Sunday, January 13, 2013

2014 ALMS/Grand-Am: What about Audi?

By Tarek Ramchani

Some of the biggest news coming from 2012 was without any doubt the announcement that the American Le Mans Series and the Grand American Rolex Sports Car Series will merge into a single unified North American sportcar series. For more than a decade both series were seen as strong and competitive rivals, each with radically different styles and views about endurance racing. The ALMS is strongly linked with the ACO and the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is the home of factory and semi-works teams in both the LMP and GT divisions. Grand-Am on the other hand was always seen as the NASCAR version of "road racing," with mainly privateer teams and being less expensive than the ALMS.

The unification and combination of the best from the two series resulted in the organisers pulling out the top LMP1 class. In recent years the LMP1 class has seen a dramatic collapse in the ALMS, as most of the races only had 2-3 cars. Both ALMS and Grand-Am officials agreed to remove the class, thus leaving it to become a WEC exclusive class. This means that Audi Sport and their new 2014 LMP1 racer will not be able to compete there anymore. The 12 Hours of Sebring this year will probably be the last ever race for Audi in the American Le Mans Series after a great era of domination with no less than nine straight championship titles. Audi effectively left the series since the end of 2008, but they had always raced at the Sebring 12 Hours as part of the Le Mans preparation, with the exception of 2010. The prototypes from Ingolstadt will for sure be missed at the oldest sportscar race in America. However the Audi prototypes will be seen at the American round of the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Within the new American series the top class will be a combined grid of Daytona Prototypes and LMP2 cars, with a Balance of Performance coming into effect. Audi does not currently have cars or powered machines in any of these two classes. The Audi presence in the combined series is secured by the Audi R8 GRAND-AM. The "American" R16 debuted in the Rolex Series during 2012 and it will be welcomed for 2014. The entire Grand-Am GT class will be kept as is for now, however they will be behind the "ALMS" GT cars, better known as GTEs at Le Mans and FIA WEC. The Grand-Am GT class will race alongside the ALMS GT class as two separate classes in the new American series. The Audi GT racers will simply fight within their own class. There is an unprecedented Audi presence and support base at the 51st Rolex 24 at Daytona this year, so we keep our fingers crossed for the competition next year.

For now the Audi LMP1 machines are effectively banned with the rest of the class whilst the Audi R8 GRAND-AM is set to continue. However there is something else that American Audi fans will also not get to see, the Audi R8 LMS ultra. Many thought that the doors will open for FIA GT3 spec cars in this new unified series. The organizers chose not to follow the formula. As things are at the moment it has closed any chance for the R8 LMS ultra to compete. The only possibility is to follow BMW and build, or shall we say "upgrade," the R16 into a GTE racer. BMW has followed that route this year with the Z4 GT3 which is replacing the M3 GT in the American Le Mans Series. Never say never, but we hardly see that Audi Sport customer racing and quattro GmbH would follow this GTE upgrade route. GTE is still alive, but now more than ever the brands are pushing to have a single and unified GT class in the near future. A GTE R8 would make no sense right now with an unknown future, and it will be a lot more expensive than both the R8 LMS ultra and R8 GRAND-AM. Another alternative is that the future of ACO/FIA GT racing could be with the GT3 formula. In that case the Audi R8 LMS ultra would be able to compete at the highest level of North American sportscar racing, only time will tell.

As we wait for 2014 and #TheFuture, let's enjoy both the 2013 Rolex 24 at Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring. Two big classics where Audi will be aiming very high.