IMSA: Silly Season 2016 Update

Photo Credit: IMSA

With the conclusion of the 2015 IMSA festivities now in the book following Monday’s Champions Banquet, the focus for sports car racing fans is now centered on the upcoming 2016 campaign, which begins in just over three months from now. For one thing, a new identity of the circuit will emerge. With TUDOR Watches shifting its focus in the series from title sponsor to a corporate partner, the championship for 2016 will become the IMSA WeatherTech Championship. The series will see the beginning of the implementation of new regulations that will be completed in full by 2017. For now, the major changes come in the grand touring divisions. The GT Le Mans division cars for 2016 will have new options and heavily bolstered and even faster ones when practice opens for the 2016 Rolex 24 at Daytona . Add to that, a new set of regulations in the lower GT Daytona class will bring a plethora of new manufacturers into the mix. With several announcements likely to be made in the next few weeks, plus a closed door test at Daytona International Speedway next month, several pieces of the puzzle are already in place. Here is a look at some of the details in the professional categories: Prototype and GT Le Mans, that one can possibly look forward to next January at Daytona International Speedway.

PROTOTYPE

Action Express Racing: Unlike several of the other teams in Prototype, Gary Nelson’s squad has not been as keen to adore the new for 2017  prototype regulations that will bring the IMSA and worldwide LMP-2 regluations onto the same page, at least for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. After winning two straight Prototype titles, AXR will once again return with two Chevrolet Corvette Daytona Prototypes in 2016, the last year in which the DP-style cars will remain eligible. Expect all four full time drivers to return next season, with a good chance that Sebastien Bourdais and Max Papis to return for at least Daytona and Sebring. Jonny Adam will be the fourth driver for the No. 31 Whelen-entry at Daytona after winning the 2015 Sunoco Challenge.

Visitflorida.com Racing:  After a rough day last Saturday at Road Atlanta denied them a series title, the Daytona Beach-based runners are undecided on their car choice for 2016. While sticking out the eligibility of the Corvette DP would one option, team boss Troy Flis also hinted at an interest in acquiring an ORECA 05 coupe to get a headstart on the 2017 regulations. Flis said that he hoped to have a decision made by the Circuit of the Americas round, but no official announcement has been made. Chances are pretty good that both Michael Valiante and Richard Westbrook will return, while the presence of Mike Rockenfeller at both Daytona and Sebring is maybe a 50/50 shot for 2016.

Wayne Taylor Racing: Despite seeking an LMP-2 for a shot at Le Mans this past year, one plan that did not work out, it appears likely that the Taylor brothers will once again utilize the Corvette DP for 2016, however there are questions about where they will be for 2017. While Wayne Taylor initially gave his stamp of approval for the 2017 regulations a few months ago, WTR recently joined in an alliance with Larbre Competition to hopefully enter a Chevrolet Corvette C7.R in the GTE-Pro category of the FIA World Endurance Championship next season. Jordan Taylor certainly has ties to the Corvette GT program, having driven for Doug Fehan in the last three editions of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It is unknown if this plan is for their future path in sports car racing (instead of prototypes), or simply a toe in the water test.

Chip Ganassi Racing: All signs point to last weekend’s Petit Le Mans as the final appearance with their Ford EcoBoost-powered Riley DP, however Ganassi did mention hope to continue running the car in some form in 2016. At this point, the lone possibility for continuation could be to provide a chance to the team to defend their overall win  at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and/or to offer a chance to race at Daytona for those on Chip Ganassi Racing’s other programs, who may not get a chance to drive the new Ford GT in the GT Le Mans division in January. Beyond that, any other chance to see the car run look highly unlikely.

Michael Shank Racing: The effort to acquire a Ligier JS P2 coupe did not produce a race win, but it made MSR much more competitive in 2015 as opposed to 2014 with a Riley-Ford DP. Shank had hoped to expand to a two-car team for at least the North American Endurance Cup events in 2016, but that has to be in question now following a pair of nasty accidents suffered by John Pew at Road Atlanta this past weekend. While both Oswaldo Negri and Pew should be back, the hopes for a second car likely would include the services of Matt McMurry, a rising young prospect who showed well in practice at both Daytona and Sebring this season. MSR had also hinted at possibly leasing a Ligier for the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans, but any progress on that has gone quiet in the last few months.

DeltaWing Racing: Obviously the new regulations will close the door on the DWC coupe after 2016, but the season could be a two-front battle for Dr. Don Panoz’s squad. In addition to running the prototype, the team is also hoping to have online a new GT car that may compete in the lower GT Daytona division later on in 2016. Katherine Legge is expected to return, but perhaps there is a possible question mark though on whether Memo Rojas and sponsor TracFone of Mexico will be back at this point.

SpeedSource: Mazda will park their diesel-powered machines, opting for petrol engines in 2016. Whether they will keep the same engines for the new regulations in 2017 is unknown at this point. Good chance that all of SpeedSource’s current drivers, including Jonathan Bomarito, will return.

Extreme Speed Motorsports: Despite a frustrating first season in the FIA World Endurance Championship, expect Scott Sharp and Ed Brown’s two-car operation to return to the world tour next season. However, that does not eliminate the possibility of the team appearing once again at both Daytona and Sebring as preparation for the 2016 FIA WEC slate. Either way, expect the team to continue running the Ligier-Honda coupe next year.

Krohn Racing: Same story for the Texas enterpreneur Tracy Krohn. While the lime green and blue liveried squad’s tact for 2017 is still a question mark, the team should continue with the Ligier-Judd coupe in 2016, with a good chance at an effort at both Daytona and Sebring in the cards. Beyond that, it will be interesting to see whether Krohn tries his luck in the European Le Mans Series or the FIA WEC in 2016.

OTHERS: It is unknown how many other one-offs will try their luck at Daytona and Sebring next season, although the numbers could increase as a desire to use up all remaining DP equipment could be in play. Kevin Doran’s Fifty Plus Racing team is a likely returnee as could Robert Gerwitz’s RG Racing team, and maybe even Peter Baron’s Starworks Motorsport Riley-Dinan DP.

GT LE MANS

Corvette Racing: Doug Fehan’s squad has been hard at work at preparing their 2016 challenger since the end of May of this year. The effort may have eroded their championship challenge this season, but it may prove necessary as they face a plethora of turbo and twin turbo-powered cars in 2016. Despite what could happen, all four full time contributors will return to the C7.R driver’s seat, with a good chance that Ryan Briscoe could also come back for Daytona, Sebring, and Le Mans. With Simon Pagenaud not present last weekend at Road Atlanta, the team could be looking for another third driver ahead of Daytona.

Porsche North America: CORE autosport’s Porsche 911 RSRs were unstoppable during the second half of the 2015 campaign, even finding a way to defeat all the prototypes last weekend at a rain-influenced Petit Le Mans. Confirmation of continuing their 2016 program came a little later than their rivals, so a question about readiness for Daytona could be in play in terms of improving their current car to the quicker car protocol. Regardless, the team should be quickly on pace if not so much in the opener. Nick Tandy’s 2015 exploits at both Le Mans and Road Atlanta scream for him to get a shot at an LMP-1 Porsche factory ride in 2016, but if that does not work out, expect him to be back in the 2016-spec RSR for Daytona. Both cars should be stocked with Porsche factory stars, possibly including the addition of Wolf Henzler to the fold if Derrick Walker is unable to continue in GT following the end of the Falken Tire program.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan BMW Racing: After a solid final campaign with the BMW Z4 model, it looked bleak as to whether the squad would be back for 2016, as initially only a GT3 spec car was confirmed by BMW for North American competition. However, the German marque recently had a change of heart and will indeed provide Bobby Rahal with a pair of the new M6 cars for GTLM competition. The new twin turbo power plant should be a rocket on the long straights at both Daytona and Sebring, however new car durability issues could slow their progress in the early days. It is a good bet that all six drivers present at Road Atlanta should be track side at Daytona in January, as could Rahal’s son Graham in a fourth driver role.

Risi Competizione: The Houston-based runners had a tough time of it in 2015, but the patience could be rewarded with the new Ferrari 488 in their hands, another twin turbo propelled super car. The new model has been put through its paces in Italy over the past few months, with even Formula One star Sebastian Vettel helping with testing. Of course, Vettel won’t be around to pilot the car at Daytona, yet the trio of Giancarlo Fisichella, Pierre Kaffer, and Toni Vilander should all be present in January.

Chip Ganassi Racing: With their first Ford GT acquired from builder Multimatic Motorsports, CGR has been busy testing their new marque at Daytona International Speedway this week, with both Scott Pruett and Joey Hand at the controls, essentially locking them into two of the supposed six driving spots for the two-car entry at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. There’s a good chance that both Scott Maxwell and Billy Johnson, who have put the car through its early paces will also be with the team at Daytona and Sebring possibly as pre-FIA WEC efforts for George Howard-Chappell, the leader of the Multimatic half of the Ford GT porgram. As for other driving possibilities, former Dodge Viper factory driver Marc Goossens has been rumored, while 2015 Rolex 24 at Daytona star driver Scott Dixon should also be present in January.

Walker Racing: This past weekend’s Petit Le Mans ended Walker’s affiliation with Falken Tires, but the longtime team owner in both IndyCar and sports cars is hopeful of a return in some form next season. A continuation with the Porsche 911 RSR is the most viable option. Beyond that, major question marks about who would drive, etc. would have to be dealt within a short period of time.

Aston Martin Racing: The stalwarts of the FIA World Endurance Championship’s GT divisions have been a regular at Daytona for the past two seasons. A return for year three is more likely with the new regulations and a chance to test them for an extended period. Keep in mind however, that the driving roster could be filled with more of their amateur drivers as opposed to the professionals as was the case this past January.

AF Corse: The other FIA WEC and Le Mans GT power house should also be track side at least for Daytona getting race mileage for the new Ferrari 488. Like with AMR however, the driving lineup could again an amateur laden group, made even more noticeable in this year’s race by Francois Perrodo’s costly error in the early going. The quasi-Ferrari factory sports car team should be present at the World of Center of Racing in 2016 at least.