Sports car racing driver Mike Hedlund gives his insight and thoughts of the future of sports car racing in his blog "Maximum Attack". Mike races in both the ALMS and the Grand-Am - the two series that will be unified in 2014.
With the merger announcement made last year between the American Le Mans Series and Grand-Am there’s been a lot of talk about the P2 and DP classes merging, and rightfully so. They’ll be the top class fighting for overall wins and for the series to be successful they’ll need to be sorted out.
However, there’s been almost no talk of the GT classes from either journalists or USCR. I’m going to lay out my thoughts on the GT classes here as part experiment (to see how close I was once the series starts) and part knowledge transfer to share what I’ve learned from talking to team owners, drivers and people in the paddock at the races. Hopefully, this will be short and sweet. Part 1 is what I predict from USCR for 2014 based on what I know and Part 2 is what I would do if I were King.
Part 1, What I Predict:
The current ALMS GTC and Grand-Am Rolex GT classes will be combined into the new USCR GTD (D for Daytona) class for 2014. Here’s where it gets a little tricky…
Currently ALMS GTC is defined as a Pro-Am class. This means there must be at least one “amateur" (I put amateur in quotes because I personally feel the way amateurs are defined in the sport is an insult to anyone with an IQ over 31.. but we’ll save that for another time) in the car for each race. In order to score championship points in the race, the “Am" must drive a minimum amount of time. The time requirement differs based on the length of the race, but typically falls into what would be an “equal" stint with his or her co-drivers. For example. At a normal “short" race duration of 2 hours and 45 minutes, the minimum drive time for the “Am" is 60 minutes. The GTC cars typically go 70-75 minutes on a full tank of fuel so the driver change strategy is basically the same as if you had 2 Pro’s in the car. At the 12 Hours of Sebring the minimum drive time was 3 Hours which is basically a minimum of 3 stints in the car to earn points.
In Rolex GT there is no “Pro-Am". There are cars which have “Am" drivers and cars which have all Pro lineups competing against each other at the same time. For the longest time I struggled with understanding how the Pro-Am lineups were competing with the full Pro cars (and competing they were, just look at my good friends at Magnus Racing! they’ve been kicking ass!). It wasn’t until I participated in a couple non-24 Hour races that I started to understand.
The Minimum drive time is “around" 30 Minutes for the driver to score points in a Grand-Am Rolex race. It doesn’t matter if it’s a short 2 Hour race or the 24 Hours of Daytona. In the first 30 minutes of the race all the “Am" does is try to stay on the class leaders lead lap. If they can do that, they then hand over the car to the Pro and he battles his way through the field (which is typically bunched together by numerous caution periods). That’s all there is to it. Not very exciting from the “Am" point of view, but it seems to generally work to keep the racing close at the end and “Am" supported entries on the grid.
Now, if the USCR GTD class is categorized as a “Pro-Am" class next year, I’d guess USCR will go with the ALMS philosophy on driver time requirements.
Since we covered the driver requirements, let’s move onto the cars!
For those who aren’t super familiar with the GTC class and the Rolex GT class, here’s a quick primer:
ALMS GTC cars are nearly identical to the cars as delivered by Porsche Motorsport. You literally call up Porsche, say “I want a GT3 Cup" and after wiring them around $220,000, it’s on a boat or plane headed your way. Your team gets the car, puts about $20,000-40,000 worth of brake rotors and fancy dampers (shocks for us Yankees) on the car and you’re ready to go racing in the GTC class (there a few other small things like brake ducts and quick fill oil ports, but really.. that’s it as far as time and money are concerned). Once you show up at the track, a friendly Porsche Motorsport engineer (hey Andrew!) comes by and gives the team a small restrictor to be placed in the intake manifold (more on that later) and re-flashes your ECU. Viola... time to go racing!
Or you could go buy a new Grand-Am spec Ferrari 458 or Audi R8 for around $350,000 which isn’t legal anywhere else either. But hey, you’ll save $100,000 which *might* just cover the cost of your co-driver for the season.
After spending all that money on the Grand-Am spec car, you’ll be lucky to run about 1 second faster at most of the tracks where both GTC and Rolex GT run. Most of it comes down to tires and horsepower. The GTC Yokohamas are better than the Continental GT tires (and WAAAAAAAYYY better than the Continental “speedway" GT tires... worst tires on the planet don’t even get me started...). However, the Grand-Am cars have a LOT more power and generally less drag (due to less downforce).
Now how do we go about balancing these cars to run together? That’s the beauty of 2014. I don’t think it’ll be much of a problem — the bulk of the GTC teams will go away.
2014 will be the first year that the new 991 based Porsche GT3 Cup is available in North America. From talking with people in the paddock, everyone believes this car will be the new “baseline" for the USCR GTD class. It’s faster rite off the boat than the current 997 based Cup that’s run in ALMS GTC, which is great because it gets the baseline closer to the current Grand-Am Rolex GT spec. And since the new car will be available and it costs so much to upgrade the old car to the “current" Rolex GT spec, I doubt any single ALMS GTC team will enter current hardware into USCR GTD next year. Viola! Problem solved…. (at the expense of some teams.. but hey, this isn’t UNICEF!)
One slight hiccup, the new 991 Cup appears to go about it with the same motor as the old car.. which means it must have more mechanical grip and more downforce. Exactly the opposite philosophy that Grand-Am has used in Rolex GT historically.
Btw, the current Rolex GT cars are faster down the straights than ALMS GT cars. Can you say chrome horn in the corners? They already restrict the GTC cars to make it easier for the ALMS GT cars to overtake on the straights. Could you imagine GTC cars with another 75+ HP? As awesome as that’d be for those of us who drive in GTC now, ALMS GT drivers would all have grey hair by Petit and I’d be going through a lot of rear bumpers.
My predictions for 2014 USCR GTD:
• ALMS style minimum drive times for the “Am" in the car.
• 991 Porsche GT3 Cup as-delivered, new baseline for the class.
• All current Rolex GT cars get a restrictor to get power inline with 991 Cup.
• New (larger) spec rear wing allowed to increase downforce to match 991 Cup.
• Increased maximum front splitter length (from 2" to 3").
• Spec tire changed to Continental “Speedway" I-spec tire for ALL tracks to slow the cars down another 1-2 seconds per lap.
• Tube frame cars not allowed (with Stevenson non running GTD next year it only leaves Turner. With BMW pulling support from Turner, I expect them to switch to a GT3 chassis next year.. if they stay in GTD)
Part 2: Now that that’s out of the way, let me tell you what I’d do if I were King for 2014.
• ALMS type minimum drive times for the “Am" in the car.
• Full FIA-GT3 spec permitted. BES ballast and restrictor sizes used as the baseline for each car. USCR does local changes when needed to balance performance.
• Spec tire: current Continental “Sprint", optional “Speedway" tire if cars are too fast.
• Previous generation Rolex GT permitted w/ full Pro driver lineups. ABS and Traction control permitted. Leave the window open for possible wing and splitter enhancements to improve performance if needed.
My reasoning is very simple: let us race cars which are readily available that have performance envelopes that make them not only fun and challenging to drive, but also provide great entertainment for the fans. A byproduct of this is that it also allows teams and drivers to easily come over from Europe to race in certain (or even all events!) as well as provides a market to move and switch between cars during the off season. This also provides a lower barrier to entry by used GT3 cars being plentiful around the world.
My inclusion of the previous generation cars also allows current teams to keep running w/ relatively low cost for upgrades (it costs about 5 sets of tires to put a motorsport ABS system onto a race car, I’ve done it). This also allows the current fully Pro teams to keep running instead of putting the drivers out of work or the teams out of business. The cost to move up to a DP from a Rolex GT car are about 2-3X seasonal budget. Trust me, I’ve looked into it… :-)
The biggest risk for this plan is speed differential between USCR GTLM and GTD. As they’re unloaded from the factories, the FIA-GT3 cars are very similar in outright pace to the GTE/GTLM cars. This is due to the fact the GT3 cars have slightly more open rules in regards to aero as well as utilizing ABS and traction control. They’re also a fraction of the cost to buy and operate as the GTE/GTLM cars. However, I think a spec tire and possibly slightly larger restrictors would allow the series to easily maintain the appropriate performance differential between the 2 classes. Just by using the current Continental “Sprint" compound tire the full FIA-GT3 car is going to lose 2+ seconds per lap versus the “Confidential" factory tires used by the GTLM cars.
Another major issue with my plan is Porsche. I love them. They’ve created a very successful business around supporting customer racing in North America. I wouldn’t have been able to get to where I am in racing (which isn’t very far.. don’t get me wrong!) without Porsche Motorsport. But let’s be honest, they don’t have a full FIA-GT3 spec car. I suppose you could build one that’s competitive on your own, just like the current Rolex GT Porsche… but it’ll probably reduce the class from being half Porsche to just a handful of Porsche entries.
The other thing you’ll hear people say is “but the FIA-GT3 costs are starting to get out of hand, how much longer will that class of car be successful?". I don’t have the answer to that, but there’s simply so many race cars available now it’s a SHAME not to take advantage of it while we can! Maybe in 3 or 4 years we’ll have to revisit the class, but we do that every few years anyway!
Not doing something now because you’re afraid of what the future holds is a recipe for mediocrity.
I have a lot of respect for Scott Atherton and Scot Elkins, but I feel they’re missing the boat on this one either due to management by committee behind the scenes or lack of confidence on their own. I’m sure the series will be OK either way, but I want it to be F*ING AWESOME!
These issues should have been discussed and debated out in the open months ago. The fact is no matter what they announce, some people are going to be upset and changes are going to HAVE to be made. The earlier everyone knows what the plan is for next year the earlier these discussions and changes can take place.
Author: Mike Hedlund