RACER has learned the new United SportsCar Racing organization is closing in on a deal that would make Continental Tire the sole provider for all of its prototypes starting in 2014.
Continental currently provides its product for Grand-Am's Daytona Prototypes and GTs, its tin-top Continental Tire Series, and the American Le Mans Series Prototype Challenge class. Current ALMS P2 tire vendors have been notified of the pending change.
Reached for comment at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for this week's Brickyard Grand Prix event, Grand-Am/USCR CEO Ed Bennett provided a statement on the status of negotiations.
“Nothing has been finalized regarding tires and the 2014 season, and no agreement has been signed with anyone,” he said. “We are working to finalize our 2014 tire strategy, but that has yet to be completed.”
An announcement regarding 2014 USCR tire developments could have come as soon as Friday, but it's believed a last-minute snag has kept the new contract from being finalized.
Although the ALMS prototype categories have included participation from tire vendors such as Advan/Yokohama, Kuhmo and Pirelli over the years, Michelin and Dunlop have maintained a constant presence in the series.
Michelin, which outfits all of this year's full-time entries in the ALMS P2 class, has been the dominant prototype tire supplier since the series was formed in 1999. But contrary to what some expected, the French manufacturer will not have a role in the USCR's combined P2/DP class next year.
The brand is expected to continue in the ALMS GT class, which is set for a name change to GT Le Mans (GTLM), as open competition will be preserved. It will also continue its supply of prototype tires in the World Endurance Championship and the European Le Mans Series.
The switch to Continental for P2 means the USCR will have all three forms of prototypes competing on the same rubber, simplifying its promotional endeavors and distribution needs going forward. It will also bring the lap times between both classes closer together.
Reaction to the news from team owners in P2 and DP returned similar viewpoints and opinions.
“I think you have to look at there's going to be a lot of ebb and flow over the next few years in the USCR,” said Scott Sharp, co-owner of the Extreme Speed Motorsports P2 team. “We always figured one of the performance differences between the P2 and DP cars was the tires, so getting the cars on the same tire would close that gap.
“And knowing the commitment Grand-Am has to Continental, we've seen this coming. I know Continental is working hard to develop their tires, and have said they can do a much better tire than they've been allowed to do so far.”
Michael Shank, who fields a pair of DPs in the Rolex Series, echoed Sharp's outlook.
“After three years together, the series, the DP teams and Continental have learned a lot together; this year's tire is the best so far and I hear next year's tire is going to be even better,” he told RACER. “They want to be in our series, and I want them to be in our series.”
With the move to Continental, one significant question to be answered is how it will affect ALMS P2 teams with an interest in competing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Michelin has become the most prized prototype tire contract to secure each year, and Dunlop has also become a formidable contender in P2, but with American-based P2 teams required to use Continentals, a trip to Le Mans would likely require one-race deals to run on different rubber. Between the two brands, Michelin has shown a reluctance to offer short-term contracts to teams running a full season on a competitor's product.
A one-race change would also come with the need to learn the tire and fundamentally alter one's chassis setup in a very short timeframe. WEC and ELMS teams using Michelins or Dunlops for the entire year would also have a significant advantage to exploit over its American P2 rivals.
And in kind, it also raised the question of if and how the move to a spec prototype tire will impact European P2 teams with a desire of racing at Daytona, Sebring or any of the other stops on the USCR calendar in 2014. Those teams would be faced with the same steep learning curve.
“I think that's the biggest thing to consider,” Sharp added. “For the P2 guys that want to race at Le Mans, it could make them think hard about if they can actually go there and get up to speed. You don't get a lot of time as it is, and we even saw some of the American teams that run on Michelins never really adapted to the European Michelins.
“Starting from scratch would be a much bigger obstacle to overcome, but if you really wanted to go, maybe you could try and work a deal with Michelin or a Michelin team to do some testing on those tires and get some data beforehand. Either way, it throws a wrench into things that you'd need to deal with.”
Initial testing of the Continental tire on a P2 chassis showed a noticeable gap in lap time to a comparable Michelin or Dunlop, but if the 2014 version of the tire can deliver greater performance, it could also become an option to consider for use at Le Mans.