Competing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans is the cherished ambition of every sportscar team and driver.
For many, though, that dream is beyond the realms of logistical or financial possibility without support from an outside source. The exclusive entry list is difficult to get on, even for the most seasoned and well-prepared outfits.
Fortunately, steps are being taken to cover that base through the newly created Prototype Cup.
Two weekends ago (October 8-9), The Checkered Flag.co.uk headed up the A11 to Snetterton to find out more about this exciting new series, which aims to introduce teams to Le Mans-style racing with some rather high-profile endorsement.
Organised by GT Cup promoter Bute Motorsport, the Prototype Cup has gained traction through support from Onroak Automotive (the builder of Ligier LMP3 cars) and United Autosports, the French firm’s UK agent.
Nine cars from four teams were present at Snetterton, with 15 drivers taking part in a 60 minute, two-driver race on the Sunday.
The race was a statement of intent to those who weren’t previously aware of the Prototype Cup, according to series technical director Philip Boland.
“Today has been about talk, and it’s been totally positive talk,” Boland told The Checkered Flag.co.uk.
“The people who are close to the stakeholders know it’s happening, but the outer public and racing enthusiasts might not yet understand how the series is working. They’ve seen plenty of championships go under before – there was meant to be an endurance racing series two years ago which fell flat on its face.”
“I think people are wanting something with more structure, and that’s exactly what the Prototype Cup is offering with support from United, Ligier and the ACO.”
That solid ‘structure’ mentioned by Boland is well thought out. The Prototype Cup has an exclusive tyre deal with Pirelli, plus the LMP3 rulebook which is valid until 2019 and doesn’t require a balance of performance that has proved irksome to other formulas.
It also fits in well with the ACO’s ‘Road to Le Mans’, nestling under the big continental championships in Europe and Asia which are themselves expanding with the introduction of smaller sprint series. These selling points have led to a wave of interest from a number of British teams.
The unpublished list of parties includes some top Formula Three outfits, which are viewing LMP3 as the right place to send their drivers if they decide to close the door on a single seater career.
It’s a logical thing to do, considering there are some 180 seats available at Le Mans and considerably fewer on the Formula One grid. Not everyone can afford to progress through single seaters – only a select number of hopefuls will check all the criteria – and more drivers are realising this at an early stage in their careers. On a national level, then, the demand for Le Mans-style sportscars is unequivocal.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, but of equal importance, the Prototype Cup offers great appeal to amateur drivers who might feel alienated by more expensive (and more BoP prone) categories like GT3.
LMP3 is one of the most exciting and fastest growing categories in motor racing. Its dual appeal to both amateurs and career-minded racers, and its standardised, cost-cutting rule book have made it the class of choice for many teams.
Boland has suggested the format of the Prototype Cup race weekends will be geared towards the amateur drivers who might not get the same level of testing as their professional counterparts. His vision stems from what he has seen in British GT this season.
“We’re still working on the weekend schedule, but I want to have a 60 minute practice session on the Saturday, geared towards the bronze rated driver so they get their lions share of seat time,” he explains.
“We’ve got to look after the guys who pay the bills. It’s very easy to lose sight of that. There’s nothing more frustrating than selling your business, paying thousands for a car, team, equipment and hiring a team-mate, only to sit in the garage watching your team-mate driving around the track.”
“I’ve seen it go wrong in British GT this year – some gentleman drivers who have paid for the car and entered the car are getting annoyed because they aren’t being given enough time behind the wheel.”
“I’m going to structure this series so that kind of scenario doesn’t happen. As for the pro drivers, they’ll still have the second half of the race to battle it out and prove themselves in a high standard of racing. In my opinion, that’s the perfect way of setting out this series.”
LMP3 started life in 2015 with the European Le Mans Series – currently its biggest market – and has since piqued interest in Asia and most recently North America.
So far the continental level is looking stable, but even then the grids in the European and Asian Le Mans Series are restricted to a maximum number. Not all teams in the UK are going to be able to take their LMP3 cars out racing in these championships.
That’s where the Prototype Cup comes in. The ACO is extremely keen to see national LMP3 racing thrive, as it should give the UK-based teams an arena for high quality competition and, equally, a springboard for future continental ventures.
Will it work?
On paper, the Prototype Cup makes perfect sense. The fact that key figures from the teams and chassis manufacturers are all excited about its prospect means it definitely has the potential to be a hit.
Richard Dean, owner and managing director of United Autosports, is one of those people.
“This series will be successful because it’s affordable,” he explained.
“The cars are very reliable and easy to run. You don’t need to have a team of rocket scientists to be able to race one of these competitively. Also, LMP3 is a transferable formula. Teams from the ELMS that want to gain some additional race time can come over here because the calendars don’t clash, and vice versa.”
Dean hopes that after the inaugural season, United Autosports won’t have to enter the Prototype Cup.
United certainly plans to have cars running in 2017, but by 2018 Dean is aiming to revert fully to the role of UK agent for Onroak that his team secured in April, as well as defending the European LMP3 title. That alone suggests United is predicting enough sales for customer teams to fill the future grid. Even at Snetterton, business was being done. The 50th Ligier JSP3 chassis was delivered to the circuit for MecTech Racing, bolstering United’s UK deliveries to 11.
Dean also believes that having a plethora of similar series – including the aforementioned regional competitions and Creventic’s new 24H Proto – will help LMP3 in the long term, because it creates greater opportunity for chassis sales.
“If we only have a couple of series, as we do now with the European and Asian series, how can the manufacturers expect to sell the numbers required to make LMP3 a successful business route?” he asks.
Of course, LMP3 will need its five other manufacturers – Dome, Riley, ADESS, Norma and Ginetta – to speed up the sales of their respective cars in order to have enough entries in each championship. Ligier can’t keep every series alive by itself, but once it has equal competition the class will be able to run at peak efficiency.
So will Prototype Cup be a success? Time will tell in this case. Although the inaugural season is only half a year away, the consensus at Snetterton was that Ligier’s rivals (some of them, at least) will be ready to enter the fray. Ginetta – which runs the non-homologated G57 prototype in the rival UK-based Britcar series and its LMP3 car in Asia – has been flirting with the idea of joining with the latter, but so far nothing has come out of the talks. What’s certain is that what goes on during the winter will have a big impact on the Protoype Cup’s full-season grid.
The projections are already looking good. Boland and Dean envisage around 20 cars on the grid in 2017 based on current demand. A stand at the Autosport International show in January will give the series its next major public opportunity to showcase its intentions and attract further team/public support.
“Now teams know that this championship is going to happen I think interest will grow,” said Boland.
“So far, the press and public reception of the series has been nothing but good. We had a little bit of tongue in cheek doubtfulness at the start with people questioning whether or not we were really going to stick with LMP3 considering the other championships on offer, but we’re committed to our plan.”
“We’re going to stick to a designated route into sportscar racing that has officially homologated cars which are capped cost-wise and upgrade-wise for three years. That gives people confidence.”
The racing at Snetterton was fantastic, too. Despite only having seven cars on the grid (one of the West-Tec machines developed a mechanical problem before the start) there was plenty of dicing with overtakes happening throughout the field.
Spectator interest was high, too, with the LMP3 paddock getting the visitors’ cameras snapping. Comments overhead in the paddock from passers-by included “these cars are the real deal” and “when else are you going to get so close to this type of car?”. Evidently, Boland’s hopes that the weekend would diffuse interest had come true.
What the drivers said:
The opinion on Prototype Cup and LMP3 was unanimous…
Guy Cosmo, United Autosports:
“It’s a fantastic car; a true prototype. It’s easy to call it a baby LMP2 based on its size and dimensions. It does have a little less downforce than the LMP2, but it’s still a phenomenal piece of kit. The great thing about this class is that once you make it here, you’re in the big show. It’s now a direct route to racing in Le Mans, as I did earlier this year in the support race.”
Nigel Moore, Tockwith Motorsport:
“We had a great race. Phil got an excellent start after doing an excellent job to put the car on pole so we’re really happy to win. If LMP3 takes off anything like it has done in Europe I think it will be an absolutely amazing series to have on the top British circuits.”
Christian England, Team West-Tec/United Autosports:
“These are proper race cars. They look good, sound good and I think Prototype Cup next year is going to be really popular. I certainly hope that I’m going to be a part of next year’s series. It makes an excellent addition to the ELMS championship.
Bradley Smith, Team West-Tec:
“I’ve been trying to do LMP3 since the class launched in 2015, so every year we’ve had issues and setbacks of some kind. To finally be able to get in and do a race is brilliant, and hopefully it’ll act as a springboard to do the ELMS and the Prototype Cup in the future.”
Prototype Cup – Watch this space!
There is no reason why the Prototype Cup cannot become as well-supported as the other leading national championships such as the British Touring Car Championship or British GT.
Its success will of course be influenced by various factors relating to the health of LMP3, including the actions of the manufacturers that aren’t Ligier.
Nevertheless, its short term strategy and close alignment with the ‘Road to Le Mans’ ladder make an explosion of interest not only possible, but also conceivable.
The Prototype Cup snowball has been rolled from the top of the hill; now watch as it picks up momentum in 2017 and beyond.