The IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship’s new DPi platform has generated most of the attention in the buildup to the Rolex 24, but flying under the radar is the step up to the top Prototype class from Prototype Challenge regulars JDC-Miller Motorsports and PR1/Matthiasen Motorsports.
Run by John Church and Bobby Oergel respectively, the two teams saw an opportunity to jump into the top class with a level playing with all P class competitors set to debut brand-new machinery this season.
For both squads, the move to the top class, and the attendant chance to contend for overall race wins, was the natural progression for growing teams.
“It is something we’ve been thinking about for some time,” Church told Sportscar365. “With brand-new cars in the class, there was never going to be a better chance to make the move.
“Everyone is going to be in the same boat. Everyone will be learning their cars this season. It gives a team like ours an incentive to try it out.
“We all feel comfortable with it, we feel confident with it. We’re looking forward to a new challenge.”
The defending Rolex 24 PC class winners return to the race with a driver lineup of Stephen Simpson, Mikhail Goikhberg, Chris Miller and Mathias Beche in their new Oreca 07 Gibson.
Simpson, who will contest the full WeatherTech Championship alongside Goikhberg, said the move up was invigorating for all involved.
“I think it’s definitely a step up, but if we didn’t think we could do it and be successful, we wouldn’t have done it,” he said.
“After we won Daytona last year in the PC class, that was a big moment for us. It was our first big win in the WeatherTech championship, and we always had our sights set on something bigger and competing for overall wins. We had our eye on this move fairly early on last year.”
Oergel’s PR1/Mathiasen team found itself similarly intrigued by the level playing field that the 2017 Prototype field offered, but Oergel noted that the immediate future of PC made the switch that much more attractive even before the pro/am prototype class was fully phased-out in 2018.
“To me, there was no choice,” he said. “From the standpoint of where PC is and where it’s going right now, yeah I think it was the right time.
“I would have loved to be able to do one more year of quality like PC was, but you could see the writing on the wall. It wasn’t going to be that. It was the right choice.
“I hate to say that maybe we contributed to the demise of it, sadly enough, by leaving, but the quality of what IMSA was going to let happen to the category, the attitude towards it, and the focus on everything else, it was clear.”
PR1/Mathiasen has confirmed Tom Kimber-Smith for the full-season with reigning European Le Mans Series LMP3 champion Mike Guasch in the team’s Ligier JS P217 Gibson for the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup Rounds.
Jose Gutierrez will drive in seven of the ten rounds, and that trio is joined by IndyCar racer RC Enerson for Daytona.
Guasch said he’s eager to fight with some of the biggest teams in North American sports car racing in the P class, something he has been interested in doing for several years.
The team came close to running HPD’s ARX-04b last year before opting for a return to PC at the 11th hour.
“A couple of years ago we did look at it,” said Guasch. “Tom and I had just finished the season-prior, and we tried to get to step up to P2 for last year, but it just didn’t come together.
“We knew PC was kind of at the end of its life, and I definitely wanted to step up for sure. So I ended up leaving and going over to Europe last year.
“Tom stayed back and did the PC and did really, really well. It’s just a matter of timing, right? Tom has a heck of a lot more experience in P2 already, so it only made sense for us to try to move up, and for Bobby too.
“Absolutely, the objective is to be in the top class, running with the big boys, and collectively we do have a good lineup. I think we have a good shot at it.”
Kimber-Smith added: “The PC class was always going to come to an end, it was just a matter of when,” he said. “For PR1 to expand, it was just a matter of stepping up a class.
“We did PC last year, and ultimately Bobby and the guys at PR1, they want to be in the top class. We had basically a year to regroup and come up with a better plan. So far so good.”
While both team owners said the ultimate goal is to be involved with a manufacturer-driven DPi program, all involved are confident in IMSA’s ability to allow the WEC-spec LMP2 cars to compete with the IMSA-specific DPi machinery.
“I have a lot of confidence in what IMSA have done,” said Simpson. “I don’t think they get as much credit as I think they deserve. They’ve done a fantastic job just getting everything to this stage.
“The whole cuss-word being ‘BoP’, which is going to become something that gets spoken about, but it’s something that I trust is not going to be a huge deal.”
Kimber-Smith echoed Simpson’s sentiments.
“We’re all in one class and we’re all racing for that one victory,” he said. “The way that the series has played the BoP, and they’ve done it very successfully in the GT ranks, there’s no reason why they can’t convert it over to the P ranks.
“We should be in the mix with the manufacturers. It’s great that we’re running the WEC baseline car. Foremost, we want to beat all of the other privateer teams, and then we’ll work our way up.”