A look ahead to the 2020 IMSA sports car season

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Motorsport doesn't have much of an offseason these days. That's particularly true for IMSA's WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, North America's main endurance racing series. After wrapping up 2019 in late October, the series has already conducted its big preseason test—called “the Roar before the 24″—and is gearing up for the first and one of its biggest events of the year, the Rolex 24 at Daytona, which takes place at the end of January. With that in mind, let's take a look at what storylines might be bubbling up for 2020.

IMSA's series has been in fine form the past few years, with strong interest from manufacturers and teams eager to prove their prowess in each of the different classes that all compete on track at the same time. 2020 is going to be somewhat of a transition year for the sport. Entries are down, and fans of Nissan and Ford will have to find new teams to cheer for as both OEMs are ending their factory-backed participation.

But it's not all bad. A new boss is running things, the highly anticipated new mid-engined Corvette makes its racing debut, and everyone's starting to think about possible convergence with the new set of technical rules being written for Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship.

I really hope the weather for the this year's Rolex 24 is better than 2019.
Enlarge / I really hope the weather for the this year's Rolex 24 is better than 2019.
Elle Cayabyab Gitlin

Despite fewer cars, DPi should be just as competitive

They say you only need two cars to have a race—as Formula 1 proved during the depths of Mercedes' domination—but happily we've got a good deal more competition than that in the Daytona Prototype International (or DPi) category. These cars are based on prototype racers that race at Le Mans (as well as in IMSA) called LMP2. But unlike the LMP2 cars, they don't all have to use the same standardized engine or electronics; instead, each car needs the support of an OEM behind it, and currently that means Cadillac, Mazda, and Acura.

Each car maker had reason to celebrate in 2019. Cadillac won four races out of 10, including three of the four long ones—the Rolex 24 (with F1 superstar Fernando Alonso as one of its drivers), the 12 Hours of Sebring, and the season-ending 10-hour-long Petit Le Mans. Mazda finally got the duck off its back with a trio of wins in a row during the summer (Watkins Glen, Mosport, and Road America). The remaining three wins went to Acura, as did the championship, thanks to drivers Dane Cameron and Juan Pablo Montoya.

“Racing is just something our company is into,” said Jon Ikeda, chief designer at Honda R&D. He told me, “I think it's in our DNA. It's a part of our philosophy. And the key to it is to win, and not just to participate, because I really believe with us, winning is very contagious. Acura definitely needed this. You look at all the strong competitors that we have out there—it's definitely contagious, and I think it builds morale within the brand as well as a company.”

As usual, there were plenty of accusations of sandbagging at the Roar—no one wants to reveal their true pace this early lest they be subjected to the dreaded “balance of performance” (or BoP), where cars that are considered too fast get extra ballast or less power to even things out. Even so, someone still had to go faster than anyone else, and that honor fell to Olivier Pla and the #77 Mazda RT24-P, which set a new unofficial track record of 1:33.324 min—an average of 137.321mph (221.0kph):

Pro-Am LMP2 class grows

The loss of several DPi competitors is somewhat compensated for by a swelling in the ranks of the LMP2 class. Like at Le Mans (and in the WEC), this class of prototype is for teams of drivers that are a mix of professionals and amateurs, and for 2020 they will only take part in six rounds of the series in order to keep budgets manageable. Also new for this year is the requirement to have at least one bronze-rated driver in each lineup, as well as a prohibition on any platinum-rated driver for rounds other than this month's Rolex 24.

Anew mid-engined Corvette arrives

The second class for official factory efforts is called GTLM, in which teams of all-professional drivers compete against each other in GT cars, which are highly modified versions of cars that you can see driving on the street. (At Le Mans, the same class is called GTE.) The biggest story in GTLM in 2020 is the arrival of Corvette Racing's new C8.R race car. Chevrolet was the only manufacturer to contest GTLM without a win in 2020 as the front-engined C7.R finally started showing its age, and it has to be hoping for a return to the victory lane now that the engine is behind drivers like rivals Ferrari and Porsche (but not BMW, which continues in 2020 with the front-engined M8 GTE.) Sadly though, we're denied a Ford versus Chevy battle: after four seasons, the Ford GT program came to an end in 2019.
Corvette Racing has also tweaked its driver lineup. Jan Magnussen, the hugely popular Danish driver, has been replaced by young Jordan Taylor, who brings his irrepressible sense of humor to the team along with his quick laptimes. Over Christmas, Taylor took to his neighborhood streets in the Tesla-inspired CyberKart, but he may be better known for his NASCAR superfan alter-ego, Rodney Sandstorm. I caught up with him earlier this year to find out where Rodney came from.

“It was during a private test session at Daytona, and I wanted to sneak around and look at cars,” Taylor told me. “So I dressed up in a weird outfit; I wore a leather jacket and jean shorts, and went and took pictures of other teams' cars. They didn't know who I was. And then when Jeff Gordon came to our team, I was like ‘Oh man, I could do this with him, and get a DuPont jacket'.”

Many other drivers in many other series could learn a lot from his attitude toward engaging with fans. “When I follow someone on social media, I want to see what they're like away from the racetrack. I don't care about seeing a picture of the race car, right? I can see that every day. So I like to show people who I am outside of the race car and what I'm like. And most people think they can connect with a person better on the racing driver. So I'd like to be connected to fans on a personal level as well,” he said.

    <em>Listing image by <a href="https://mazdamotorsports.com/">Mazda Motorsport</a></em>

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More pro-am fun in GTD

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The fourth and final class in the series is another one for mixed teams of pros and amateurs as well as for race cars that are based on road-going machinery. The class is called GTD—for GT Daytona—and it uses the GT3 ruleset. These are cheaper to buy and cheaper to run than the similar-looking GTLM machines, and the cars are more heavily BoP'd so that success owes more to driver skill and good teamwork.
Acura also took top honors in this category in 2019 when Mario Farnbacher and Trent Hindman clinched the the class championship for Meyer Shank Racing in their NSX GT3 at the Petit Le Mans. Farnbacher is staying in the same role for 2020, but he'll be joined by last year's IMSA LMP2 champion Matt McMurry in the #86. Hindman will be racing in the sister #57 NSX GT3, but he'll only be in the longer races. As for team boss Mike Shank, he says the goal is to win some of the marquee events this year.

“In GTD, we have not won Daytona or Sebring. We were second here (at Daytona), but Sebring just kicks our butt every year in every car we’ve ever been in. So, we have some real, hard goals to do better with the next here and at Sebring, potentially. We’ll test there at Sebring in February and we’ll try like crazy to get some better results,” he told IMSA.

John Doonan, poacher-turned-gamekeeper

One of the biggest changes for 2020 is a new man at the top. Scott Atherton, who also led the American Le Mans Series that preceded the IMSA's current incarnation, stepped down at the end of last season, to be replaced by John Doonan, then-team principal for Mazda Team Joest.

I happened to speak to Doonan last October, just a couple of days before he was publicly named as Atherton's replacement. He was bullish on IMSA's prospects for 2020, even though he was then speaking as a team boss and not the head of the series.

“Without a doubt, I would suggest that DPi and IMSA's program at the highest class level is the best endurance sports car racing in the world,” he told me. “Obviously, the other categories are pretty competitive as well—in GTLM, they're always seemingly ending up with four cars from different manufacturers on the lead lap at the end of the race. In GTD also, all these championships are coming down to multiple people with an opportunity to win.”
“If we're able to continue to identify our next generation of audience, to me that's a critically important piece to continuing to grow the sport as well as bring value to the corporate partners,” Doonan continued. “Obviously, things are quite stable with a long-term TV partner, a long-term tire partner, [and] a long-term entitlement partner. But you can't rest on those laurels, and we need to continue to find additional partners. There's a huge group of OEM that are committed to IMSA, and keeping those folks pleased with the value they're getting from their investment is critical.”
The next couple of years will be busy ones for Doonan. In 2022, DPi is getting a big a upgrade, including the addition of a hybrid system. Meanwhile in France, the ACO—which organizes the 24 Hours of Le Mans—is developing its own ruleset for sports prototypes, which will be based on some of the new crop of hypercars. There have always been close links between the top-level endurance series in the United States and the French round-the-clock race, and talks are ongoing to see whether the two respective rulebooks can converge.

The Toyota TS050 is all that's left of the once-amazing LMP1 Hybrid category, and it has been severely pegged back to allow some of the non-hybrid privateer LMP1 cars to have a fighting chance of a win in the World Endurance Championship. Will the hypercar successor to this race car also be able to run in IMSA? It's possible.
Enlarge / The Toyota TS050 is all that's left of the once-amazing LMP1 Hybrid category, and it has been severely pegged back to allow some of the non-hybrid privateer LMP1 cars to have a fighting chance of a win in the World Endurance Championship. Will the hypercar successor to this race car also be able to run in IMSA? It's possible.
Elle Cayabyab Gitlin

I have my own thoughts about the ACO's hypercar plan. Some of those thoughts are, admittedly, hard to separate from the sorrow of seeing the collapse of the LMP1 category after dieselgate meant the end of both Audi and Porsche programs. Like current GT3, the ACO's plan for hypercar involves all manner of performance balancing, so there's little incentive for OEMs to build a better mousetrap. And to keep speeds sensible, the race versions of these hypercars will only be about half as powerful as the road cars they're derived from. That seems like a whole lot of effort for not much point when you could just take DPi and add more power, more OEM styling freedom (for that all-important visual link to their road cars), and an off-the-shelf hybrid system—pretty much IMSA's gameplay for DPi 2.0.

Whether we see convergence between DPi 2.0 and hypercar, or perhaps a separate DPi class at Le Mans, remains to be seen. And I'm not entirely sure that the ACO would want a DPi beating a hypercar to win overall at Le Mans, and I'm not sure that IMSA would be thrilled with a hypercar beating the DPis at Daytona or Sebring. But there's still plenty of time to hash that all out.

In the meantime, the first IMSA race of 2020 gets started at 2pm ET on Saturday, January 25. Maybe we'll see you there!

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