With Tuesday’s announcement of Tequila Patron ESM’s return to full-time IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship competition with a new Ligier Nissan DPi program, the grid for the first season of the new-look Prototype class is quickly coming into focus.
No fewer than three DPi manufacturers are now set to be represented on the grid for the season-opener at Daytona in just 130 days’ time, along with the potential of all four of the LMP2 constructors with its Gibson-engined cars as well.
The possibility exists for double-digit full-season entries in the P class for the first time in nearly two years, and with additional growth expected in the months to come.
ESM’s deal, which was signed on Monday, puts two Ligier JS P17-based prototypes in the field, with Nissan twin-turbo V6 engines and bodywork developed by Onroak Automotive to incorporate the manufacturer’s styling cues.
Drivers for the ESM effort have yet to be announced but are expected to feature its regular roster, including team owner Scott Sharp, Ed Brown, Johannes Van Overbeek and Ryan Dalziel.
They join the DPi efforts from Cadillac and Mazda, which are both considerably further along in development, but ironically not yet officially announced.
Cadillac will be on the grid with at least three Dallara-chassied cars, two for Action Express and one for Wayne Taylor Racing, which has been doing the lion’s share of development in past weeks.
The car reportedly ran for the first time earlier this month at Putnam Park, with Jordan and Ricky Taylor, plus Max Angelelli handling initial driving duties of the 6.2-liter V8-powered prototype, which has yet to test with Cadillac bodywork.
With WTR purchasing two Dallara LMP2 chassis, Action Express has reportedly ordered four chassis, but plans to race just two. AXR is expected to continue with an unchanged driver lineup of Joao Barbosa, Christian Fittipaldi, Dane Cameron and Eric Curran.
Cadillac is expected to formally announce its DPi program at the LA Auto Show in November, the same venue where Mazda could also take the wraps off its highly anticipated prototype.
Up to three Riley Mk. 30-based Mazda DPis will race next year, two from the factory SpeedSource-run team and one likely from Visit Florida Racing.
While driver lineups remain unconfirmed, particularly on the Visit Florida side, it’s believed the car will not start testing until late October, potentially up to 45 days after the first Cadillac DPi turned a wheel.
At least eight DPis are expected to be on the grid at Daytona, and will be joined by Gibson-engined LMP2 machinery from at least one team.
PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports confirmed that it will make the step up to the P class next year, with the Bobby Oergel-led team reportedly evaluating Ligier and Dallara chassis options. The team’s driver lineup, meanwhile, is also being finalized.
While its proposal for a DPi has been shot down, Panoz could still be on the grid in a team capacity, with a rumored Ligier-Gibson, although it’s understood to be one of a number of options for the Georgia-based team for next year.
The prospects of seeing Riley-Gibsons from Starworks Motorsport and Ben Keating at Daytona, or for the full-season, meanwhile, remain unclear.
Despite having a Riley Mk. 30 on order, Starworks team boss Peter Baron has yet to find a customer to commit, while Keating is understood to be finalizing a two-car factory GT Daytona program for next year, which will be his primary focus in the U.S.
ORECA, meanwhile, is understood to be targeting a Daytona debut with one of its new Oreca 07 cars, and is working with a European team, as well as a high profile U.S. squad to potentially make it happen.
That team could be Penske, which has been in the center of the rumor mill and linked with multiple potential future DPi programs that could come online in the months and year to come.
Penske came close to running an Oreca 05 in this year’s Rolex 24 but the deal fell through last November.
Several Prototype Challenge teams, meanwhile, could embark on partial-season LMP2 programs next year or in 2018, including JDC-Miller Motorsports and Performance Tech.
As for additional DPi manufacturer involvement, Honda and Bentley remain the two leading candidates, with HPD reportedly planning a program for 2018, although yet to officially confirm intentions.
If you would have asked me what the 2017 Prototype grid would look like several months ago, I would have been quite skeptical, but a few recent key announcements has brought new life into IMSA’s new-look flagship category.
All of a sudden, I can’t wait for Daytona.
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