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.
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):
— Mazda Motorsports (@MazdaRacing) January 5, 2020
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.
A new 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.
Listing image by Mazda Motorsport