Manufacturers Recognize Merits of IMSA’s Hybrid Formula
By John Oreovicz
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The four participating manufacturers in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship arrive at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta for this weekend’s season finale separated by just 64 points. Any of the four – Acura, BMW, Cadillac or Porsche – could claim the manufacturer championship at the conclusion of Saturday’s Motul Petit Le Mans.
It’s a scenario few would have been confident to predict nine months ago when those competitors rolled into the paddock at Daytona International Speedway for the Roar Before the Rolex 24 and the Rolex 24 At Daytona. There were behind-the-scenes concerns that some of the high-tech and heavily hyped hybrid-powered GTP cars would even finish the grueling season opener in their competition debut.
Instead, those fears about reliability went unfounded, and the Rolex 24 was a close and competitive race that provided an early glimpse into the new-era GTP’s potential. Nine months later, project leaders from all four manufacturers believe GTP is fulfilling that potential, providing them with value – and most importantly, producing excitement and engagement among racing fans.
“It’s a clear yes,” said Urs Kuratle, Porsche Motorsport director of Factory Racing (LMDh). “Really, it’s been an amazing season. We all want to win, and we all actually won a race. That’s quite remarkable, when everything is new, and there were very tight battles in all the races. All the OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) could win by a fair fight, and we had record crowds at many events.
“All in all, I think it’s a very positive start to a new era.”
Porsche has won three of eight races this year and tops the manufacturer standings, eight points ahead of Cadillac. Acura is 61 points off the lead, with BMW close behind at a 64-point deficit. Cadillac and Acura have each claimed a pair of race victories, while BMW took its maiden triumph at Watkins Glen International.
The GTP driver and team championships are even closer with the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac duo of Pipo Derani and Alexander Sims holding a slim three-point edge over the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti Autosport Acura and drivers Ricky Taylor and Filipe Albuquerque. The No. 6 Porsche Penske Motorsport’s driving team of Mathieu Jaminet and Nick Tandy is just five points back, while the No. 25 BMW M Team RLL BMW (-38), No. 7 Penske Porsche (-73) and No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian Acura teams and drivers remain mathematically in contention for the crown.
The cars have been reliable, with an 81 percent finishing rate that would be higher if three of eight entries in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring hadn’t crashed out in the last half hour.
“The racing is good; you don’t know who is going to win, everyone is fighting tooth and nail, and of course there’s the endurance aspect,” remarked David Salters, president of Honda Performance Development and leader of the Acura ARX-06 program. “I think it’s been very entertaining. The cars look great, they sound great, lots of close racing. I think it’s everything you want in a series, and it’s sustainable in two ways. There’s sustainable fuel, and there’s electrification. From Acura, we’re very pleased with how it’s developed.”
BMW was the last of the four current manufacturers to commit to GTP and the LMDh formula using standardized hybrid components that allow it to compete in the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) in addition to the WeatherTech Championship. Lamborghini will field an LMDh competitor in GTP beginning in 2024.
Maurizio Leschiutta, BMW M LMDh project leader, admits BMW was late to the game and had a huge mountain to climb. But the inherent parity built into the formula permitted the German marque to catch up much faster than some expected.
“For me, it was already a victory to reach and finish the 24 Hours of Daytona, given the very, very steep learning curve we faced,” Leschiutta said. “So, we are very happy that at the end, we managed to put together a program which has been very satisfying from a sporting point of view, and it has technically been very challenging. We’re up against competitors who are very, very competent, and we’re very happy that we can come to the last race to play it out.”
For longtime sports car racing fans, “GTP” is hallowed nomenclature, stirring memories of the epic prototypes of the 1980s and ‘90s like the Porsche 962, Nissan GTP and Toyota Eagle GTP MK III.
Nearing the end of the “new” GTP’s first year, there are already plenty of comparisons to what is considered a golden era.
“I was lucky enough early in my career to be involved in GTP back in the ‘90s,” said Mark Stielow, director of GM Motorsports Engineering Competition that oversees the Cadillac GTP program. “Now with all the excitement around more OEs coming, just watching things through people and the press, everybody is excited about it. They want to see the new cars and the OEs pounding on each other every weekend on the track.
“The racing is great, and the cars are proving to be durable and very competitive with each other. It’s very exciting racing. It’s a heyday right now and just a fun time to be in endurance racing again.”
Ultimately, the straight-out-of-the-box popularity of the new era of GTP for IMSA comes down to the cars, which are the freshest and most technically exciting cars racing in North America and around the world.
“The key to this is that it is very engaging,” said BMW’s Leschiutta. “The cars have resemblance to the corporate ID that we as BMW want to make sure is recognized in our racing products. It’s wheel-to-wheel racing, which is always exciting, and the championship is always up in the air at Petit Le Mans – it always plays out in a final shootout.
“We are lucky enough to be living through a renaissance in endurance racing, and lucky enough to be writing part of that history, so I’m very happy that BMW is a part of that.”