Photo: Courtesy of IMSA

DEHARDE: IMSA State of the Series Address Hits Home Run

By Christopher DeHarde, Staff Writer

ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin — On Friday, IMSA had their annual State of the Series event at Road America ahead of the Continental Tire Road Race Showcase.

I found that it was a home run of an event and shows the strength that the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship now has in American motorsports.

IMSA announced the WTSCC schedule and although a date or two was shifted a week, the calendar remained virtually identical to the 2018 calendar. Some championships have changed venues and others are shifting others around but IMSA has consistency, which is critical in racing nowadays.

Then looking to the TV side, the NBC family of networks will host the WTSCC TV time with an 80 percent increase in network TV time to nine hours. Two races will be shown entirely on network TV (Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca) and Petit Le Mans will be partially on NBC.

The other benefit is that especially for the longer endurance races like Daytona and Sebring, there’s less channel flipping. The entire Rolex 24 will be on NBCSN and Sebring is split between NBCSN and CNBC. Not a bad lineup.

For 2019, IMSA will head to Michelin tires across the WTSCC and the newly-renamed Michelin Pilot Challenge series (formerly Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge).

There is one upside to Michelin taking over from Continental besides the revamped tires for the Prototype classes. Michelin are open to tire competition across all classes.

“They are, and that’s not just in GTLM but across the board,” said Scott Atherton, President of IMSA, when asked if Michelin were open to tire competition. “Now I don’t expect that to happen, we’re not encouraging that, but Michelin has said they’re open to that should they be approached and that’s not new, that’s always been their mindset.”

In November, some teams will have the chance to race in a four hour endurance race to gain knowledge of the tires they will run.

The IMSA SportsCar Encore at Sebring has ACO-based LMP3 cars, FIA-based GT3 cars (GTD), SRO-based GT4 cars and WSC-based TCR machines. No platinum-rated drivers will be allowed to participate and IMSA allowing this many different kinds of cars on track will give fans a great way to say goodbye to 2018 and hello to 2019.

Looking to the other changes for WTSCC, Michelin will now sponsor the Endurance Cup and a critical announcement came in the form of the Prototype class was going to split up for 2019.

The Prototype class structure has needed to split in IMSA for a while now. Trying to balance American-style DPi prototype rules against a global standard and make it fair across the different tracks wasn’t going to work. Manufacturers were going to find new things with development to make them go faster while the LMP2 teams are stuck where they are as part of the global LMP2 standard and with pro-am lineups.

With the classes split, manufacturers will be rewarded for developing faster cars. The DPi lap times will be much faster and instead of pretending like everything is balanced, now we can have a better product with a dedicated pro, manufacturer-based class and a pro-am class that a team from any other sports car championship can enter with minimal changes to the cars.

The largest issue is customer teams, or rather, the lack thereof. Spirit of Daytona has a customer relationship with the Cadillac DPi program but Nissan (Extreme Speed Motorsports), Mazda (Team Joest) and Acura (Team Penske) have manufacturer-based partners with no customers.

“It won’t be mandated but it’ll certainly be encouraged and that’s the way it is today,” Atherton said. “Keep in mind that the DPi formula is all of a year and a half old at this point, so it’s still evolving.

“In one example, the guidance we got [from one manufacturer] was in this initial period, we are not open to customer teams but let us get established, let us get our feet under us so to speak and we’ll revisit that. I think we’re rapidly approaching that point, today Cadillac is the one example where an independent team can acquire a DPi. I think you’ll see more subscribing to that as time goes by.”

The prototypes being split is a win for IMSA provided that manufacturers are open to customer teams. Manufacturers holding prospective teams in limbo over possible available DPi machines isn’t the way to build up the DPi class if a team has an all pro driver lineup with LMP2 machinery as Jackie Chan DCR JOTA did with one of their Rolex 24 entries.

In GT Le Mans, there are no changes but for GT Daytona (GTD) there are quite a few. First of all, driver ratings will be evaluated further by IMSA based on real time data so the days of the “super silver” drivers that should be ranked higher will come to an end after 2018. The professional evaluation will make driver ratings fairer where GTD can be more pro-am based than now, in which some driver lineups are more pro-pro than anything.

For driver ratings, one platinum or gold-rated driver is eligible per car, but has to be paired with a silver or bronze-rated driver. Also, the silver/bronze driver will receive extra practice time before qualifying, as they will be the drivers to not only qualify but also start the race. Although some might cringe at having amateurs start the race, this is part of what makes a GT-based pro-am class special.

Competing in the Endurance Cup for some teams is their bread and butter, but the rest of the races will now have their own championship for being a sprint format: the Sprint Cup. All seven non-endurance races count towards the Sprint Cup points. In terms of the entire series championship, however, the race at Belle Isle in Detroit will not count toward the overall championship picture.

That way, if a team wants to skip Detroit, they can with no penalty to the overall championship but it would negate their chances in the Sprint Cup. Skipping Detroit would probably happen if a GTD team were prepping a car for the 24 Hours of Le Mans and wanted to focus on that instead of readying for a race in Michigan.

For casual fans that can be a bit confusing, having championships within championships and one race counting for one championship but not for another. IMSA will have to clearly communicate at the Detroit weekend to the casual observer how Belle Isle will fit into the schedule.

As for class allotment in the 2019 races, the DPi and LMP2 cars will stick together and race at every round except at Lime Rock and Virginia International Raceway which remain GT-only events. The only thing that concerns me is the Detroit race because an LMP2 team trying to prepare for Le Mans will not likely want to participate in Detroit. That might need some rethinking.

Other than the possible Detroit confusion for some, the IMSA State of the Series address had numerous positives that will lead to better racing and allow for fairer product in the pro-am categories, especially considering that without amateur drivers, much of the history of sports car racing would be hollowed out.

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A 2012 graduate of LSU, Christopher DeHarde primarily focuses on the NTT IndyCar Series and the WeatherTech Sports Car Championship. DeHarde has actively covered motorsports since 2014.