The Constant Evolution Of Sportscar And GT Racing
GT3 And LMP2 Are The Current 'In Thing'

Formula 1 has its changes, but within its own teams, manufacturers and regulations, the changes in recent years have been more subtle than drastic. Renault, McLaren-Mercedes and Ferrari have been dominant during this decade, Williams (BMW) having faded as Toyota and Honda (formerly BAR) have typically moved further up the grid. Engine sizes have shrunk, tyre regulations (and suppliers) have changed, European tracks have come under more pressure to upgrade – but the scene is still largely familiar. And very little has changed to encourage overtaking.

Hardly surprising then that, with the exception of certain countries, Spain for example, TV viewing figures are falling. The lone extrovert – Juan Pablo Montoya – chose to leave for pastures new, and the media is now trying to whip up interest in the Formula with the introduction of a fresh young face at McLaren.

The big change (a gradual one, probably over a six to ten year period) was the involvement of more mass-production car manufacturers, which eased out the privateer teams – certainly from the front of the grid.

But in different ways, it’s the manufacturers who are driving the changes that are currently taking place in both ACO and FIA regulated series.

Specifically, I’m think here of LMP1 and LMP2, and FIA GT3.

Looking back to Le Mans in 1999, manufacturer entries filled the top four places in the results (BMW, Toyota, Audi, Audi) – with a privateer BMW fifth. The best-placed ‘privateer’ entry came out of the Courage (specialist) factory at Le Mans – in sixth, but fitted with a factory Nissan engine. So in some respects the best privateer car was the Panoz in seventh, although if that was in some ways a factory car, the Courage Nissan in eighth too, then we have to look at the Pescarolo Courage-Porsche in ninth for the first totally privateer entry.

Not figuring in the results at all were Mercedes with its CLRs (that was the infamous ‘flying off the road’ year), while Porsche had already switched its attentions to what was effectively the GT2 class then.

Perhaps it was set in stone already by 1999 that Toyota, BMW and Mercedes would all concentrate on F1, that Nissan would fade out of the international scene – and that Audi was the only manufacturer which would stay in endurance racing. Cadillac and Chrysler dabbled but faded away, both having come up with fine chassis but each unable to compete against the Audi R8’s engine – leaving the remarkable statistic that the only non Audi (and Bentley) team that has stepped onto the overall podium at Le Mans since 2000 is Pescarolo Sport (second in 2005 and 2006). Other than Henri’s team, the best finish by a non Audi-Bentley since 2000 was fourth place, for the Chrysler Mopar in 2001.

To what extent the might of Audi has ‘frightened away’ any potential rivals (with the R8), we’ll never know. And then there’s the R10 effect too. Corvette Racing’s Doug Fehan has all but admitted that his Corvettes have frightened away any rivals in GT1 of the ALMS with the statement that “I do think that if we were to leave the series, you’d see about 20 cars show up in the GT1 class next year,” – which is an exaggeration of the true position, but neatly put all the same.

But the manufacturers are coming back – certainly in the ALMS. Here’s the irony though: with one exception, they’re not coming back to rival the Audi R10s (for now, at least). Porsche neatly evaded the ACO’s best (privateer) intentions by introducing the RS Spyders into LMP2 at the tail end of 2005, and since then, the only prototype manufacturer movement has been in the LMP2 (privateer?) class.

The Acura-powered (Courage and Lola built) cars have been testing at Homestead this week (an R10 has meanwhile been very active at Sebring), while Mazda is on the point of announcing a big step up for 2007, but staying in LMP2 of the ALMS.

Perhaps one day Honda and Mazda will return to Le Mans – where only the latter of the Japanese manufacturers has taken an overall win. The ACO has already made its longer term plans clear for persuading the manufacturers to return. But will those manufacturers face up to Audi, as Peugeot is about to attempt? Mercedes presumably has no interest in returning to Le Mans, while Toyota and BMW seem content to pour millions into F1 for the time being – but for how long, with such little reward in terms of results?

And then there’s GT3. Porsche certainly kick-started (what became) GT2, with its GT3-R model in 1999, but look at how few marques stepped up to the challenge. Panoz has, TVR did (but only thanks to its entrants – particularly Rollcentre and Chamberlain-Synergy / Team LNT), Spyker has, and Ferrari has, with two models (360 and 430). Morgan had a little dabble at it (and might do again), Nissan too – but that’s it isn’t it, at the highest level?

But GT3 – here’s something entirely different. Stephane Ratel neatly side-stepped the lack of Porsche rivals in GT2 in 2005 (then lack of Ferrari rivals in 2006) by kick-starting a new concept. The manufacturers loved it, the teams typically took on the task of developing the cars – and suddenly there were eight marques in the opening season of the FIA GT3 Championship.

Now others want to be involved – and other series too. Belcar – always distinctly different in the past – is about to head towards a mainly GT3 (in the future, only GT3) format, as is British GTs, while a German series will be GT3 only.

The maiden European GT3 season was certainly a success in one respect: number of entries. What it lacked was a substantial involvement from recognised drivers: it was very pleasant for Fred Bouvy and Patrick Bornhauser to win both races at Spa (both are very talented drivers), but those races that came alive were the ones in which there was a mix of gentleman and professional behind the wheel.

The conclusion? That for a variety of reasons, on one side of the Atlantic we’ve got manufacturer names becoming involved in GT racing in significant numbers (in GT3, perhaps with a knock-on effect, significance yet to be determined, on GT2 and GT1) while on the other side of the pond, different manufacturers (with one exception) have chosen to become involved in prototype racing. GT2 is thriving in some arenas (ALMS and the International GT Open), while GT1 is going through a well documented phase where numbers are shrinking. Perhaps in Europe, the introduction of two hour races, plus better TV and promotion, will kick-start that arena.

As usual in our kind of racing, nothing stays the same for long.

As yet, of those 1999 manufacturers at Le Mans, BMW, Nissan, Mercedes and Toyota have become involved in neither GT3s nor prototypes, although the Z4M Coupe seems ideally suited to the new GT category. Is it destined solely for the VLN series though?

There is already activity ahead of the ACO’s 2010 ‘closed prototypes’ formula, so perhaps that will be the next catalyst for change (although the regulations are still awaited there)?
Malcolm Cracknell

 

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