Friday, February 23, 2007

Audi, Porsche and Acura - Go big or go home

Much has been made of the state of the American Le Mans Series in the past couple of weeks, especially since Audi's Dr. Ullrich announced that they were considering not running in the ALMS after Sebring.

The ALMS has been modelled on the ACO's four-class system since 2001, and for the most part it has worked well. However in 2006 IMSA, the sanctioning body for the ALMS, started fiddling with the previously unfiddleable ruleset of the ACO, organizers of the Le Mans 24 Hours, primarily to allow for closer racing and in turn attract more entries. They were successful in making the GT1 battles very close, and by bringing LMP2 closer in performance to LMP1 opened up the list of potential overall winners to something more than Audi. In retrospect this turned out to be a bad idea - Audi got upset, LMP1 didn't grow because it was cheaper to run in LMP2 where an overall victory was still possible, and the constant weight changes in GT1 discouraged entries who feared that being too successful would instigate performance balancing in their opponents' favour.

Imagine you've spent the money to either buy or develop an LMP1 car. The ACO never intended that you would be battling against LMP2s, but here you are battling against LMP2s, and facing the ignominy of possibly losing to a "slower" car. This situation was exacerbated by a heavyweight factory Porsche team choosing to enter the second division class, effectively "beating up on the small guys". For 2007 Acura have followed suit, turning LMP2 into a playground for factory teams (and possibly scaring off plucky privateers who used to fight for a class win in LMP2 on a smaller budget). To be fair, Acura have stated all along that they plan to step up to LMP1 in 2008 but it still raises the question of why they didn't start there in the first place.

ALMS, despite strong crowds and a good TV package, is in a similar (possibly worse) quandry to last year: not enough entries. If they can secure a title sponsor and some extra cash, perhaps they can "encourage" some European-based competition to join the party, especially in LMP1 and GT1. After all, this year's Le Mans series has 14 LMP1 entries and 8 in GT1. After Sebring, the ALMS will have just two in each.

What I'd like to know is:

  • Why has a lower class that's supposed to be for privateers ended up attracting (and allowing) factory entries?
  • Why has the ALMS increased the attractiveness of this class by offering larger restrictors that offer entrants the chance for an overall win?
  • Why, despite these seemingly obvious errors, are Audi scared of competing in the ALMS, effectively curtailing all the marketing value that such competition brings and undermining the investment made in developing the R10?
  • Why, given the potential absence of Audi, aren't more LMP1 teams looking at the ALMS where they could have a very strong chance of winning (Arena's Zytek project comes to mind)?
  • Why have Aston Martin pulled out of the ALMS (don't say money, because the major costs are developing and building cars, not running them, and they already had some sponsorship to partially cover those costs)?
  • Can Intersport score an overall win with their new Creation LMP1? (I hope so)
  • When will the ALMS secure a title sponsor?
  • Will IMSA rescind the restrictor changes in LMP2 to encourage Audi to return? (and will that be a good thing?)

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