesel hybrid under development with KERS technology presumably using a battery and not a flywheel. "Everybody believes the other has an advantage," said Atherton of the task facing the ACO when it comes to creating rules for the hybrids.
But the ACO is dedicated to sorting out the new technology going forward just as it did with diesel race cars. In the short term, that could benefit the ALMS, where manufacturers can demonstrate their technology before it's considered worthy for the ACO rule book. Only time will tell if the ACO is ready to fully incorporate the game-changing technology for 2011 -- or perhaps a year later.
"The ACO have said that if a hybrid presents itself, it would run classified," said Atherton. "Where last year they said they would allow cars but they would be unclassified. I think that is one of the categories where, I'm going to go way out on a limb here, the future rules and regulations for both prototypes and GT is worthy of much greater thought and discussion before the pen is put to paper."
In the short term, look for Porsche's GT3 R Hybrid to participate in demonstrations in the ALMS before the year is out. (Atherton declined comment on this subject, but it seems like a very logical progression for Porsche to pursue in light of the ACO's concerns about regulating hybrids.)
In any event, the GT category is stronger than ever in the ALMS due to the factory battle between Porsche, Ferrari, BMW, Corvette, Jaguar and Ford.
Also, in a clever re-arrangement of its brand as a technology battleground for manufacturers, the ALMS will have two spec classes run for the full season: the all-new LMP Challenge cars built by Oreca and the GT Challenge for Porsche GT3 Cup cars. These categories provide stepping stones for team owners and drivers looking to move up to the full-blown professional ranks -- and they generate more entries.
In addition, the ALMS has entire series of stepping stone categories. "When you talk about the health of where we are as a company," said Atherton, "we've got 30 IMSA Lites cars and 38 Patron (Porsche) GT3 cars entered for Sebring, both records. (That's) largely because both of these categories have demonstrated a clear ladder to bigger and better and a tremendous value for participants. TV, part of the big show, autograph sessions, we're treating these guys like young, up and coming professionals."
With relatively strong entry list, a presenting sponsor in the form of Tequila Patron, a modest battle in LMP, an incredible war in GT and the green wave at its back (including the already established use of biofuels), the ALMS is doing fairly well for a series in a transition year.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.