Ahead of the 2018 season, IMSA ponders on ten of the biggest questions that are being hotly debated ahead of the forthcoming season
The 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship might be the most anticipated season yet, with several key storylines already developing.
The first in a series of articles, here are 10 big questions surrounding the WeatherTech Championship Prototype class heading into next season:
How will Acura Team Penske fare in its return to Prototype sports car racing?
One of the biggest storylines to develop throughout 2017 was the return of Acura and Team Penske to Prototype racing. Armed with an all-star lineup of recent IndyCar stars Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya alongside WeatherTech Championship Prototype champions from the past two years in Dane Cameron (2016) and Ricky Taylor (2017), expectations will be high.
How will Castroneves and Montoya adapt to life as full-time sports car racers? How will they mesh with their ultra-fast and proven co-drivers? How will the brand-new car perform?
Who will join Jordan Taylor in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi and can they repeat the team’s championship-winning performance?
When the new era of Prototype competition made its debut in 2017, no one got off to a better start than the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R team. Full-season co-drivers, and brothers, Ricky and Jordan Taylor won the first five races of the season, including their first Rolex 24 At Daytona victory and a win at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. Their Rolex 24 victory came alongside four-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon and popular Italian racer Max Angelelli in his final race as a driver.
They built what ended up being an insurmountable lead in the championship standings, clinching the title by starting the season finale at Road Atlanta. Since then, however, Ricky Taylor has moved to Acura Team Penske, leaving open a coveted seat on a championship-winning team.
Who will fill it? Will they be able to develop instant chemistry with Jordan Taylor? And can this team repeat against what appears to be even tougher competition in 2018?
Will Mazda Team Joest become a front-runner?
Mazda and Joest Racing shocked the sports car racing world this past summer when they announced the formation of Mazda Team Joest. Since then, we haven’t seen the Mazda RT24-P DPi car on a racetrack publicly, but every so often we catch a brief glimpse, a few seconds of video from testing here and there.
By linking up with one of the world’s most successful teams in sports car racing history, Mazda has doubled down to make its program a consistent winner. So, the question is, will it work? How will the upgraded Mazda DPi car perform? What will the driver lineup look like? When will we see the Mazda DPi in Victory Lane for the first time?
Will Tequila Patrón ESM be title contenders in 2018?
The two-car Tequila Patrón ESM team finished the 2017 season as strong as any Prototype team, scoring the first victory for the Nissan DPi program with co-drivers Pipo Derani and Johannes van Overbeek taking the win at Road America in August aboard the team’s No. 22 entry.
At the Motul Petit Le Mans earlier this month, the team’s other car, the No. 2 Nissan DPi shared by full-season drivers Ryan Dalziel and Scott Sharp and special guest star 24 Hours of Le Mans and FIA WEC champion Brendon Hartley closed out the year with a victory. After a somewhat late start, especially compared to other DPi programs, those victories would seem to indicate that this team is ready to contend throughout 2018.
So, will they? How strong will van Overbeek and Derani be in their first full season after Derani joined the squad full-time midway through the 2017 season? Will a full year’s worth of experience with the Nissan DPi put Dalziel and Sharp onto the podium with regularity?
Will Action Express return to its championship-winning form?
Action Express Racing dominated the first three years of the WeatherTech Championship Prototype class, winning championships in 2014 and ’15 with the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Corvette DP and co-drivers Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa, and the 2016 title with Eric Curran and Dane Cameron in the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Corvette DP. Shifting to new Cadillac DPis in 2017, both teams won races this year and were championship contenders, but were overpowered by the No. 10 team in the season-long title fight.
However, the team maintained its stranglehold on the Tequila Patrón North American Endurance Cup, winning its fourth straight with the No. 5 team. So, will this team return to the top of the WeatherTech Championship Prototype heap in 2018?
How will the team’s new driver lineups – with Barbosa now sharing the No. 5 for the full year with 2017 endurance teammate Filipe Albuquerque and ex-F1 racer Felipe Nasr co-driving the No. 31 Cadillac DPi with Curran to replace the Penske-bound Cameron – fare? Will the No. 5 team, which will continue to include Fittipaldi for all four enduros, make it five straight Patrón Endurance Cups?
What’s cooking at VISIT FLORIDA Racing?
In 2017, the No. 90 VISIT FLORIDA Racing team was the first to put a new LM P2 car on the WeatherTech Championship podium, placing third in the season-opening Rolex 24 At Daytona with its Multimatic/Riley chassis.
Midway through the year, the team switched to a Ligier LM P2 machine, which paid dividends when Renger van der Zande pulled off the pass of the year around Dane Cameron at the top of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca’s famed “Corkscrew” to win the penultimate round of the season for himself, co-driver Marc Goossens and the Daytona Beach-based team. It also was the first new LM P2 car to win a WeatherTech Championship race.
What will 2018 bring? Will the team continue with the Ligier LM P2 car? Will the team switch back to Multimatic/Riley with offseason upgrades expected? Is yet another new car on the horizon?
Does JDC-Miller Motorsports take the next step in 2018?
One of the bigger breakthroughs in the 2017 WeatherTech Championship season was the performance of the Minnesota-based JDC-Miller Motorsports team. The team’s bright yellow No. 85 ORECA LM P2 earned the nickname, “The Banana Boat” and is piloted by and its full-season co-drivers, Stephen Simpson and Misha Goikhberg. They captained the ship to some strong midyear performances, including runner-up results in both the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen and the Mobil 1 SportsCar Grand Prix at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.
Will the No. 85 duo take the final step in 2018 and stand atop the victory podium? What effect will the team’s planned expansion to a second ORECA LM P2 machine have on the team’s performance in 2018?
How will CORE autosport perform in its return to Prototype racing?
CORE autosport and co-drivers Jon Bennett and Colin Braun were multi-time champions and perennial front-runners for several seasons in the Prototype Challenge class before switching to a Porsche in the GT Daytona (GTD) class in 2017. It’s safe to say the team’s results weren’t quite what they hoped for through most of the season – although they did contend for a victory at Mazda Raceway. In 2018, CORE will return to its roots with a new ORECA LM P2 entry in the Prototype class.
How quickly will this team readjust to the differences in style between Prototype and GT racing? Braun is known as one of the fastest drivers around – come to think of it, there’s a Daytona International Speedway world record with his name on it, which may indicate he’s THE fastest. How will he stack up against the likes of Montoya, the Taylors, Cameron, Albuquerque, etc.?
What will the LM P2 lineup look like in 2018?
We’ve mentioned a few LM P2 programs already, but it appears there likely will be several more on the grid in 2018. PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports made the step up from the PC class to Prototypes in 2017 with a Ligier LM P2 machine this year. Will Performance Tech Motorsports which won the final WeatherTech Championship PC title this year – and perennial PC competitors BAR1 Motorsports follow suit next year?
We saw D3+Transformers Racing announce its plans for a Ligier LM P2 car in 2018, so are there other full-season newcomers in the pipeline? Will Rebellion Racing return with its ultra-fast ORECA? We know United Autosports is planning to compete at Daytona, how many other LM P2 teams will we see in the 36 Hours of Florida and/or the Patrón Endurance Cup?
Will we see any Formula 1 World Champions in the 2018 WeatherTech Championship?
If you’re a fan of the WeatherTech Championship, you’ve likely seen at least some of the conversation lately around a couple of Formula 1 World Champions – namely Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso – and the possibility that they may compete in one, some or all of the races next year.
Button, the 2009 F1 World Champion, has gone on the record and identified the WeatherTech Championship as the place where he wants to continue his driving career. Will somebody give him that opportunity in 2018? If so, will he do the full season? The Patrón Endurance Cup rounds? The Rolex 24?
For two-time World Champion Alonso, his full-time 2018 plans are set with McLaren in Formula 1, but the door seems open for him to race in the Rolex 24. Will he do it? If so, will he compete with United Autosports, which was founded by Zak Brown, who currently is the Executive Director for McLaren and who also was the architect for Alonso’s ballyhooed Indianapolis 500 run this past May?
Of course, the answers to some of these questions may come in the next few days, with others coming in the next few weeks or months. Others could take a bit longer to answer, maybe as long as the entire 2018 season. The only thing we know for sure is we’ll have all the answers once the checkered flag falls on the Motul Petit Le Mans on the evening of Oct. 13, 2018…
Submitted by the International Motor Sport Association (IMSA)