There’s a Lot Going on in Addition to the New GTP Cars
By John Oreovicz
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – By now you are aware that 2023 is shaping up as a blockbuster year for sports car racing around the world.
The introduction (or reintroduction) of the GTP class, with all-new hybrid-powered prototypes for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, and the increased cooperation and convergence between IMSA and the FIA World Endurance Championship, has sports car fans salivating for the future. And that bright future starts in just a matter of days, with the Roar Before the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway this week, followed by the Rolex 24 At Daytona, set to flag off the afternoon of Saturday, Jan. 28.
There’s a lot to take in from Daytona – not to mention the rest of the WeatherTech Championship and other IMSA-sanctioned series seasons, which wrap up in October with the traditional stop at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta for the 26th annual Motul Petit Le Mans. Here are some key stories to track:
GTP! GTP! GTP!
It’s impossible to overstate how important the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) era is for IMSA. The nomenclature evokes memories of the heyday of American sports car racing in the 1980s and early ‘90s, with legendary cars like the Porsche 962, Jaguar XJR-9 and XJR-14, and Toyota Eagle GTP Mk III.
IMSA’s 2023 prototypes – built to a specification known as LMDh – are every bit as visually spectacular, and they also promote efficiency and auto industry relevance in the form of a standardized hybrid energy harvesting system. These are serious racing cars, as technically advanced as any in the world. Acura, BMW, Cadillac and Porsche have committed major resources to factory-supported programs, with Lamborghini to follow in 2024. The cars were conceptualized and created over the last three years, prior to six months of intense on-track testing (even more for Porsche, which carried out initial development work on the hybrid components to the benefit of all).
Now that the season is starting, speculation can end and questions will finally be answered. Will the new cars be reliable out of the box? How will lap times compare to the outgoing Daytona Prototype international (DPi) formula and to the other classes of cars in the field? Michelin’s 2023 GTP tires are more durable and ecologically friendly and teams will have to double stint as a result of reduced tire allocations; can races be won on fuel and/or tire strategy? Will one manufacturer demonstrate a significant advantage over the competition? Most, if not all of these answers, will become clear over the next nine months.
GT class warfare
The racing in the GT classes of the WeatherTech Championship – GT Daytona (GTD) and GTD PRO – is generally fierce, with as many as nine competing manufacturers fielding cars that look a lot like the ones you can drive on the street. It got even closer last year, when IMSA realigned its classes to follow the worldwide sports car racing trend of utilizing the same GT3-homologated cars in two categories, differentiated by FIA driver ratings. Teams may field complete driver lineups of Platinum- and Gold-rated drivers (often manufacturer-affiliated) and receive a higher level of factory engineering and financial support. GTD PRO entries are expected to beat the GTD competition – though a GTD car did best the GTD PRO entries to the checkered flag last year in the weather-shortened Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen.
Chasing the TCR Three-Peat
The IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge is the main companion series for the WeatherTech Championship, with 12 competing manufacturers, split between the TCR (Touring Car) and GS (Grand Sport) classes. The races, two or four hours in length, can be even more frenetic and exciting, thanks to different driver experience levels (a mix of up-and-comers, seasoned pros and amateurs) and some radical strategies.
In 2021, Taylor Hagler teamed with Michael Lewis to become the first female champion in the series. She, Lewis and Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian repeated the feat in 2022 in the No. 1 Hyundai Elantra N TCR, and they’re back to contend for a third consecutive TCR title. Will BHA’s dominance of TCR continue for a fifth consecutive year?
Worlds Collide in VP Racing SportsCar Challenge
There’s a new and intriguing option for IMSA competitors in 2023: the VP Racing SportsCar Challenge, featuring six doubleheader rounds of 45-minute sprint races, with a grid comprised of GT4 specification production-based cars like those that race in the GS class of the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge, plus Le Mans Prototype 3 (LMP3) prototypes. The VP Racing Challenge essentially replaces the IMSA Prototype Challenge, which was exclusive to LMP3 cars. It will be interesting to see how the racing plays out between these strange bedfellows, and we’ll start to get answers quite soon – the series’ first races are on Jan. 21 and 22 during the Roar weekend at Daytona.
IMSA at Le Mans – and Indy
As mentioned in the introduction, IMSA, the FIA and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) are working in closer harmony than ever. As a result, IMSA’s LMDh prototypes are eligible for the Hypercar class of the FIA World Endurance Championship and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Similarly, WEC cars built to that series’ LMH formula can be entered in IMSA events, but wouldn’t happen until 2024 at the earliest.
Porsche and Cadillac, with their respective team partners Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing, are fielding fulltime LMDh entries in both series; other IMSA manufacturers are expected to follow suit in 2024. The big question moving forward: When will an eligible WEC manufacturer accept the challenge of competing in IMSA, whether in a one-off appearance at, say the Rolex 24, Motul Petit Le Mans, or over a full season?
Closer to home, a key addition to the 2023 WeatherTech Championship and Michelin Pilot Challenge schedules are races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. IMS owner Roger Penske is “all in” on sports car racing right now, and he hopes to grow the IMSA weekend at Indy into a crown jewel event. This year’s WeatherTech Championship race on Sept. 17 is the traditional two hours, 40 minutes in length. Expectations are for the event to be lengthened in the future and run into the night.