The Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge heads into its 2016 season with a number of question marks, concerns and new variables amidst a dwindling car count and reduction of manufacturers in the GS class.
The challenge for this season – no pun intended – for the Continental Tire Challenge is that the quality of racing, which excelled throughout 2015, doesn’t suffer along with the diminished number of cars.
Porsche’s new Cayman GT4 Clubsport, a Porsche factory-supported car for customers to the GS class, was meant to be a boon.
Instead, it’s only balanced out the losses of four Camaro Z/28.Rs, two Nissan 370Zs and the venerable Fall-Line BMW M3, which either by team or manufacturer withdrew from the category this year.
Meanwhile the ST class field is top-heavy with Porsche’s not factory-supported Cayman, amidst a still solid variety of other cars from Mazda, Honda, MINI, BMW, Audi and now Mercedes-Benz.
It’s a delicate balance IMSA needs to strike, as the Continental Tire series seeks to maintain enough quality entries compared to other IMSA Developmental Series, which includes the single-make Porsche GT3 Cup USA and Canada, Mazda Prototype Lites and the Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo series.
According to Jeff Mishtawy, senior technical manager, Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, the balancing act can be felt in more ways than one.
“This particular offseason we have some extraordinary news in the GS class because for the first time ever, we have a factory-built Porsche that’s eligible for Continental,” Mishtawy told Sportscar365.
“We have three of them here testing, there have been six of them sold, so we’ll see more of those cars as we get into the season.
“We received a number of inquiries about (other) cars that aren’t in the class now but are conditionally approved for the class.
“It’s extremely regrettable with the Camaros not being here and the Nissans still working to find their sponsorship to come. But we are excited about the new blood coming in.”
One interesting preseason BoP change was a 20-pound across the board minimum weight addition to all cars in both classes to support the introduction of air jacks.
“Most cars were running at or near their minimum, so when the air jacks were installed, everyone’s weight goes up 15-20 pounds,” Mishtawy said.
“Rather than force the teams to find ways to remove weight from the car for the installation of the jacks, we just raised everyone’s minimum weight to offset that.”
The air jack introduction, reduction of one over-the-wall crewmember and other at-track cost cuts are being designed by IMSA to cut costs, per its outlined Mission Statement last year.
However, it’s no secret that compared to perhaps five to seven years ago, full-season costs have gone up and the rise of other series with lower costs has attracted some past Continental Tire entrants.
“The reduction in crew and the addition of air jacks is a big deal internally for us,” Mishtawy explained. “I know Jeff Smallwood, Geoff Carter and I have worked extremely hard on efficiencies at the track for our team and as a result for other teams.”
ST seems in better health with Mishtawy noting the class is still “strong as ever,” and with other new cars such as the BMW 228i, being built by Burton Racing with JDC Motorsports, set to come online later this year.
Whereas the ST-spec Cayman and Mazda MX-5s dominated last year, those two were both hit with a weight addition this year – 90 and 95 pounds, respectively, counting the 20 pounds added to account for the jacks – to bring them closer to the rest of the ST field.
“As we look through the season and at all the performance balancing, and performance analysis, the Cayman and the MX-5 raced really well together,” Mishtawy said.
“But we had a gap to every other car in class, which was another tightly packed bunch. So we needed to compress the field together. The idea was to eliminate the middle gap.
“Consistently we’ve been trying to curtail performance in the GS class, rather than continue the escalation of performance, cost, and car prep.
“That backs the classes together, so we need to move ST away from GS a little bit. The real aim in that was to increase the stratification between GS and ST.”
The other big note for this year is that IMSA has even more data collection at its disposal, thanks to a new spec data logger system. Balance of Performance changes were limited to just three in ST and two in GS last year, and should be similarly adjusted this year.
With IMSA’s thoughts outlined, the grid for Daytona still leaves a lot to be desired.
Just two years ago when the Continental Tire series made its debut under the IMSA banner, the 68-car grid featured 30 GS and 38 ST cars.
In 2012, the field was 81 cars (40 GS, 41 ST), in 2008, 91 cars (42 GS, 49 ST), and in 2007, 104 cars (59 GS, 45 ST).
The GS field’s strongest contenders come from the two remaining holdover entries from last year, Rum Bum Racing and Multimatic Motorsports, with CJ Wilson Racing and Compass360 Racing likely to impress with their new cars and lineups.
ST certainly casts a wider net of potential race winners and champions from any of the manufacturers, and Audi and MINI should definitely improve in their second full seasons with their new cars. Perhaps half of the 28 cars entered have that win or podium potential.
However when you look at the glut of talent on the sidelines or volume of teams that aren’t present for the season opener, it’s hard to see 2016 as, at best, anything more than a transition year before any potential rise in 2017 and beyond.
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