Can American sportscar racing become the new global leader?
Fernando Alonso is on a mission. Having contested this season’s Indy 500, the two-time F1 champion now has his sights set on sportscar racing’s biggest events. Last weekend he tested Toyota’s LMP1 car in Bahrain ahead of a rumoured Le Mans assault with the Japanese manufacturer next summer. Of course, he’s not allowed to talk about that.
But there’s nothing to stop the Spaniard discussing his plans for next January. Driving for McLaren boss Zak Brown’s United Autosports team, Alonso will attempt America’s great endurance race: The 24 Hours of Daytona. He was testing in preparation for that on Tuesday.
This twice-around-the-clock classic represents the opening round of the 2018 IMSA SportsCar Championship. For some, news of Alonso’s Daytona adventure will be a first introduction to the series. The top brass at IMSA are hoping it won’t be the last, that Alonso’s star power can attract new fans to the championship.
And that’s not just wishful thinking. American sportscar racing is in a good place right now and is perfectly poised to capitalise on the arrival of Alonsomania.
THE REBIRTH OF U.S. SPORTSCAR RACING
The current incarnation of IMSA was formed in 2014 by the merger of two championships, Grand-Am and the American Le Mans Series (ALMS), neither of which were in especially rude health at the time.
Unification brought the three biggest American sportscar races together in one series. Daytona had been part of Grand Am, while the ALMS oversaw Petit Le Mans and Sebring. It always stood to reason that a single championship boasting the big three would be in a stronger position to grow.
A combined calendar means an all-star schedule. As well as three sportscar classics, the series travels to some of the best circuits in North America, including Watkins Glen, Road America and Laguna Seca. No driver worth their salt turns those tracks down.
Almost four years on from unification the series seems to be booming. Alonso’s one-off participation at Daytona in January is eye-catching news, but he’s by no means the only significant addition for 2018.
In any multi-class series, it’s vital that the cars going for outright victory are plentiful and competitive. IMSA has that box ticked – its top-tier prototype class is going from strength to strength both in terms of entries and the standard of drivers.
After a year on the sidelines, F1 refugee Felipe Nasr will join the grid as a full-time competitor with the Action Express squad in 2018. His reputation in grand prix racing was shaky, but remember that this is a former British F3 champion and multiple GP2 race winner.
DTM champion Rene Rast is closing in on a deal to run select events with Mazda, whose entry will be fielded by the same Team Joest that masterminded Audi’s era-defining sportscar programme. His former DTM rival Robert Wickens is hoping to land a seat for the endurance events, having switched to IndyCar. And Porsche stars Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber look certain to drive for the German marque’s GT effort in IMSA next season, following the closure of its LMP1 team.
But the most noteworthy addition to the field is a triple-whammy of team, manufacturer and drivers as Team Penske join the series in partnership with Acura, Honda’s luxury vehicle brand. They will field a pair of Acura ARX-05 entries: three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves shares one with reigning series champion Ricky Taylor; while all-round racing legend Juan Pablo Montoya partners Dane Cameron in the other.
Montoya has two Indy 500 wins, three 24 Hours of Daytona victories, and a Monaco Grand Prix. The guy's a big deal. (Pic: Sutton Images)
This is huge news. While Alonso is a one-off, JPM and Helio will be around full-time and bring with them a significant number of fans both in the U.S. and their home countries. You truly couldn’t hope to find characters like these two, and they have the on-track talent to back it up.
This will boost an already-strong prototype field, with estimates suggesting there could be as many as 18 competing on non-endurance weekends. The driving talent is deep and will only improve further with the obvious attraction of competing against the likes of Montoya and Castroneves.
Castroneves was IndyCar's biggest personality. He's a huge loss to the open-wheel series and a massive addition for sportscars. (Pic: Sutton)
This is not to mention nothing of the fiercely contested GT Le Mans class, which features heavyweight entries from Corvette, BMW, Ferrari, Ford and Porsche. The drivers here are first-rate, too, with former F1 and IndyCar regulars among them, and there’s also a packed grid for the GT Daytona category. Between the classes, there's very rarely a lull in the action.
IMSA is on the rise at an opportune moment. While the FIA World Endurance Championship has dominated sportscar racing in recent years, the global series is facing something of a crisis.
The loss of both Audi and Porsche in a 12-month period has decimated the top-tier LMP1 field, with Toyota now the only manufacturer left standing. Being reduced to one serious contender for outright victory is clearly not a positive state of affairs.
Partly in an attempt to revive interest, the WEC will switch to a new calendar that runs from autumn to summer and allows for a Le Mans season finale. It’s an interesting idea, but not the sort of thing you try when your series is healthy.
If the WEC continues to struggle IMSA has the potential to assume the mantle of sportscar racing’s most competitive and well-regarded series. It will never have Le Mans, but its three major races provide enough prestige to counter that.
America is a key market for major car manufacturers and IMSA allows them an affordable platform on which to perform. Its cost-capped prototype category now has four marques, while a fifth and even a sixth are rumoured to be considering an entry. Both GT classes are healthy too, making for a strong overall product.
And with major manufacturers comes the money to pay top-line drivers. Acura’s arrival isn’t just significant because it adds cars to the grid – it’s about the quality it is putting in those cars. With Montoya and Castroneves bringing a combined CV of five Indy 500s, they've delivered.
All of this suggests that the IMSA series is on an upward curve right now. Alonso’s appearance at Daytona has come at a perfect time. If the championship can make the most of his fame, the Spaniard could provide another boost for this growing series.