14 days

News Flash


Scrutineering Bay

Not that it's any of my business

Notes from the Cellar

Across the Border

Focal Point







Mail  to a friend

Baby You Can Drive My Car

Family and friends




Top of Page


With the withdrawal of Audi and Porsche from the prototype ranks of the American Le Mans series, the screams of agony and rending of garments among sportscar fandom seem to have reached a Jonestown pitch, a sound much like the baying of the members of the United States Congress as banks and investment firms have come to the realization that the music has stopped and that most of the party-goers are without seats.  I personally don’t have a horse in either race; no shop full of fuel-rigs and race cars; no collateralized debt obligations or hedge bets.  From my detached perspective I must conclude that there is little cause for panic.  I still have a house and I’ve always preferred buying my own lunch at the track with apologies to Vanessa’s.  As has happened many times before in the forty-odd years during which I have suffered from the sportscar disease, 2009 will be an interim year after an apparent Golden Age marked by lavish spending from a handful of big players.  After a few deep breaths the patient’s heart will start beating again.

I see the prospective contractions of 2009 not as the end of a Golden Age, but instead as a golden opportunity.  People within the American sportscar establishment have long been of the opinion that the four class structure adhered to by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest for the past decade has failed to translate very well outside the Department of the Sarthe.  It has never been realistic, or even prudent, to translate the over fifty car fields which can be mustered for the classic French grand prix of endurance and efficiency from the undulations of the circuit permanente to the closer confines of conventional circuits, especially to those in the North American inventory.

Four Way Stop

Four classes create pure gibberish for the spectator. The presumptive raison d’etre of the P2 class has been for the ACO to keep an amateur class for local garagistes to contest each June. Fat grids of fifty plus cars spread over eight miles of racecourse allow room for many races within a race, but to read two prototype categories into a field of twenty-five on a circuit two or three miles in length is pure fiction.  When factory P2 efforts like those of Porsche and Acura were as well-funded and turned-out as the top P1 squad from Audi, none of the public are interested in races within races.  While Porsche’s privateer efforts at the 2008 Le Mans 24 Hours barely cracked the top-ten under true P2 rules (a mere 9 laps ahead of the GT1 winning Aston Martin; Acura never showed up at the Sarthe at all despite buying a very local P2 chassis lock, stock, and barrel), the ALMS was able to performance- balance the ARX-01b’s and RS Spyders with the R10 into a show for American spectators.

I firmly believe that performance balancing between the two prototype classes in the ALMS has been a success after two years.  It has allowed fans and the media to ignore the sad state of affairs that only one manufacturer chose to contest P1 while two manufacturers turned out a theoretical ten more-or- less factory-supported efforts in the ostensibly “privateer” P2 category.  While Audi won the “mythical” prototype championship over Porsche and Acura, it was never a foregone conclusion after Penske’s season-opening success at the 12 Hours of Sebring, a classic endurance race that has long been an Audi benefit.  No circuit configuration or race length created forgone conclusions for any class, car, or driver.  The P1/P2 distinction melted away without anyone being able to run away with all the marbles.  It can be done.

The entire impetus for development of prototype sportscars is Le Mans and this must continue. There is no reason to discourage development of cars for the mother race in June but realities and budgets simply dictate that prototypes must be encouraged to compete on a more-or-less level playing field during the rest of the racing year.  For this reason I disagree with the calls to do away with cars built to P1 regulations in North American competition in favor of fields filled by P2’s. The more P1’s the better, if only to encourage the global village to visit the Le Mans Village each June.  However, we must face facts and understand that in 2009 there will only be a few of them contesting the North American season outside of Sebring and that P1 will be dominated in the U.S. by the new Acuras.  To make a race of it for the rest of the season, P2 teams should be able to choose whether to conform to ACO rules at Sebring and Petit Le Mans for purposes of “automatic selection” to the 24 Hours or to run in IMSA specification and compete for overall wins in the American Le Mans Series.  The past two years have proven this proposal to be both practical and pragmatic.  The first IMSA Competition Bulletin (09-01) seems to point tentatively in this direction, and is a step in the right direction toward a successful and entertaining season in difficult economic times.  The series should drop any pretense of two classes and allow teams the opportunity to bring either ACO P1 or P2 cars depending on availability and to compete in a single prototype championship.

Across the Great Divide

The Continental impetus toward a second sports prototype category is not without parallel here in the states. In North America we have created our own sportscar formula for those who don’t have what it takes to compete at the highest level of sportscar racing against the manufacturers who have something to prove and sell with a Le Mans or Sebring victory.  It is of course the Daytona Prototype, which runs in an entirely different championship from the internationally recognized and sanctioned classes.  It is unfortunate that the moneylenders behind Grand Am continue to insist that their formula stand alone as a top-level championship.  Just as I would like to see entrants offered a choice of competing under either Le Mans or ALMS rules at Sebring and Petit Le Mans, I would love to see the DP’s allowed to run in their own class at Sebring, where the circuit has enough length to accommodate a few more cars.  The demise of GT1 would mean that the proto-turtles would no longer be embarrassed by GT cars, as they have proved to be a few seconds a lap faster than the GT2’s on comparable circuits. The demise of ChampCar has created an opportunity.  A few joint weekends might even allow outfits like Alex Job Racing, The Racer’s Group, or Farnbacher-Loles to take advantage of economies of scale in overlapping categories, since Grand Am GT’s move to totally tubular has stalled and a large field of Porsche GT3 pushers will be featured once again.

There is still a substantial market in the U.S. for professional road racing and the IRL isn’t going to satisfy it.  Unfortunately, the social-Darwinist “Winner Take All” mentality pervading an American culture which seems to be based on looting rather than on productive enterprise may predestine any form of compromise to the city dump.  It will be interesting to see if the 2009 Penske Racing/Porsche Motorsport North America placeholder DP program results in a sweep of the Grand Am season by the pros from Mooresville.  The entire justification for a NASCAR-sanctioned sportscar series is the legend of the "level playing field" and "cost containment" playing into the bitter resentment held by the old-school IMSA crowd toward the fickleness of the European factories (read: Porsche, but also BMW and Audi and it is justified).  This was always simply a myth but the long-simmering resentment makes people WANT to believe, and Audi and Porsche’s latest machinations have played into their mythology.  Ironically, the big fight this season in Grand Am may be between the series stewards and Penske/PMNA over penalty weight and RPM/fuel in the ECU.  If nothing else, this should be entertaining.  Penske has engineering resources (and cheats) that the former leading DP Posche squad, Alex Job Racing, couldn't even dream of.  Penske Racing has always touted The Unfair Advantage, and they’re not there to lose.  Porsche also has an axe to grind.  The late Bob Snodgrass was a motive force behind the Daytona Prototype concept and Porsche Motorsport North America has expended significant resources on creating a competitive engine package for the DP’s but Porsche-engined cars have never won a championship.  There will be blood...

Back in the American Le Mans Series, the grand touring classifications have suffered from the same issues as the prototype categories.  In North America there was no GT1 Aston Martin after Sebring, or GT1 anything else other than the Pratt and Miller Corvettes.  The exotic materials allowed in the class make these cars expensive to field and their huge horsepower has made them a nuisance for the prototypes, whose drivers find the GT1’s harder and harder to pass on the straights.  The GT1 cars have remained relatively popular in Europe but the average fan on the fence is hard pressed to suss out the difference from GT2’s allowed modifications which have leapfrogged their appearance and performance far from the street cars which form the basis of gran turismo competition.

The GT categories have already begun their de facto consolidation with the imminent demise of the Corvette GT1 operation and the hopeful development of a Corvette for GT2 competition after next year’s Le Mans race, assuming that General Motors is still a going concern that far in the future.  The death of the GT1 category in North America should be cause for celebration, as the situation on the ground can now be accepted as a fait accompli in the simplification of sportscar racing categories.  The Europeans appear to have resigned themselves to these circumstances as well.  The GT1 cars are simply too fast, too expensive, and not enough different.

The GT2 field promises to be interesting and diverse in 2009 and from a fan perspective there is really no need for another category.  With all of the glamour in the prototype categories in 2008 it was easy to overlook the entertaining season that we had.  At the beginning of the season Jim Tafel and Tony Dowe had joined the rest of us in declaring the Porsche 997 RSR GT2 car dead for lack of development and we all awaited a Ferrari walkover. Instead, lanky, long-time fan favorite, Jorg Bergmeister, joined with fellow German Wolf Henzler, Flying Lizard Motorsports, and Lady Luck to win the drivers’ and manufacturers’ GT2 championships for the old pusher, for which Flacht turned out to still have a few competitive updates.  With manufacturers BMW and Corvette moving into the category we will see further increases in competition in 2009.  The Series will be well advised to make some moves to contain costs now before the arms race takes off in earnest.  Hardly coal in our stockings.

Naked, if they want to…..

As I have had the good luck to have a life (and an income) outside of sportscar racing, my main contacts since the Audi and Porsche announcements have been from friends calling and e-mailing wondering whether to cancel their traditional campsites and travel plans for the coming sportscar season.  I have been responding that unlike the case of habitués of hedge fund and investment banking circles frequented by our stalwart Secretary of the Treasury and Senate, the sportscar racing emperor is most emphatically not naked.  He may be in shorts and a t-shirt, but the show will go on.  We won’t see the wonders of two flotillas of prototypes from Germany with flash machines and renowned shoes dancing on the pedals again for a year or two, but the sky is not falling.

The year 2009 is not yet lost.  Let’s drop the four class conceit and watch some racing.

                                                                David Soares
                                                               January 2009

sportscarpros Soares Says

David Soares