IMSA Debrief: Looking Back At Sebring, Looking Forward To 2021

The 2020 IMSA season came to a close last weekend at Sebring and there is so much to talk about. With the start of the 2021 season fast approaching, the cars will be hitting the track at Daytona for the Rolex 24 Hours before we know it.

With that in mind, and so much news and speculation to digest from the past few months, it’s a good time to look back on an extraordinary year in 2020. The challenge of completing a season amid new rules and restrictions was mammoth and we should not forget the effort of IMSA’s team behind the scenes to ensure that the fans, teams and drivers could get their racing fix. A round of applause is in order for IMSA President John Doonan and his team.

It’s also time to look look ahead to what promises to be another memorable season in 2021. The off-season will be historically short, with under two months for the teams and drivers until the start of the new campaign in Daytona. But what represents a logistical challenge for the teams, which are frantically preparing for the next season, is a reason for excitement and optimism for fans. The grid is building and the points tables have been reset. Roll on Rolex!

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Mazda Magic

At this point Mazda winning a postponed edition of the 12 Hours of Sebring in November should come as no surprise. If there’s one thing that 2020 has taught us, it’s to expect the unexpected, and even just a year ago, the prospect of a Mazda DPi winning the Sebring 12 Hours would have been considered an outside bet. 

In practice, the Japanese marque’s triumph at the Sebring 12 Hour last weekend was fitting really, a wild end to a wild year. Mazda has of course, been far more of a challenger in the DPi ranks since its maiden win last summer at Watkins Glen, but success at the headline IMSA endurance races in Florida had always eluded it until now.

It was by no means a dominant win from Harry Tincknell, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Jonathan Bomarito, but it was a deserving one. Up front in the top class the Sebring 12 Hours this year was a titanic tussle, a race that no team could get control of and a another reminder that the DPi formula seems always find a way to produce truly memorable endurance races.

Of the eight entrants in the DPi class, all of them led, and the winning trio in the No. 55 was indeed the last to claim the top spot when the sister No. 77 Mazda suffered a puncture and caused a late caution period in the final hour. It is often said that Sebring ‘choses its winners’, and this year that certainly seemed to be the case. Despite the late drama, in the 68th running of the 12 Hours, it chose Mazda instead of Cadillac or Acura.

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Porsche’s perfect send off

In the GTLM category Porsche GT Team grabbed the headlines before and after the race in Sebring. Before the event it revealed its striking patriotic ‘thank you’ liveries to mark the end of its tenure in the class as a factory, then on Saturday claimed a 1-2 finish in the race proper – remarkably, on the same day its sister factory team in the FIA WEC run by Manthey claimed a 1-2 finish in GTE Pro in the Bahrain season finale.

The CORE autosport-run crew, in its final outing with the 911 RSR, delivered the goods and produced a very ‘Porsche-like’ performance to overcome challenges from BMW Team RLL and Corvette Racing (the 2020 IMSA GTLM Manufacturers’ Champion). It was a fitting sign-off after a hugely successful run in IMSA’s premier GT class, which saw it claim seven titles in seven years, 21 race wins and 56 podiums.

“I’m incredibly proud of the team. This weekend wasn’t easy for us,” said Steffen Höllwarth, Porsche’s Head of IMSA Operations. “Because of the upcoming farewell, the mood was different than usual, but everyone coped just fine. We weren’t the fastest in the field, but we were the ones who made the least mistakes – and that’s how things like this happen. Suddenly you find yourself at the front. After three straight wins at Sebring, I’d say that this track has become our turf. 

“Now it’s time to celebrate!”

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Then there were two…

So where does Porsche’s departure leave GTLM, and for that matter, IMSA, going forward?

Porsche will not be present as a factory in IMSA next season, that’s a certainty. However, looking further ahead there is still a good chance that it will return as an LMDh manufacturer once the new regulations debut in either 2022 or 2023. It is currently undergoing a formal evaluation internally, and is expected to make a decision in the coming weeks. Whether or not it would commit to LMDh and compete in IMSA or the FIA WEC (as part of the planned top-class convergence) or both is also a mystery at this point.

As for GTLM as a platform, well it’s not in rude health anymore.

With Porsche gone just BMW and Corvette are left as factories in the GTLM category for next year. Discussions are ongoing behind the scenes to fill the Porsche-shaped hole in the grid for next season, with BNW Motorsport boss Jens Marquardt telling the media back in September that IMSA was doing its best to encourage other manufacturers to join the class. But it will not be easy to build a larger field, especially for the full season.

This is mainly because the pool of potential additions is shallow. Currently Aston Martin and Ferrari (AF Corse) are the only legitimate prospects for a factory effort in IMSA, but neither are likely to mount the challenge. Competing in IMSA is extremely expensive, it’s a long season with four major endurance races and high manufacturer fees that must be paid to enter. Add to that their current commitments to the WEC and on the face of it at least, it appears unlikely that either brand will commit to a full programme. 

What’s more likely, is a factory-supported effort from a Ferrari, Porsche or Aston Martin customer team stepping up. Could we see fan favourite Risi Competitzione commit to more races? How about a new programme from Proton Competition, which in the early days of the FIA WEC was Porsche’s only GTE Pro presence?

It will be fascinating to see what happens, as for 2021 at least there will no major changes to the GT class structure to allow GTD cars to compete on a level playing field with GTLMs. Can IMSA President John Doonan pull something off? Let’s hope so.

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A new-look for DPi

Maybe the best news du jour is the outlook for DPi next year. With LMDh fast approaching, and much speculation focused on the brands and teams that will commit to that, it’s easy to forget that the DPi era is not yet over. 2021 is certainly going to be a memorable year, as the category has been shaken up ahead of next season.

The biggest change is the departure of Penske from Acura’s DPi effort, the legendary US team rode off into the sunset on a high at Sebring, securing the WeatherTech Championship.

But the title success comes after three somewhat disappointing campaigns with the Acura DPi, in which it failed to win the Rolex 24 or Sebring 12 Hours – the most important and historically significant races on the calendar. This came as a surprise to those expecting Penske to dominate the class, with its ORECA-based chassis. Nevertheless Penske did manage to win plenty of races and add spice to the DPi category. Will Penske return to IMSA soon with new manufacturer? There are rumblings with LMDh around the corner.

Anyway, Acuras will still be on the grid next year, with Michael Shank Racing returning to the top class, and Wayne Taylor Racing moving over from Cadillac’s stable.

WTR’s move, in turn, meant a space needed to be filled in the GM ranks alongside Action Express and JDC Miller’s programmes. And that will be taken up by the return of Ganassi, which achieved the highest of highs in IMSA and the FIA WEC between 2016 and 2019 with the Ford GT in GTLM and GTE Pro respectively. Chip Ganassi does nothing by half measures, so armed with the best DPi chassis of the bunch – the Cadillac DPi V.R, the sky is the limit here. Make no mistake, this is a huge addition to IMSA’s top class.

It also begs the question: what does the future hold for the Ganassi-Cadillac tie up? Is an LMDh programme in the works? Cadillac has been involved in shaping the new regulations, though the move to a mild-hybrid solution was thought to be a sticking point for the brand.

What about Mazda for 2021? Unfortunately it has decided to reduce its effort to a single car. This is a real shame as the programme has truly hit its stride over the past year, and looked capable of winning big races and titles going forward. Prior to March there was even a buzz surrounding a third Mazda for 2021, run by a customer team, but that hasn’t come to fruition. What we don’t know yet though, is whether freeing up resource is all part of a strategy to hit the ground running with a future LMDh effort.

The wait for the first LMDh programme to get the green light continues…

Stephen Kilbey

Images courtesy of Corvette Racing, Acura, Mazda and Porsche

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