2014 is a year of change for many forms of motorsport around the world. There will be different regulations and new cars in numerous championships, not least of which in Formula One. However, it is in America where one of the biggest stories will happen with the birth of the United SportsCar Racing championship.
For years, the American Le Mans Series and Grand Am have been direct competitors, but for the first time, they will work together. But this news has gained a mixed reaction at best from the fans.
There has long been an assumption (usually from people within Formula One) that Americans don’t get motorsport, and they certainly won’t follow anything beyond NASCAR. But that is not true – the American Le Mans Series has been a success for many years, and has a large and affluent fan base. The racing too, has been phenomenal.
But the problem the ALMS have been struggling with for several years now is a lack of cars, in the prototype classes at least. Ever since Audi, Porsche and Acura (Honda) withdrew as manufacturers, the series has been struggling to scrape into the double figures, even with LMP1 and LMP2 combined.
This, together with the death of the GT1 category several years ago, has meant several spec classes such LMPC and GTC have been introduced to keep the overall entry numbers strong.
Of course, it hasn’t always been like this. Occasionally, the likes of Audi, Peugeot and Rebellion Racing have come over to America to race in prestigious events like the start-of-season Sebring 12 Hours, or end-of-season Petit Le Mans. Indeed, the largest prototype numbers came in 2012 at Sebring, when the event was classified as a round of the World Endurance Champonship.
While the event was a hit with the fans, with such a large number of cars at the track it was a logistical nightmare in many other areas, a problem with overcrowding in the pits and paddock being just one issue.
When it became clear that the FIA and WEC would be going their own way for an American round, and would not race at either Sebring or Petit, it was obvious that things needed to change to prevent the ALMS from dying off completely.
With that, there was the announcement that ALMS and the NASCAR sanctioned Grand Am series would merge as one for 2014. But, it wasn’t long before ALMS fans started to voice concern.
One of the first announcements from the new ALMS/Grand Am partnership was that LMP1 would not feature in the new series. In many ways, it made sense. With two to three LMP1 cars taking part in a regular ALMS race, such lack of interest was a perfect excuse to axe the class completely.
But is it really the right decision?
Hindsight is such a wonderful thing in motorsport, but right now, just as manufacturer interest in LMP1 is picking up again, there are good reasons to say otherwise.
Firstly, it is now common knowledge that Porsche had no intention to race in the World Endurance Championship. Their objective was to race in the ALMS, and meet Audi and Toyota at Le Mans. Obviously, the plans soon changed shortly after the ALMS/Grand Am announcement last year.
Secondly, the new for 2014 LMP1 regulations seem to have sparked interest from manufacturers and privateers alike. There will be a new HPD LMP1 car next year, while Nissan’s Garage 56 project is seen as the first step in an eventual return to the top class, possibly as early as 2015. Furthermore, there have been persistent rumours about Ferrari seriously considering building an LMP1 car to take on one of their fiercest rivals – Porsche.
Top privateer team and occasional ALMS competitor Rebellion Racing will also remain in the LMP1 class, with a new Oreca built car named the R-One due to debut next year.
Add in the news that OAK, Dome, Perrinn and ADESS may also build P1 cars, budget depending, and the category looks very healthy. You have to wonder whether some of those could have ended in America.
Of course, it may not be the end for LMP1 cars in North American grown home championships. For a while, there has been speculation that there could be a break away series – lead by two powerhouse teams, Ganassi and Penske – for LMP1 cars.
However, the earliest that such a championship could exist would be 2015, but don’t get your hopes up. Even if it doesn’t happen, it still makes an interesting point. The new series has a long way to go to convince both teams and fans that the absence of LMP1 is no great loss. The cars are still extremely popular, and in comparison, Grand Am’s Daytona Prototypes have been the butt of many jokes for years.
Despite this, the American market still remains important to car manufacturers, as seen by Audi’s admission that they may build a DP for the USCR. LMP1 may be gone, but Audi still wants to be there – and that is telling. Would other manufacturers follow Audi’s lead? It is difficult to say with great certainty either way.
But there is a concern from the ALMS fans that prototype racing could become a thing of the past with the new series. While LMP2 cars will be eligible, and will race in the same class as Daytona Prototypes, you may not see many at the first race of the season in 2014. LMP2 numbers in the ALMS are only just better than LMP1 and there is little to suggest the number will rise anytime soon, in stark contrast to the twenty plus LMP2s that raced at Le Mans this year.
All of which is worrying for the ACO and FIA. One of the most important things to ensure the long term health of Le Mans is that all the regional championships, including Europe, America, and Asia, are strong so that there is always high demand for the world’s greatest endurance race.
With LMP1 and LMP2 both potentially being gone from USCR, the road to Le Mans disappears too. The only remaining link would be the GTLM class for GTE cars, which is important to ensure the likes of Corvette and Viper keep returning to La Sarthe.
It is clear that American teams are not just fan favourites, but incredibly important for the future of Le Mans. Will the birth of USCR eventually lead to the inclusion of Daytona Prototypes at Le Mans? Why else was Jim France the guest of honour at this year’s race?
Perhaps that is something to discuss in finer detail some other time.