Oct. 1, 2016. FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The 2016 Petit Le Mans was the end of an era for the Daytona Prototypes, concluding a 14-year run as the lead pony in what is now called the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Next year, the new generation of DPi cars will feature 2017-spec LMP2 chassis, manufacturer-oriented bodywork and factory-backed engines.
By definition, any sports prototype class that runs for 14 years is a success. In this case, starting with the first Fabcar designed by Dave Klym, soon followed by cars from Multimatic and Crawford, among others, the Daytona Prototypes sustained the Grand-Am Series long enough to set the stage for unification with the American Le Mans Series and a new generation of IMSA. The DP category sustained not only a series and participants, but also car builders like Riley Technologies, Pratt & Miller and Dallara.
Did fans prefer the more exotic prototypes of the ALMS, whose origins were the LMP categories championed by the Le Mans 24-hour, over the Daytona Prototypes? Ask any of the promoters who hosted both the Grand-Am and ALMS and they will tell you the DPs played second fiddle when it came to fan preference. But these same promoters will also confirm that unification, which has also meant the participation of LMP2 machines along with DPs, has done well at the gate.
Full disclosure is appropriate here. I have just finished arrangements for the second printing of The Art of Race Car Design, which is the story of Bob Riley, one of America’s foremost “pencils” when it comes to drawing and building fast cars. Bob and I collaborated on the book and there’s no doubt the DP category was a good opportunity for Riley Technologies. And yes, Riley Technologies will have new DPi cars on the grid at the Rolex 24 at Daytona next year as well as those from constructors Dallara and Ligier.
There’s another bias I have when it comes to the safety of the DP cars. My next book will be on the HANS Device and the history of motor racing safety in the 20th Century. The DPs arrived at a crucial pivot point in professional motor racing history, when the HANS Device and better cockpit technology and soft walls began a revolution in safety. The DPs have done their part. There have been no fatalities. The 2014 accident involving Memo Gidley at Daytona, which resulted in multiple fractures after a tremendous car-to-car impact, was the worst.
There was a price paid when it came to the construction and appearance of the DP. The bulky greenhouse, with its roll cage-like framework, and the high-waisted sidepods were not a beautiful sight to behold for fans or competitors. When Jim Matthews approach Riley about buying one of its new DPs, the car was still on the drawing board. “Will this one be as ugly as the other cars?” asked Matthews. Well, the specs were the same for all cars…
In the end, the Daytona Prototypes have been fast and reliable on Continental tires following an opening stint on Hoosiers, although at last year’s Petit there was the embarrassment over the GT Le Mans-class Porsche 911 winning over-all due to the day-long rain and Michelin tires.
Will the new DPi, which is essentially a world car, inspire road racing fans in North America? Will the branding by Cadillac, Mazda and Nissan next year and possibly Honda and Bentley in 2018 produce more excitement about endurance racing? Well, at least the cars will be exotic and they will be very similar to the LMP2 class running at Le Mans. But therein lies the problem.
In addition to the appearance and racing sophistication of the LMP cars when they were competing in the ALMS, when fans went to the track they could see the same prototypes that competed at Le Mans. Just as Bill France Sr. had an important selling point for his NASCAR entries when promoting events in the Southeast in the 1950s because he was bringing the same cars that raced on the Daytona Beach & Road Course, so the ALMS connection to Le Mans was crucial to fan excitement and appreciation. Even if there were fewer prototypes compared to the Grand-Am, and even if the outcome was somewhat predictable, the ALMS brought in more fans.
The last great crowds at the Petit, of course, included the redoubtable LMP-1 Audis versus the Peugeots. Not only were they state-of-the-art cars, they were the same teams that undertook legendary struggles to beat one another at Le Mans.
Under the new LMP2 regulations at Le Mans, which are also the fundamental basis for the new DPi chassis, only an LMP2 Gibson V8 is eligible to compete in the French classic. After failing to reach any agreement about an engine equivalence formula for the DPi cars to compete at Le Mans, the French organizers are keeping it simple by using only one engine and one brand of electronic control unit. Before that, it had already been decided that the DPis would not be allowed to race with distinctive manufacturer bodywork and would have to be converted to the LMP2 standard.
Absence any progress along the lines of reaching an equivalence agreement with the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, which makes the rules at Le Mans, the DPi may turn into just another North American special. While the crowds can be expected to remain strong at the Rolex, Sebring 12-hour and Petit, there’s a chance to leverage the fan interest at these venues as well as the others on the schedule if there’s an organic connection to Le Mans.
The opportunity for DPi cars to race at Le Mans in 2017 is not over, according to informed sources. (Meanwhile, the LMP2 with Gibson V8s will be eligible at the Rolex 24 and all other IMSA events.)
But there are ongoing discussions about the DPi cars racing in the French 24-hour without bodywork modifications. Those discussions center on allowing the DPi entries to compete in the privateer LMP1 class. If that sounds like second fiddle to the vaunted hybrid prototypes of Porsche, Audi and Toyota that compete for the overall victory, well, at least it’s a start.
Short term, North America will be racing the same prototype platform as in the rest of the world next season. Coupled with pricing maximums, the IMSA approach to factory participation which worked well over time in the DP category is likely to give the new era the same longevity. Given the sometimes catawampus history of sports car racing when it comes to factory money, that’s a good starting point.