Atherton’s Promise

The Ed. is getting out of the habit of a regular, monthly Editorial – for various reasons, usually related to how busy this role can be, even in the winter. Apart from a quiet spell just into the new year, the last three months or so have been particularly hectic.

Suddenly though, the calendar has gone relatively quiet: Sebring and Istanbul haven’t been followed by the start of the FIA GT Championship (which commences in May this year). Instead we’ll have Silverstone and then Houston / Spa all in a rush – three major races within eight days….

But to get to the point – which came about because of an ALMS press release… relating to the number of manufacturers in that series.

ALMS President and CEO Scott Atherton has been promising more newcomers to the ALMS for.. well, at least 12 months - “A year ago, we said the pipeline of content in the American Le Mans Series was refilling. One by one, that claim is coming true” – and the pipeline is indeed refilling.

Perhaps ‘overflowing’ would be too strong a term – but in terms of manufacturers entering the series, the President / CEO and all his team can indeed feel proud of their achievements.

“The recent commitments we have received from such world-class manufacturers like Audi, Porsche, BMW, Lexus, Ferrari and now Acura proves that the American Le Mans Series is the premium brand of motorsports.”

Technically, perhaps we could argue that Audi, Porsche and Acura are the three true manufacturers which have become involved (again - or in the case of Acura, confirmed that they will be involved) recently, but adding all the marques and all the other component brands involved in the series, the ALMS has made huge progress in taking sportscar racing to a level previously unheard of.

“Totaling the participation of auto, tire and engine brands, more than 20 world-class manufacturers are expected to compete in the Series for the 2007 season, a number that is far and away the most diverse collection among any racing series in the world,” says the President and CEO.

Can anyone argue with that statement?

The difficult task is to blend the major manufacturers’ involvement with that of the privateers: in GT1 (in the ALMS) that is a herculean task, but in GT2, every entrant could technically be regarded as a privateer. The pair of exceptions at Sebring were the Spykers, which have since returned to Europe – and the Dutch manufacturer is still ‘on the way up’, rather competing at the very front of the class.

LMP2 showed that, at least until the RS Spyders have achieved endurance reliability, a privateer can take on and beat a factory effort, even one as strong as that emanating from Porsche. That project became public knowledge just over a year ago, and in less than 12 months, the Lola / Courage Acuras will be on the grid at Sebring. Watching the privateers take on the mighty factories tends to produce some of the best endurance racing tales – as in the Intersport Lola last month.

LMP1 really only has the Dyson Lolas to challenge the Audis: Scott Atherton could perhaps genuinely sit back and put his feet up, for good, once the top class of the ALMS features a the variety at the front that characterised Le Mans in 1999. That goal is logically unattainable – but once the P2 manufacturers move up to P1, and if he can somehow solve the GT1 problem, the ALMS would then feature 40 car grids, and intense competition in every class.

The “quality and quantity of manufacturers present in the ALMS… proves that the Series’ platform of showcasing leading-edge, relevant technology on the global stage works,” says Scott Atherton.

So whether it’s BMW being associated with the PTG BMWs, or Lexus with the new Lexus IS 350s, or Mazda and Honda choosing to have their engines installed in proprietary chassis, or Audi showcasing its diesel technology (in a car otherwise visually unconnected with its road cars), or GM and its Corvettes and (next year) Porsche and its new 997 GT2 – it’s all very positive.

And if the rumoured departure of a NASCAR manufacturer is true – then the words “relevant technology” could have a new significance for that manufacturer, in sportscar racing.

It’s always been an odd fact of this century’s endurance racing, hasn’t it, that no one else has cottoned on to what Audi has achieved, in marketing terms? Heaven knows how much it can achieve in that field, with its diesel technology.

Perhaps it’s easy to talk of a potential 40 cars – the hard task might be hanging onto manufacturers, once they feel that their goals have been achieved (think back to Le Mans ’99 again). But let’s conclude these (ALMS) thoughts with the privateers: they’ve always been the bedrock of endurance racing, and long may the likes of Jon Field, Chris Dyson, John Macaluso, Duncan Dayton, Michael Lewis and co., Juan Barazi, Bill Binnie, Tom Weickardt, Seth Neiman, Giuseppe Risi, Justin Jackson etc. continue to try and fulfill their dreams in the best kind of racing.

Meanwhile, in Europe, there are remarkably few, true manufacturers – in the Le Mans Series or the FIA GT Championship. There is ‘representation’ (factory support if you like) from Saleen, Maserati and Porsche, and more than that from Ferrari (AF Corse), in the FIA GT Championship, while in the Le Mans Series.. well Norbert Singer helps out the favoured Porsche team (Autorlando) – but every prototype entry is a genuine privateer one, as are the GT1s and GT2s – with the exception of those Spykers again.

As one European entrant put it, “you need the manufacturers to give the series some substance”. Or as Clint Field expressed it “When a factory team comes on board, it provides a level of stability. For a small team like us, we have to use everything as best as possible, and we do quite well with what we have.”

Le Mans is different of course – but if a handful of manufacturers didn’t support that event, we really would be in trouble, in Europe.

It seems perfectly reasonable to suggest that the new world – Scott Atherton and his manufacturers – is showing the way to the old world.
Malcolm Cracknell


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