American Le Mans Series President and CEO Scott Atherton tells RACER about the goals, challenges and other pressing series topics for the 2012 ALMS season in advance of the 60th Anniversary Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.
Q: What do you make of the Lotus entrance, plus Alex Job returning to the GT class?
A: I don't think that there's anyone more pleased about it than Alex himself. He's one of, if not the most successful GT competitors in the ALMS. For him to be back in the thick of it up against the other factory programs from BMW, Corvette, Porsche, etc., this is where he rightfully belongs. It's an ambitious plan and long-term commitment from Lotus and all the other partners. It's another example of us going from strength-to-strength in that category.
Q: Was Ferrari omitted on purpose, not knowing the status of Risi as yet?
A: Officially, no. I still feel cautiously confident about them, but they're in a fairly critical stage.
Q: With prototypes, there's a P2 class increase, but what's your prototype car count estimation for the season?
A: I think P1 will be at least three, and most likely four, growing to five by the end of the season. In P2, I think we'll open up with at least four, with the numbers growing to as many as six, and it could even be, if everything in play came to fruition, eight, but that would be very optimistic. More likely there is six. LMPC should be eight with as many as 10 by midseason.
Q: As the prototype regulations have evolved from LMP combined in 2010, then back to the P1/P2 split in 2011 as the cost-capped category was introduced, how are you working to get more prototypes back?
A: I think you're seeing the byproduct of a full-court press by us last season to expand the LMP2 car count. It's a combination of things. We have new manufacturers and teams coming in. Eric Bachelart coming in, Level 5 for a full season, Black Swan moving up from GT ranks, Dempsey organization which has yet to confirm their plans but right now is committed to an LMPC program, with the expectation of expanding beyond that, potentially into a P2 program at some point. There's two teams I'm familiar with, that are yet to make formal announcements, that will be on the grid with P2 cars as well. So these announcements that have or are yet to occur are byproducts of our efforts.
We have the same efforts in our P1 category, but it's much more challenging by the nature of its current configuration. It's largely a platform for manufacturers. With the simultaneous launch of the WEC, almost by default, that's where they elect to focus their efforts. It's a dynamic that plays out as we speak, as manufacturers outline their motorsports plans, and right now, the WEC is their priority.
We believe that North America – and in particular the U.S., so ALMS – continues to be a very important business market. I don't believe that having a presence in that market, one weekend a year, once a year, constitutes an effective motorsports marketing plan in what is their most important business segment.
For that reason, I believe our LMP1 content is stable, but stable at a level that is not acceptable to us, and frankly for anyone else either. But it can grow from here by the value we can provide for the manufacturers and top-level independent teams.
Q: What's the status of the Challenge classes post-2012?
A: Looking beyond 2012, first off, the Challenge classes have exceeded even our most ambitious expectations in terms of how they've been received, and what the byproduct of those categories has done for our series. They've done exactly what's been intended, which was to attract some new contents into the series – not with the idea the Challenge classes were the destination, but that they became a step on the ladder. Ideally we bring in new teams, drivers, sponsors, manufacturers, to hit that level, and watch them build and grow into the higher ranks. That's exactly what's occurring. I see it as an example of, don't fix it if it's not broken.
Now, we haven't made final decisions post-2012. The original commitment to both categories was, at a minimum, three years. That's the season we're about to begin right there. Because of what we've referenced, we don't see the need to make radical changes.
I would say that like every category, there is an effective usable life to any product, in this case a racecar. So the potential of a next-generation LMPC car is certainly on the horizon. But as a category, and as to what it represents, it's a very value-rich opportunity to race a proper prototype at a very high level and professional setting. That won't change.
As far as the GTC category goes, that is more of a “to-be-determined” situation right now. We've had a lot of interest from a lot of different manufacturers to introduce their brand into the GTC category. One of the benefits of the way we have GTC configured now, is that it's a single-marque, and that it's relatively affordable with a high return for a team, sponsor, driver to participate. We don't want to lose that either.
I know that's not a specific direction, but that's because we haven't confirmed it to a point of going public.
Q: With that said, the GT3 platform is pretty popular worldwide. How would you see that potentially fitting in, with homologating or integrating those types of cars into ALMS?
A: Yes, and that's a very different dynamic added to the discussion. The GTC car that we are utilizing is not the FIA-spec GT3 car. It shares the same platform, but it's a substantially different piece of equipment.
If we were – and I'm not suggesting we're going to – but to explore a GT3 configuration, I think it would potentially cause a lot of concern within our existing GT2 – or, GTE – field. That's for sure a situation we wouldn't want to jeopardize by any means.
We have the most competitive, most diversified, GT racing in the world right now. Many people – not just myself – but folks who have been around for decades, reference the ALMS GT ranks as the best production-based GT racing that has ever occurred. That includes the peak of the Trans-Am era in the 1970s. That's something we're proud of and don't want to jeopardize for the future.