There’s not much action out there, racing or otherwise, but there’s still much being decided behind the scenes. Here’s Murphy’s synthesis of rumor, fact, and speculation about North America’s two principal sports car road racing series.
Honda Takes a Powder
Honda’s North American sports car racing program has passed on, the agonizing seppuku of its dying finally ended with one final swift stroke of the kaishaku. The beginning of the end that was announced today was in 2009 when three Acura-supported teams were cut lose. In 2010, the Acura brand was replaced by the HPD non-brand, and reduced to a single LMP2 entry. A tentative 2011 plan with token support, limited to Highcroft field trips to Sebring and Le Mans, was ended today.
Will Honda continue to develop and support the LMP2 V6? Will it simply transfer the center of gravity of its sports car racing to Europe? It’s clear it’s done paying for chassis, and equally so any significant engine program – the V6 is a half-hearted effort, at best. And it is very, very clear – even before this announcement – that Honda is not interested in the American Le Mans Series.
Taken in isolation, Honda’s departure is bad enough, but a wider survey of manufacturer’s plans, some announced, some rumored, should worry sports car racing fans around the globe.
Mazda will make radical cuts to its racing budget for 2012, something Murphy reported via Twitter on May 5. Now he’s learned a bit more. With the Wankel finally headed into the dustbin of history, the Grand Am GT program is in its last season, but Murphy hears Mazda North America likes McDreamy’s marketing value, so much so that it has contracted the development of an entirely new turbo 4 cylinder for the TV doctor’s step up to LMP2 in the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup in 2012. So a McDreamy Mazda skips the ALMS’ minor events in favor of the big show with just two North American appearances. The Bear’s 64 dollar question: does Mazda continue its other turbo 4 program, the branded AER motor used by Dyson Racing? Or does Dyson have to move to the new engine to stay in ALMS prototypes with Mazda?
Datsun and Toyoda
Two engine programs burst onto the scene this year, exciting fans hungry for any good news, particularly since these companies fielded the R390 and GT One not so many years ago. Not to be a wet blanket, but the Bear thinks there is less here than meets the eye. Both appear to be doing little more than attempting to squeeze a little marginal revenue out of existing 3.4 liter V8 motors developed for the All-Japan Super GT series – Nissan’s from the Skyline GT-R, and Toyota by its Cologne, Germany-based group for the Lexus SC430. Neither appears to be headed into sports car racing as anything more than engine suppliers with limited budgets, and neither seems to have any plans to participate in the American Le Mans Series. For Nissan in particular, be some pressure in the past two years for racing in North America seems to have largely dissipated in the face of ambivalence from Japan and a “beleaf” the future of racing is electric.
The Four Rings
No, not J.R.R. Tolkien, but the Decade’s Lords of Le Mans. Audi NA decided three years ago a North American LMP racing program was not a good marketing investment. It subsequently proved that by the results it measured after diverting those millions to other advertising.
It’s rumored that Audi AG wants to take a controlling stake in an existing F1 team, something it could do easily at a cost not much more than its on-going prototype program. If it does, instead of old prototypes moldering in a museum, its investment would give it hundreds of millions in F1 concorde distributions, the continuing revenue of an engineering business, and in one rumored case, leadership in flywheel KERS systems. All-in-all not a bad exchange.
And F1 adventure would be the end of campaigning the R18, except for Le Mans; otherwise Audi will continue in the ILMC. There is no possibility of returning to a full ALMS schedule.
Porsche and Peugeot
Murphy doesn’t know if Porsche will step into the gap left if Audi leaves ACO’s prototype ranks, as has been rumored. On balance, what he hears leads him to conclude it will not; the lucrative GT business is just too good not to remain the core of Porsche Motorsport. In any case, if there is a Porsche prototype it seems certain – like Peugeot – to compete in the ILMC events, and not contest the ALMS. The French will continue in the ILMC and at Le Mans for the “service life” of the current 908. Neither Porsche nor Peugeot will contest a full ALMS schedule.
As the Bear noted above, Grand Am GT will be without Mazda next season. Unfortunately Murphy hears there are bigger problems than that. Things aren’t improving in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup. It should be a wake-up call that Clint Bowyer may be done for lack of sponsorship in weeks, maybe sooner.
Teams and others in the NASCAR family are again pressuring Jim France to focus on the company’s premier series, questioning the “diversion” of resources to the “house” road racing series. We’ve been down this road before, but then it was in a context in which Sprint Cup’s weakness was largely seen as recession-caused, and would recover quickly as soon as the economy improved. That’s simply not happening, as anyone looking at the grandstands at Dover Sunday could readily see. What the recession (yes, business and employment is recovering, albeit very slowly) did do was break the love affair between corporate America and racing sponsorships. It’s hitting NASCAR, and has hit road racing much harder.
What does that mean to Grand Am? In the near term, it means that if purse increases recently discussed on International Speedway Boulevard happen, it will require contractions elsewhere, likely to Jim’s support of DP teams, including those “captive” or nearly so, to the France largess. (It was a chuckle at VIR that the “Beat Chip Bounty” was paid from one France pocket to another.)
Further out, Murphy can see a loss of momentum in the transformation of the series and particularly of the Daytona Prototype. However, the Bear isn’t as convinced as some that the “new look” will fall short. After all, a few inches here and there can account for the difference between a Ford and a Ferrari. We won’t know how these cars look until we actually see a car, or at least a to-scale drawing. But lessening financial backing will increase the series’ fear of driving away current entries by forcing too large an investment in new hardware. Similarly, new entries – Ferrari and others – in GT will increase cost by raising the bar for current competitors, again reducing entries. All that will likely make Grand Am more timid in implementing the changes that sports car fans (the traditional kind) have wanted to see in the Grand Am product.
Proposed DP Revisions
We always knew that the (cash) impact on current participants of new DP rules would be minimized, didn’t we? It’s a consequence of having “cheap” as your principal product attribute.
With that in mind, the kinds of changes – mostly bodywork – floated last week weren’t a surprise. Those who are critical might consider that it really does take only an inch here and there to hugely impact appearance. Consider that this look was achieved largely by raising the sidepod profile without any greenhouse reduction at all.
With Grand Am paying the $25 grand bonus to itself, the only out-of-pocket payment was the $25 put up by Magnus for beating Bill Auberlen and Turner Motorsports (who none-the-less again landed on the GT podium).
The “Best television coverage in racing”
(As odd as it may now seem, that’s quote from a “State of the Series” presentation at a previous Petit Le Mans.) In a press release announcing the promotion of an underling, the ALMS confirmed the departure of Senior Vice President of Television Production Services John Evenson. He’ll “remain as a consultant to the series.” Pretty soon the series will have more “consultants” than employees. Murphy told his Twitter readers Evenson was shown the door at close of business Friday. The Braselburgers get credit for hiring Miss 12 Hours of Sebring 2008 in the same week.
The most important fans – the ones that bother with such things as forums – had been telling the series almost from the beginning that its television package was terrible. It chose not to listen.
Media Mogul Moves
Don’t be surprised if News Corp. makes a move to acquire the F1 commercial rights.
Generic Racing Team launched a website last week, then quickly shut it down. The prime suspect called Kevin and pled “Not Guilty.” The NASCAR brass was publically peeved, but privately amused. The search for a disgruntled former employee with advanced website design skills continues…
ALMS Prototype Summary
Muscle Milk will complete the season, as will one Dyson Lola AER (Mazda).
A Dyson second car announcement remains possible.
Autocon is “in” beginning at Mosport, though the “new direction” stuff is a bit overblown – same car, same motor, same drivers, some reorganization of the “partnership,” car upkeep moved to a new shop. No, it did not get “significant upgrades” at Lola.
It seems Intersport will “Field” an LMPC – but no LMP1 or 2.
If they can get the AMR One to run, Aston Martin will make a single ALMS foray, at Laguna Seca, in addition to the Petit Le Mans ILMC round.
Tucker will campaign one LMP2 for the remainder of the ALMS schedule.
Murphy’s seen no evidence that Signature has a car, or an engine, or a crew. (When they do, perhaps they’ll be kind enough to post a photo? Even Solo Al was able to do that.) The team says it’s in the “re-evaluating” mode. It’s getting a little late for this season, isn’t it?
Most likely ALMS (non-ILMC) LMP1/2 entry: Lime Rock 3, Mosport 4, Mid-Ohio 4, Road America 4, Baltimore 3, Monterey 5.
Still a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, but not yet a racing event. The “announcement” did not announce an event, but a promoter’s intent to get an event approved. The mayor is for it, the state is for it, yadda, yadda…but no mention of the OKC council, which defeated it last year. With a hoops playoff underway, auto racing isn’t even close to the community’s consciousness.
South America for the ILMC?
They’re floating the idea, along with an assumed constraint of seven (and no more than eight) events, including Le Mans. Drop one of the three European events? Perhaps, but most of the entries are from that continent. It seems equally likely that North America will lose one of its two, doesn’t it?
Andy Lally Update
Andy failed to qualify at Darlington, but won $80,825 at Richmond, and $88,875 at Dover for GRT, er..TRG, which brings his season winnings to $1,020,811. The entire American Le Mans field has won $1,093,000, less $173,000 withheld, the total due to participants to date is $920,000. Teams that have been classified as “factory,” or “factory supported” are not paid purse money. The next privateer(s) does/do not “move up.” The Bear has already credited the privateer bonus fund that will actually be paid after the season. That may also not reach the $540,000 he has allowed, in which case the total will be adjusted downward as necessary.
Tags: Acura, ALMS Grand Am, AMR One, Aston Martin, Audi, Autocon, Bill Auberlen, Dyson, F1, Ferrari, Ford, Ganassi, Generic Racing Team, Highcroft, Honda, ILMC, Intersport, J R R Tolkien, Jim France, John Evenson, Le Mans, Mazda, McDreamy, Miss 12 Hours of Sebring, News Corp, Nissan, Oklahoma, Peugeot, Porsche, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Shinden Mooncraft, Toyota, Wankel