Who Will Sign Up To LMDh First?

The FIA WEC’s Le Mans Hypercar category is beginning to shape up nicely. With Toyota, Alpine, Glickenhaus, Peugeot and ByKolles all on board, we now await the first programme confirmations for IMSA’s LMDh platform which forms the other half of the planned convergence of the top classes from IMSA and the FIA WEC.

But which OEM will make the first leap of faith and sign off a programme? Over the past few weeks the picture is becoming ever so slightly clearer, as Travel Destinations’ Stephen Kilbey writes…

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Push back or push on?

‘A dozen’ marques are believed to all still be involved in the technical working group for the new platform, which will see manufacturers put their own stamp on hybrid-powered next-gen LMP2 chassis and compete in either IMSA, the FIA WEC or both.

Two pertinent questions arose from the latest public update which occurred during the ACO’s annual Press Conference at the Le Mans 24 Hours earlier this month: 1. When will the LMDh formula make its debut? And 2. who will bite the bullet and be first to commit?

Originally LMDh was intended to debut in 2022, but time is ticking and it is becoming clear that a debut for these new cars at the 2022 Rolex 24 Hours in January is an unrealistic target. While reports from RACER.com suggest that the entire time frame has changed, with the debut now expected to be 2023, Pierre Fillon, the President of the ACO, has since said that no firm decision had been made on whether or not we’ll see them race “before or after Le Mans 2022”.

Currently, as the manufacturers continue to study and evaluate future programmes, the process is becoming increasingly difficult with no firm date for the category’s introduction.

It would be a mistake for the organisers to sacrifice 2022 and extend the lifespan of the current DPi field (which is becoming increasingly thin) if more than two factories have plans to be out testing cars this time next year with the intention of being ready for the original time frame. And equally it would be an error for IMSA and the ACO ahead as planned, push for 2022, and struggle to assemble a grid at all.

Ultimately the market will decide when LMDh makes its first appearance…

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Porsche’s pulling power

Of all the manufacturers looking likely to commit first, it looks increasingly likely that an OEM which doesn’t currently feature in IMSA’s DPi ranks will be the first to press the green button: Porsche.

If Porsche opts to join LMDh, and its announcement could potentially come as soon as its annual Night of Champions event in December, then it’s truly ‘game on’. All along Porsche has been ‘in the room’ on LMDh and told Travel Destinations back in January that it was a very supportive of ‘convergence’ and the direction that LMDh was heading.

Its has publicly stated that it is formally evaluating an LMDh programme multiple times. And while it didn’t reveal anything in the wake of the ACO Conference which celebrated the publication of the full set of LMDh regulations and showcased LMDh example chassis (of which one looked somewhat Porsche inspired (below)), it did release a statement which served as a reminder that it is serious about returning to prototype racing.

“We’re very happy that FIA, ACO and IMSA have provided the final details of future LMDh regs,” it read. “We’re now able to take the final step in the concept study commissioned by our board of directors.”

With Penske set to cut ties with Acura at the end of the current IMSA season, and Porsche’s GTLM effort coming to a close, the timing seems almost too perfect for a Penske-Porsche reunion?

The question is, would it join the WEC or IMSA, or both? And would it prompt a swathe of other manufacturers to reveal their plans? You’d like to think so…

Someone needs to become the first domino to fall. If it is Porsche, then the potential for more heavy hitters to join in is huge; there is no other manufacturer with an equal level of status, heritage and ‘pulling power’ in sportscar racing.

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And Acura?

Of the current DPi pack, Acura (HPD) looks closest to confirming its intention to continue its presence in IMSA’s premier class beyond the current ruleset.

“We are not confirming an LMDh programme today though clearly that is our desire,” said HPD President, Ted Klaus to select media recently.

“It is our intention to go forward with LMDH.”

These comments came shortly after it was announced that Wayne Taylor Racing and Michael Shank Racing would take over from Penske as DPi partner teams from 2021 onwards.

Prying Wayne Taylor from GM after a 30-year relationship was surely not an easy task? Was the promise of something beyond the current DPi programme on the table as a key factor for this move to occur?On paper there appears to be almost no standout reason for WTR to abandon Cadillac after so much success with the current DPi V.R in recent years, while in the midst of a title run in 2020.

But, it has indeed happened, Wayne Taylor making it clear that his involvement in the sport is slowly coming to a close. “I’m really excited about this new adventure we’re entering into,” he told RACER.com’s Marshall Pruett. “I always wanted to finish my career on top, and that’s where I feel we are headed.”

A Le Mans win is something missing from his and (coincidentally) Mike Shank’s CV’s. Will the commitment to Acura’s DPi effort in the short term allow both to gun for the overall win in the coming years?

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The view from left field

McLaren is a brand that continues to be mentioned in industry conversations about LMDh. This is in part because it has been actively sniffing around top-level sportscar racing for a number of years now without actually committing to anything. As recently as 2018 it appeared close to signing off a GTE programme, before opting to focus on GT3 and GT3 customer-focused efforts.

Now though, with the viability of GTE in the medium term looking uncertain, it is looking to add a top class programme to its factory motorsport repertoire, as a third prong alongside its Formula One and IndyCar commitments.

With Formula One set to cap costs at the next set of regulations in 2022, the timing appears perfect on the surface to reallocate resources and man power to a new venture in sportscar racing. (This is, in part, why Ferrari is thought to be circling LMDh too.)

McLaren CEO Zak Brown spoke to Travel Destinations last weekend about this very subject and confirmed that the brand is still interested, as he feels Le Mans in particular is “still very relevant”. During the conversation he gave an outline for a timeline for the programme too, stating that if McLaren did enter the LMDh ranks it would have to do so in either 2023 or 2024. “We wouldn’t see the value in entering a formula with less than three years left in the ruleset,” he said.

He also made an interesting point about 2023.

The 2023 Le Mans 24 Hours will be held on the 100th anniversary of the first edition, which will surely attract multiple manufacturers set on taking the overall win on such an important year. It is also a very important year for McLaren.

“There is a real appeal in 2023, as it’s the 60th anniversary of McLaren Racing. Le Mans is like Disneyland, there’s a big anniversary to celebrate for something every year it seems!”

What would a McLaren programme look like? Factory cars with the added punch of customer teams running additional chassis? There has always been the desire from McLaren’s side for customer cars to be made available to make things more financially viable.

Could this see Brown’s other motorsport interest, United Autosports (which he co-owns), step up from an ultra-successful LMP2 and LMP3 team to a player in the top class of sportscar racing?

“I’d like to think we (United) are putting ourselves in a position to be considered on a shortlist as a technical partner for a manufacturer as they come in,” he hinted.

Brown did mention though that there are still a few finer details within the LMDh ruleset which McLaren feel need further work and clarity.

“We have been participating in all the technical meetings and we like the direction they are headed with LMDh,” he said.”However, there is a little bit of concern from our side over how difficult it will be to balance LMDh and LMH cars, specifically in tricky conditions because one set of rules features two-wheel-drive cars (LMDh) and the other features four-wheel-drive. How are going to ensure parity at two in the morning at Le Mans when it’s raining and the Hypercars can power out of the corners with four-wheel-drive?

“They need to be careful. They are confident they can find a way. We just need to make sure it can be done.”

Stephen Kilbey

Photos courtesy of McLaren, ACO and Acura