Why would an iconic company like Porsche end factory support in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s GTLM class when it was on a roll?
To wit, CORE Autosport won the 2019 class championship and despite some bad breaks, took the checkered flag in the last three races of the 2020 season.
Then, there’s the fact that Porsches have been a motorsports mainstay in both professional and Sports Car Club of America club racing, not to mention Porsche Club of America competition, for decades.
SPEED SPORT spoke with Pascal Zurlinden, Porsche’s head of Motorsport Factory programs about where the company has been and where it’s going.
Porsche’s past in the U.S. is impressive.
“Porsche has a big history in America,” Zerlinden said. “It’s like the DNA of our brand to go endurance racing particularly at Le Mans, but in America it has been huge for us and one big thing for us were the Group C cars (962 prototypes) of the ’80s and ’90s when you see many Porsches were at the top and on the grids in the U.S.”
Although the company ended its factory support in GTLM, it will have a strong presence on IMSA starting grids this season. Zurlinden says Porsche’s presence will be in two classes.
“This year we will not only be present in the Carrera Cup, you will also see customers running in the GTD class, the GT4 class and in GTLM but only for one race at Daytona,” Zurlinden said. “Our presence in IMSA was more than the factory teams. Last year, we only had one car, but without saying too much we could have three to four customer cars for the full season in GTD.”
The Carrera Cup is a Porsche-only racing series. Like GTD, it’s a “spec” class and all cars are identical with no modifications allowed.
It’s a “ladder” class, a place for younger or inexperienced drivers to strut their stuff in hopes an established team will “call them up from the minors,” so to speak.
Speaking of one such class, Canadian Pfaff Motorsports is a regular in GTD. Pfaff has a rich history of developing up-and-coming Canadian drivers. Although the team’s 2021 driver lineup is set (Porsche factory driver Laurens Vanthoor and Zach Robichon), crew chief Steve Bortolotti always has his eye on promising recruits.
Bartolotti is upbeat about Porsche’s new strategy and the season ahead.
“It’s great for customer racing for Porsche to be at the forefront in North America and it gives competitors more resources, not financial but in terms of drivers and technical support for customer teams,” Bartolotti said. “It’s a great move for Porsche retooling themselves back to their customers. It’s a great strategy as it pertains to us.”
Bartolotti points to the task at hand — winning in a very competitive class.
“GTD is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the most competitive GTD/GT3 platforms in the world,” he explained. “It’s the competiveness among the teams and drivers and the sheer length of some of the races. It makes it one of the hardest championships to win.”
The proof is the teeter-totter championship contest during last year’s season finale at Sebring (Fla.) Int’l Raceway.
Wright Motorsports, a stalwart GTD team, had a strong 2020 season. The team finished just two points behind the class champions, with four podiums and eight top-five finishes. Team principal John Wright isn’t changing a thing for the new season.
“We’re thrilled to be back for another year with the same group we had for 2020,” Wright said. “Consistency was a big part of our success last year and we’re starting off 2021 on the right foot by continuing with our proven formula. From the drivers, to the crew and sponsors, we really created a great organization. I’m proud to have Wright Motorsports back for another year with all these people and partners.”
It helps when the team has veteran factory driver Patrick Long at the wheel. He shares Wright’s enthusiasm for the new season.
“I revel in the aspect of continuity. Having the band back together helps a lot with a view of keeping the momentum of where we left off in 2020,” Long said. “I expect the competition to only ramp up, so the work starts now and through the green dropping for the Rolex 24. I am grateful to have our partners back on board. I am looking forward to this.”
As the season was gearing up to start, Porsche officials made an announcement that goes a long way toward explaining why the company backed away from its factory support of the GTLM category.
For the first time in two decades, the Porsche brand will return to prototype competition in 2023 when the new LMDh car makes its debut in the World Endurance Championship and IMSA.
It’s no small task to marshal the resources to build a completely new LMDh car.
When the veil was lifted, Oliver Blume, CEO of Porsche AG said, “The new LMDh category allows us to fight for overall victories with a hybrid system at the Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring classics without breaking the bank. The project is extremely attractive for Porsche. Endurance racing is part of our brand’s DNA.”
Porsche is no stranger to hybrid racing. Between 2014 and ’17, the 919 LMP1 was highly successful in WEC competition, winning Le Mans three times as well as capturing both the drivers’ and manufacturers’ championships.
Porsche prototypes last raced in the American Le Mans series with the RS Spyder. The RS Spyder debuted at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in 2005 with a class victory. The car, which was fielded by Team Penske, earned three ALMS LMP2 championships and claimed top honors during the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2008 and ’09.
Nevertheless, LMDh is a whole new ball game. The Weissach engineers have to adapt what they did with the 919 to fit the 2023 IMSA and WEC specifications. They will not build the chassis, instead using one of the sanctioned manufacturers.
Michael Steiner, a Porsche research and development board member, says the company is developing three different drive concepts — fully electric, plug- in hybrids and conventional internal combustion engines.
“We want to represent this trilogy in both the development of our cutting-edge road cars and in motorsports,” he said. “We use the all-electric drive to contest the FIA Formula E as part of our works commitment, and the highly efficient and internal combustion unit in GT racing. Now, the LMDh class closes the gap for us. There, powerful hybrid drives — like the ones that are mounted in many of our brand’s models — go up against each other. If the regulations eventually allowed the use of synthetic fuels, then that would be an even greater incentive for me in terms of sustainability.”
Fritz Enzinger, Porsche’s vice president of motorsports, has another perspective.
“We’ve climbed to the top podium step many times at major races in the USA,” he said. “There has been huge interest from other manufacturers. I hope we can pick up where we left off with the famous clashes against many other marques in the ’80s and ’90s. That would give the entire motor racing scene a huge boost.”