A number of Prototype Challenge teams are questioning their future, following the elimination of the class and any significant Pro-Am recognition in Prototype in 2018, as well as a reduction to eight races in the phase-out of the spec prototype category next year.
IMSA announced last weekend a three-class structure for the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship beginning in 2018, which will feature only a single Prototype class, and a Trueman Award for the top-finishing gentlemen driver in the class.
A proposed Pro-Am Prototype subclass, featuring cost-capped Gibson-engined global LMP2 cars, did not materialize.
“In all honesty, the failure to put any exclamation point behind their support of Pro-Am in the top category for 2018, it was more of a reduction of what we were expecting to hear,” PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports team owner Bobby Oergel told Sportscar365.
Oergel’s team, as well as fellow PC competitors Starworks Motorsport, JDC-Miller Motorsports and CORE autosport, have all been evaluating a step up with LMP2 machinery for as early as next year, but the decision to not award a separate classification and podium for Pro-Am teams has at least more than one of them thinking twice.
“I actually think it takes some wind out of the sail,” Oergel said. “There’s only a Trueman trophy and a Le Mans invite. That’s good, but I guess I’m misunderstanding the situation why there can’t be any internal category.
“2017 was already going to be hard enough. Now 2018 is going to be harder too.”
CORE autosport Chief Operating Officer Morgan Brady admitted his disappointment in IMSA’s decision, with the five-time and defending PC champions’ return to the spec prototype class for next year not yet confirmed.
“With the way the class is structured, it’s not realistic for a Pro-Am combination to be going head-to-head with factory Pro-Pro driver combinations,” Brady told Sportscar365. “So we just have to evaluate if that makes sense for the objectives of our program.
“On the bright side, we are very pleased that IMSA has announced this information early and it allows us to plan for the future with plenty of time to make decisions about our program for 2017 and 2018.”
While the elimination of the PC class was expected, IMSA’s decision to integrate LMP3 cars into the newly named Prototype Challenge presented by Mazda, and not the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, has effectively created a gap in the the sanctioning body’s prototype development ladder, according to Starworks team owner Peter Baron.
“They’ve gone from a ladder system in production cars to a cliff in prototype cars,” Baron told Sportscar365. “You have a kid that’s going to come up with $300,000 to do [LMP3], then the next step is maybe $3 million to run in the Prototype class.
“You look at options in Europe where you can run a season of P3 in ELMS for 300,000 Euros and 700,000 Euros for a P2 car for the season. Couple a Le Mans program with that, and a whole budget for ELMS and Le Mans is about 2 million Euros.”
With the expected increased budgets in the new-look Prototype class and with no significant Pro-Am recognition, Baron believes there will be a continued exodus of funded U.S.-based drivers to Europe.
“I have no problem running a Pro-Am combination in a top-level prototype class in America because of the yellow flags and safety cars,” he said. “I’m perfectly happy with it. But I can’t get people interested once it gets above $2 million.
“I’m a team and I have to survive. If it means we have to go to Europe… It’s our job to put race cars on the track with the money that we can find. If it’s not here, we’ll have to look at other places.”
PR1’s Oergel, who is one the figures behind a proposed LMP3 West Coast championship, said the addition of the entry-level prototypes to Continental Tire Challenge, with two-hour races, would have fixed the prototype ladder for both drivers and teams.
“I wish it would have been better received in the CTSC world,” Oergel said. “It’s more than an IMSA Lites car, and in my opinion at the moment, it’s maybe a little less than a 24-hour endurance car.
“It’s a tough game to play. I don’t envy the position they had to make.”
IMSA President Scott Atherton believes there’s some “very attractive alternatives” for current PC teams, including LMP2, LMP3, as well as GT Daytona, which will remain a Pro-Am-enforced class for the foreseeable future.
“Our homework, in the conversations we’ve had among our PC competitors… The PC teams that are running at the highest level, it’s really not that big of a jump to go from a budget they’re investing now, to go into the LMP2 category,” Atherton said on this week’s Sportscar365 Double Stint Podcast.
As for the lack of a intermediate level prototype option between the sprint-race format in LMP3 and LMP2 in the WeatherTech Championship, Atherton said that it’s something they’ll be keeping an eye on.
“We’re not losing sleep over it, to be candid, but we also recognize there is quite a jump required to go from that LMP3 car running in a sprint configuration within what will be our Prototype Challenge class going forward,” he said.
“It’s something we’re going to have to see play out. We have done a lot of homework. I think the decision we’ve made here represent the most comprehensive process we’ve ever gone through as an organization, talking to all of our stakeholders, team owners, Pro-Am drivers, manufacturers, you name it… Everyone has had an opportunity to weigh in.
“There’s rarely the opportunity for us to come up with a set of decisions and set of circumstances that everyone unanimously applauds as being perfect for their purposes. Some are going to be happy, some are going to be disappointed, some are going to be in the middle.”
Meanwhile, IMSA’s short-term decision to reduce the 2017 PC schedule to eight races, in eliminating rounds at Long Beach, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and Lime Rock, has teams questioning what they’ll even do for next year.
“It’s not nearly as exciting,” Brady said. “Those are some big races that we really enjoyed doing. It’s disappointing not to be able to go and be involved in places like Long Beach and Laguna.”
Oergel added: “We’re evaluating a lot of things right now. I want to stay with IMSA in the WeatherTech Championship, I really do, but for me with eight races and the eight races chosen for PC, it’s going to be very hard to run my business with that.
“In doing so, I have to look outside the box in order to stay here.”
Ryan Myrehn contributed to this report