It’s only natural for fans to clamor for a Wild Wild West, run-what-ya-brung level of open warfare between automakers and race teams. But this model from decades past will never come back.
For a variety of reasons – chiefly economic – most forms of racing today are tightly administered competitions. There are basically two ways to achieve this.
Spec Racing or Balance of Performance. Choose your poison.
How did we get to this point?
First of all, modern racing is a conglomerate of business and sport with a social obligation to make the competition as safe as possible for participants and spectators. While speed and excitement are the ultimate goals, the pursuit must not come at a human cost.
Up until the 1970s, technological advances made racing cars faster and faster. But this was a deadly era across the motorsport spectrum, with driver fatalities all too common. Therefore, the focus shifted to reducing and controlling speed to make the sport safer.
In the ’80s and ’90s, designers struggled with increasingly restrictive sets of rules, resulting in copycat cars that were difficult for even trained experts to tell apart. Creative breakthroughs like the Ilmor-Mercedes overhead valve engine that won the 1994 Indianapolis 500 were hastily banned if they gave a manufacturer or team a competitive advantage or posed an economic threat.
To continue with IndyCar racing as an example, economic pressures led to a natural attrition among manufacturers, and the result was, somewhat organically, a switch to specialty racing. CART was the first to adopt a Lola/Ford-Cosworth/Bridgestone combo in 2003, followed a few years later by the IRL’s Dallara/Honda/Firestone package. The current NTT IndyCar series, with league-mandated Dallara chassis and body, Firestone tires and a choice of two highly regulated V-6 twin-turbo engines, is anything but a spec series.
The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship is the polar opposite, particularly in the GT3-based classes, with no fewer than 10 competing manufacturers. This is a Balance of Performance series where the sanctioning body manages a group of noticeably different cars toward a common performance goal. The only constant is the control of Michelin tires.
Given IMSA’s ties to NASCAR, it’s not surprising that BoP is the preferred form of achieving parity, given that NASCAR has been doing things that way for decades. Things are a bit more advanced now, but the basic thought process is still: Brand X can’t compete with Brand Y? Give or take a little spoiler to help them out.
Both methods of rule-making have their advantages and disadvantages. By their very nature, spec races are significantly more cost-effective and, by definition, level the playing field and therefore highlight the skill and ability of individual teams and drivers.
On the other hand, it goes against the basic spirit of competition not to allow any significant further development of the cars. There is no outlet or reward for creativity or ingenuity. You end up with a generic array of cars that all look and sound the same. This is particularly problematic when a formula is stagnant; Fans want to see something new and different, especially in a technology-driven sport like racing.
In a BoP series there is a real incentive for innovation and effort, resulting in a variety of technical solutions to pursue the same performance benchmark – such as front, mid or rear engines from four to 12 cylinders. The diversity of participating manufacturers creates a real competitive character that has marketing advantages – especially for production-based classes.
Negatives are more expensive than a specification series and this technical diversity is significantly more difficult for the sanctioning body to regulate. There is also more potential for the rule makers to micromanage, leading to dissent among competitors.
Oddly enough, with the move to the next-gen car this year, NASCAR has become somewhat of a hybrid Spec/BoP series. While the engines remain exclusive to the manufacturer, the chassis and many other key car components are now standardized and the body is a single specification with individual Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota noses and other styling cues, developed after close collaboration with NASCAR approved.
IMSA is by far the most technically diverse form of racing in America right now, and that diversity will increase in 2023 when the new GTP class will use BoP and a shared hybrid system to create theoretical parity between prototypes built to the LMDh formula of IMSA and the The FIA World Endurance Championship Hypercar.
It is a difficult task for IMSA, but an exciting problem. With Acura, BMW, Cadillac and Porsche (in association with Team Penske) already committed to launching LMDh prototypes in 2023, and Lamborghini and potentially other manufacturers to join in the future, it is crucial for IMSA to getting the GTP-BoP correct (or at least somewhere close) from the jump – especially given the lead in testing that Porsche Penske Motorsport has already achieved.
Spec Racing has its selling points. The competition is usually tight and compelling, and the majority of viewers probably don’t care that it’s kind of artificial closeness because all the cars are the same. In that regard, Spec Racing is ideal for ladder series like Indy Lights and IMSA LMP3, for young drivers proving themselves on the way up, or gentlemen racers a little further down the road.
Balance of Performance is easy to criticize, but sports car racing is using it effectively in the US and internationally to sustain an open market that has resulted in a growing field that’s amazingly diverse — really grids full of race cars from a variety of manufacturers looking different and different sound, but accumulate within a few seconds (or less) after 12 or 24 hours of competition.
It’s clearly the lesser of two evils.
#OPINION #Choose #poison #RACER