Ingram's Flat Spot On by Jonathan Ingram BILLIONAIRE BATTLES The future of the American Le Mans Series is a much-discussed topic these days, because it thrives on the success and participation of sports prototypes. Team Peugeot Total...
Ingram's Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram
The future of the American Le Mans Series is a much-discussed topic these days, because it thrives on the success and participation of sports prototypes.
After yet another outstanding Le Mans 24-hour, there's little doubt about the appeal of the Peugeot 908 and the Audi R15, plus Aston Martin's Lola-built entries. But will the Le Mans connection continue to translate into participation by these manufacturers in the U.S.?
Given the auto industry's downturn, the only present answer: stay tuned.
The news in early July of Peugeot's return to the Petit Le Mans, although not yet official, signals that the ALMS remains the best proving ground for those who would win the Le Mans 24-hour.
The only ace the ALMS holds presently is the participation by Acura. The Japanese brand's phenomenally radical ARX-02a prototype was enough to fill the parking lots and hillsides at Lime Rock in Connecticut over the weekend. But will Honda decide to continue in the absence of competition from other manufacturers?
There's one sure bet at this point. Motorsports managers are on the hot seat to deliver to their boards of directors in tough times with racing programs that achieve measurable goals. Evidently, Porsche has elected to drop out of the prototype pursuit in the absence of promising results, to cite one example.
Others, such as Mazda, can't get enough of the prototype class, literally and figuratively. The company has several cars participating in the Le Mans series in America and Europe, but can only afford the lower cost of the LMP2 category.
The dilemmas of Porsche, which keeps an eagle eye on profits due to corporate maneuvering for advantage in these trying times, and Mazda, which has a long haul program to hoist its image, are decided. But which way will Peugeot, Audi and Aston Martin go -- and will it include regular trips to the ALMS events in North America? In the absence of participation by others, will Acura continue its full slate of ALMS races?
The betting here goes like this.
1) Peugeot will follow through on the informal acknowledgment of Team Manager Serge Saulnier that the 908's will continue to be developed at the Petit Le Mans in late September at Road Atlanta. This keeps the door open for a return to the Le Mans 24-hour in 2010 -- plus leverages the rule makers at the Automobile Club de L'Ouest.
2) Audi's motorsport director, Dr. Wolfgang Ulrich, is playing his cards close to his vest as usual while doing his best to leverage the ACO as well. It's clear the R15 needs more development as a driver's car and not an engineer's car if Audi is to recapture the Le Mans 24-hour. Evidently, the dispute with Peugeot over the bodywork being an aerodynamic device will be settled by a technical committee, but it would be good for Audi to continue to test the car in the meantime.
3) The current budgets of both Peugeot and Audi can accommodate the Petit Le Mans in September. If they both participate, it will be a boon for the series, fans at Road Atlanta and, above all, Acura. The Japanese brand will be able to test its new design after a season's development versus the French and German marques.
4) None of this guarantees participation in the ALMS in 2010 by any manufacturer. But, as long as Acura can look forward to competition from other manufacturers' prototypes at major endurance races, that will be enough for the company to continue in the ALMS. The teams representing Acura -- Highcroft Racing and de Ferran Motorsports -- have three-year contracts.
5) Since the races at Long Beach and Lime Rock proved it takes only two cars to make a race, the ALMS can sustain itself with just two major factory cars of the same brand in the LMP1 category and a smattering of privateer entries. In LMP2, the Lowe's Fernandez Racing team does not have sponsorship confirmed for 2010. It will be interesting to see if privateers arrive to contest Mazda and the Dyson Racing team should the Acura of Lowe's Fernandez not return.
6) Whither Aston Martin? To elevate its prototype program, the gas-powered Aston Martin team run by Dave Richards appears to be betting a relatively small budget on reduced participation by other factories at Le Mans in the future -- or a change in the rules for diesels like the Peugeot and Audi. In either case, the team is not likely to have a budget to compete in North America.
So there you have it. One man's point of view after one Saturday in the paddock at Lime Rock.
And oh yes. What about those rumors that have been so prevalent in the Grand American series about all kinds of radical developments involving series founder Jim France leasing tracks from ALMS founder Don Panoz, etc., etc. and taking over the major endurance events at Sebring and Road Atlanta?
This boils down to the Grand American participants' wishful thinking that our billionaire, i.e. France, has more money than your billionaire, i.e. Panoz. The rumors, which are stoked by at least one key Grand American official, always start during the Le Mans 24-hour break and end once the ALMS resumes its schedule in North America.
It was ever thus.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at email@example.com.