With new regulations, new cars and the arrival of major new automaker to the fight, GT Le Mans could arguably be the class to watch this year in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, which kicks off with this weekend’s Rolex 24 at Daytona.
A five-way factory fight between Porsche, Corvette, BMW, Ferrari and newcomers Ford puts the new-look GTE platform in the center stage, in what many in the paddock are calling a potential new golden age for GT racing in North America.
“For sure, the GT Le Mans category has been the most competitive, most intriguing category I’ve been in, in the last seven, eight, nine years. It hasn’t gotten any less [for 2016],” BMW Team RLL team co-owner Bobby Rahal told Sportscar365.
While the FIA and ACO-developed regulations — embracing a new formula of performance windows — has resulted in the majority of teams rolling out new machinery, perhaps the biggest visible change for 2016 comes with the arrival of the Ford GT.
Chip Ganassi Racing makes the switch from Prototype to GTLM to field a pair of the all-new Multimatic-built, Ford EcoBoost-powered super cars, 50 years after the Blue Oval’s first 24-hour victories at Daytona and Le Mans.
Ford’s return rekindles rivalries both on the track, on the showroom floor and also ushers in a new level of excitement to the class, according to Corvette Racing Program Manager Doug Fehan.
“Each year the manufacturers have made advancements, that’s the way racing works. I think this year, it deviates from that a little bit in its importance with the addition of Ford,” Fehan told Sportscar365.
“You have a storied name, a rich U.S.-based racing history, significant renewed rivals, obviously the Ford and Chevy battle that exists in everything that automotive does in America. Those are the kind of things you can’t even put a value on.”
Ganassi moves to the GTLM ranks after an ultra-successful 12-year run fielding Daytona Prototypes, highlighted by seven teams’ titles and nearly 50 victories, including six Rolex 24 overall wins.
While its star-studded lineup of Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller, Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe all boast previous class experience, IMSA team manager Mike O’Gara said the transition for the team has been almost like starting with a clean sheet of paper.
“Even though it’s the same series, it’s a completely different set of rules,” O’Gara told Sportscar365. “The fueling, the scrutineering… It hasn’t just been building two cars over the winter, it’s been everything.
“It’s like starting over and going to a series we’ve never raced in, pretty much.”
However, with the arrival of the new GTE regulations, O’Gara feels the timing has been right for the team to make its GTLM debut.
“Guys like Corvette and Porsche that’s been doing it for years had to adjust but I think it’s kind of leveled the playing field for everybody this year with the new regulations,” he said.
“I think it’s a good time to come in, especially with all of the other factory support, too.
“I grew up around racing and I know the days of the ’70s and ’80s when it was all big factory efforts. I feel like it’s kind of getting back to that now so it’s cool to be a part of that.”
While Ford, Ferrari with its turbocharged 488 GTE and BMW with the M6 GTLM debut all-new cars, Porsche and Corvette have opted to update its existing cars to 2016-spec, which mainly sees aero and safety developments, as well as a switch from E85 to E20 fuel.
According to Marco Ujhasi, Overall Project Leader for Porsche’s factory GT program, the goal for the German manufacturer is the same as last year, and that’s to go out and win the class championship.
“For sure we want to defend the titles,” he told Sportscar365. “It’s not easy and to be honest, I have no ideas so far of what could be a possible result, especially in the first half of the year. There’s so many brand-new cars, it’s difficult.
“Like the German soccer teams always say, we’re looking from game to game. We’re doing exactly the same.”
Daytona is first up, and Corvette heads in as defending class winners, having claimed the “Triple Crown” of endurance races last year at Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans.
With a revised Rolex 24 lineup, featuring Audi factory drivers on-loan Mike Rockenfeller and Marcel Fassler, the Pratt & Miller-run squad is expected to be among the favorites again.
“When you look at North American events, it’s probably as important as it gets,” Fehan said. “Internally, this is a big deal for us. The 24 Hours of Daytona is big.
“We’ve had a long and rich history here and have had some success here and we hope that it will continue.
“Generally speaking, the longer the race, it plays into our hand. We rely and have always relied on durability and reliability and not necessarily speed, good pit stops and great race strategy. We haven’t lost any of that.
“We have the same powerplant and drivetrain that we had last year. Anything can happen. But it’s important us to do well here.”
Like Ford, BMW heads into the unknown in its first race with the M6 GTLM — an IMSA-only homologated car — that’s also stacked with a top lineup of international factory star drivers such as Lucas Luhr, Bill Auberlen and DTM aces Augusto Farfus and Bruno Spengler.
While there may be many variables at play this weekend, the prospects for the season ahead are extremely promising, according to Rahal.
“BoP plays such a huge role, in the success, or lack thereof of a team or manufacturer,” Rahal said. “I think we’ll wait and see what really happens at Daytona and see who’s got what.
“The category is extremely tough. The category of the drivers is first-rate. The teams are all first-rate. It’s going to make for a heck of a year.”