The current era of prototype racing in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship has been one of contradictions rolled into a single class.
This shouldn’t be surprising considering the series’ Daytona Prototype internationals are rolling contradictions in their own right, but IMSA’s new approach to prototypes alleviates a few old oddities while leaving some questions still unanswered.
Since the merger of IMSA’s American Le Mans Series and Grand-Am’s Rolex Sports Car Series, the top-level Prototype class has been a hodgepodge of machinery.
In 2014, the first year of the merged championship, existing LMP2 cars from the ALMS and Grand-Am’s Daytona Prototypes were joined by the fish-out-of-water DeltaWing, creating a single class consisting of three radically different vehicles.
The era was dominated by the homegrown DPs with their tube-frame chassis and the availability of manufacturer-specific bodywork. While the DeltaWing faded from the series, LMP2 cars that conformed to international standards set by the FIA and ACO soldiered on alongside uniquely American prototypes.
Already a strange mixture, the singular Prototype class took a step forward for the 2017 season when DPs gained the “international” moniker, transitioning to the same modern carbon fiber monocoque chassis used by the newest versions of the LMP2 cars they had raced against for three years.
While the cars shared the same foundation, the DPis’ unique bodywork and manufacturer-sourced engines initially gave them a noticeable advantage over the stock LMP2 cars with their Gibson V-8.
Despite evenly matched competition in the combined Prototype class being an explicit goal of the series as evidenced by its continued application of Balance of Performance to the cars, true parity was difficult to achieve in the first year due to the inherent differences between DPis and LMP2s.
The restrictive nature of the DPi cars added to the quandary facing team owners and sponsors. While the early advantage of DPis over LMP2s was obvious, how to go about obtaining one didn’t have the same level of clarity.
With three of the four DPis having explicit manufacturer support and the fourth carrying a manufacturer’s branding, only one has been made available to more than its launch team with both Action Express Racing and Spirit of Daytona Racing fielding Cadillac DPi-V.Rs. Team Joest and Team Penske serve as factory teams for Mazda and Acura, respectively, while Extreme Speed Motorsports leads the charge for the Nissan Onroak DPi, which is little more than a branding exercise.
Which so many different approaches to implementing a DPi program being possible, it’s no wonder that independent teams have mostly turned to LMP2 cars as the solution. Without the need to form a potentially expensive partnership with a manufacturer, springing for an LMP2 challenger proved the logical choice for teams moving up from the now-defunct Prototype Challenge class.
The general lack of availability of DPis to so-called customer teams was downplayed by IMSA President Scott Atherton, who spoke to The Apex following the sanctioning body’s annual “State of the Series” event at Road America.
“There currently are DPi teams that are private teams,” said Atherton. “Spirit of Daytona is the best example. I don’t see that changing.
“I think there will continue to be independent teams that are not factory backed but they purchased DPi technology from a manufacturer. They put professional drivers in their car and they compete for the overall win.”
However, with IMSA’s division of the Prototype class in two beginning in 2019, the calculus for many privateer teams has changed.
“I think that will be the exception,” said Atherton of smaller teams stepping up to DPi. “That won’t be the norm. For an independent team, we believe the majority will now align with the LMP2 opportunity.”
Splitting DPis and LMP2s into their own classes certainly gives teams with limited backing a place to compete in the prototype ranks, aligns a single WeatherTech Championship class with an internationally recognized format and gives teams a chance at class victories. What it strips away is the opportunity for overall wins — something both JDC-Miller Motorsports and CORE autosport have accomplished in 2018 while competing against detuned DPi machinery.
Thus, perhaps the most compelling silver lining of the new class structure is that DPi cars will no longer use the fastest LMP2 car as a baseline for BoP adjustments, allowing their Acura, Cadillac, Mazda and Nissan powerplants plus bespoke bodywork to operate at the level envisioned when the format was conceived.
JDC-Miller, which fielded two ORECA 07s this year, will return to the series with a pair of Cadillacs in 2019. The team’s move to the top-level DPi class with the American manufacturer further solidifies it as the sole source of DPi machinery for customer teams.
Yet, Cadillac can only spread itself so thin. Should other professional teams that currently compete with LMP2 cars — say, CORE — choose to move up, their options have suddenly become more limited.
Both the Acura ARX-05 and Mazda RT24-P are inextricably tied to Penske and Joest, respectively, and it’s not hard to see why both manufacturers might prefer to keep their cars in-house for another year.
Mazda’s tie-up with Joest developed after an acrimonious split with SpeedSource, which had run the RT24-P program since its inception as well as the brand’s previous IMSA prototypes and GT cars. The newness of the Joest relationship coupled with an extensive reworking of the Riley-based RT24-P ahead of the 2018 season effectively makes 2018 a second debut year for the car.
Acura’s situation is more clear-cut. While the other three manufacturers joined the series in the first year of the DPi formula, Acura and Penske entered the fray in year two. Lacking the experience of the rest of the class, the manufacturer fared better than one might expect, already taking one victory at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course with drivers Helio Castroneves and Ricky Taylor.
Whether ESM’s Nissan DPi is available to customer teams remains a question mark. Considering its status as a team-funded project, its future remains open given the departure of longtime sponsor Tequila Patron at the conclusion of the current season.
Considering the lack of a clear path to a DPi for teams not aligned with a manufacturer and the inability of LMP2 cars to compete for overall wins thanks to the revised class structure, IMSA’s solution is half-baked at best.
For the new DPi class to truly flourish, an attempt should be made to ensure teams wanting to race the fastest and most advanced cars on offer in the WeatherTech Championship have the chance to do so.
This year, it was easy for IMSA to point teams without a DPi to the widely available LMP2 cars. As BoP has evolved, so too has the parity of competition in the unified Prototype class, aiding the Gibson-powered cars in securing pole positions and overall victories.
The desire to do away with intraclass BoP by splitting the cars into separate groups is admirable, but the lack of availability of DPi cars isn’t. If the way forward is treating DPi like IMSA’s own version of LMP1, it’s incumbent on the series to make DPis available for professional teams that want to race them.
Forcing DPi manufacturers to open up their cars to customer programs after a set period of time is one solution that may alleviate the problem of wanting to move up but being unable to do so. If the cars were given a debut year in which they are aligned with a specific team and then made available to other teams in the second year, there would be more choice and more competition.
Competition sits at the cornerstone of sports car racing but a potential 12-car class with four manufacturers — weighted heavily toward Cadillac’s six cars — won’t necessarily deliver on the promise.
It’s time to remove all of the contradictions in North American prototype racing by requiring second-year DPis to be available to all.
Ben was hooked after witnessing Dario Franchitti's victory at the 2009 Iowa Corn Indy 250 and began providing media coverage from IndyCar events in 2015. If IndyCar is on track, he can be found live-posting and updating The Apex's Race Reports from his iPad Pro.