On a long week of racing activity at the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh From Florida, there’s traditionally a lot of on-track activity for a variety of series, each offering their own reasons for demanding fan attention.
There always have been plenty of reasons to check out the IMSA Prototype Challenge presented by Mazda – among them close, often full-contact competition, and a chance to see future stars like series graduates Tristan Nunez, Misha Goikberg, Sean Rayhall, Kenton Koch, Gerardo Bonilla and Ed Brown – but for 2017, there’s another major attraction.
This year, the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda enters its 12th season as a genuine training ground for Prototype drivers and teams, much like the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge is an excellent steppingstone to the IMSA WeatherTech GT Le Mans and GT Daytona classes.
The durable, proven open-cockpit Mazda-powered Élan DP02 cars that previously made up the Lites 1 class remain, but now they are called the Mazda Prototype Challenge, or MPC. This season, they will be joined by the closed-cockpit LM P3 class, a proven formula bred in Europe that, in design and execution, is very similar to the cars in the WeatherTech Championship Prototype class, with an advanced chassis, aerodynamic bodywork that provides a lot of downforce, and a spec 420-horsepower, 5.0-liter V-8 engine that will be the same in all the cars, as will a six-speed sequential gearbox.
Both the new LM P3 cars and the Mazda Prototype Challenge cars will run on tires developed exclusively for the classes by Continental, which supplies the Prototype cars in the WeatherTech Championship.
Randy Hembrey, IMSA’s senior series manager for development and single-make series, said that IMSA had been keeping a close eye on the development overseas of the LM P3 car, and is impressed with the package. In the European Le Mans Series, for example, the LM P3 cars run endurance races, typically four hours long.
Hembrey and the IMSA team reasoned that, to make the new LM P3 cars more affordable in the U.S., it could easily compete in the Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda’s sprint race format, where the LM P3 cars would run a pair of 45-minute sprint races. Shorter races mean less wear and tear on the car, eliminates the need for repeated refueling and tire changes, thus allowing for a smaller pit crew.
“The engines can be run 10,000 kilometers without a rebuild,” Hembrey says. “That’s about two and a half of our seasons.” The LM P3 cars that race in the IMSA series are eligible to run in any of the LM P3 classes in series overseas, which adds to resale value of the cars, and should appeal to foreign competitors who’d like to try their hand at racing in North America.
Six constructors have shown interest in building LM P3 cars, but not all have submitted designs that been earned approval – a process known as “homologation” – by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, or ACO, which is required to compete globally. Those six designs are from Ginetta, Ligier, ADESS AG, Dome, Norma and Riley Technologies, which is the only U.S. manufacturer. That car, called the Ave-Riley AR-2, is expected to join the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda this year.
All homologated LM P3 cars will make their IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda debut next month at Sebring. And as for that debut, practice is scheduled for Wednesday, March 15, with qualifying on Thursday, followed by the first of two races. The second race will take place on Friday. Both races will be 45 minutes long, and are essentially two races in one: The LM P3 cars will be running their own race separate from the MPC cars, but both classes will be on the track together. Hembrey is expecting a healthy double-digit field in both the LM P3 and MPC classes.
IMSA is well aware that it will take a season or two to grow the new LM P3 class, as some teams and drivers are taking a wait-and-see attitude. With multiple chassis available, it isn’t surprising that racers will be watching to see which manufacturer has come up with the fastest car, and which manufacturer is best at offering help with parts and support. Already Hembrey is seeing an impressive mix of drivers who want to come over from other series to race a genuine Prototype car, and of young drivers looking to move up.
There are already plenty of those young, hungry racers in the existing Mazda Prototype Challenge class. Among them: Kyle Masson of Windermere, Florida, near Orlando. Masson was a rookie in the 2016 series, racing for Performance Tech Motorsports, a team that also competes in the Prototype Challenge (PC) class in the WeatherTech Championship.
Masson, who scored multiple podium finishes last year, will be back in his Performance Tech Mazda Prototype Challenge car going for the championship, but there’s one difference: Masson will be wearing a Rolex, which he won for being part of Performance Tech Prototype Challenge team that took the class victory in the 2017 Rolex 24 At Daytona.
The team not only won at Daytona, they absolutely dominated, with solid driving, flawless pit stops and smooth driver changes. Masson says he owes it all to the year he spent in the IMSA Prototype Challenge series – “Those cars are great for learning to drive a Prototype,” Masson said. “That’s why I was able to transition into the PC car at Daytona so easily. The Mazda Prototype Challenge cars are very fast, and they are difficult to drive. They really teach you the proper technique.”
An added incentive for competitors in the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda: On race weekends, both of the races will be streamed live at IMSA.tv, and – this is new for 2017, and is responsible for attracting a lot of interest in the series – the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda will be televised on a delayed basis on Fox Sports’ FS2, guaranteeing more exposure for the racers and teams, as well as their sponsors. The broadcasts will show highlights of the first race, and then flag-to-flag coverage of the second race.
The season consists of 13 rounds, ending at Road Atlanta on the Petit Le Mans weekend, Oct. 4-7. Nine of the 13 rounds on the 2017 schedule will take place during WeatherTech Championship weekends, further adding to the exposure for the competitors.
“We think it’s going to be an exciting season,” Hembrey says. And that could be an understatement.