GT Convergence: The Time is Now

Featured photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash

In January 2020, at the 2020 Rolex 24 at Daytona, the LMDh class, based upon what had been known as the second-generation ruleset for the Daytona Prototype International class (DPi 2.0) was announced. This announcement was set to mark the start of a new era for top-level Sports car Prototype racing. A new era which would see teams being able to use a single car to vy for overall victory at all 3 legs of the Triple Crown of Endurance Racing for the first time in nearly 2 decades, with LMDh being placed in the same performance window as the Le Mans Hypercars.

Thursday’s announcement has brought this vision for a unified top level Prototype class a step closer to reality, with the release of the draft technical regulations, and Global Description for the class. Now that we are on the cusp of achieving top-level Prototype Convergence, and in the middle of the COVID-19 Pandemic, with motorsport budgets expected to be reduced drastically in the aftermath, this begs the following questions: Why do we still have 2 near-identical top-level GT Categories? Why have we yet to achieve GT Convergence

A brief rundown on the history of the modern top-level GT classes – GT3 & GTE

GT3

#63 Orange1 by GRT Grasser – ADAC GT Masters – Image by Stephan Wershoven on Flickr

GT3, which widely is used in both Pro and Pro-Am GT Championships today, was originally designed as a customer racing platform in 2006, sitting below the GT1 and GT2 categories of the FIA GT Championship. It was created by the Stephane Ratel Organisation (SRO), in collaboration with the FIA. In 2010, the FIA GT Championship and the FIA GT3 European Championships were split and reorganised into 3 championships, with independent teams running all cars. The FIA GT1 class would run in the GT1 World Championship, intended for professional drivers, while GT2 would run in the FIA GT2 European Championship, intended for pro-am driver crews. GT3 would run in the FIA GT3 European Championship, intended for non-professional drivers.

This arrangement did not last long, and was ultimately unsuccessful. The GT2 European Championship was postponed, and was run as the GT2 European Cup in 2010, with a single round, the 24 Hours of Spa. After a single run in 2010, the GT2 European Cup did not return, and the class would effectively disappear from competition sanctioned by the SRO. In its second year, the GT1 World Championship saw a sharp decline in car counts, and after a mere 14 cars ran in the mid-season RAC Tourist Trophy, a “GT World class” was planned for 2012. It was planned to feature performance-balanced 2011 GT1 cars, 2009 GT2 cars and 2011 GT3 cars, competing in a single FIA GT World Championship. This never happened, and in 2012, the championship was run solely with GT3 cars, as the existing field of GT1 cars was found to no longer be sufficient. The championship would fold at the end of the year. For 2013, it morphed into the FIA GT Series, later becoming the Blancpain Sprint Series, featuring a mix of independent and factory-supported teams.

GTE

#4 Corvette Racing Corvette C7.R – WeatherTech SportsCar Championship – Image by Garret Voight on Flickr

GTE on the other hand, had its origins in the FIA GT2 class of the FIA GT Championship. While SRO sanctioned series had effectively abandoned the GT2 platform by the end of 2010, the opposite happened with the ACO. The ACO chose to cut the GT1 class from its sanctioned competition for 2011, following the lead of the IMSA sanctioned American Le Mans Series, who had done so in 2009. The LM GT2 class was then promoted as the top GT class in ACO sanctioned competition, renamed as LM GTE and split into the GTE Pro and Am classes. Both subclasses are still run in the World Endurance Championship (WEC) today. Only the Am sub-class is used in the European Le Mans Series (ELMS), while the IMSA Weathertech Sportscar Championship (WTSC) runs the class under the GTLM banner, with no Pro or Am subclasses.

2014’s failed attempt at Convergence

A previous attempt at GT Convergence in 2014 failed at the 11th hour, following disagreements between GTE and GT3 manufacturers on engines. Initial proposals had centred on the creating a single GT class, before discussions shifted to each manufacturer having a base car, which could be modified to fit two different classes, known as GT and GT+. The “GT” Class would have served as a direct replacement for GT3, while forming the basis of the higher “GT+” class, which would replace GTE. The FIA had sought to utilise a common engine for the categories, which would see manufacturers developing both factory and customer-based car packages atop a common platform. This concept is similar to what Aston Martin and Ferrari have done with their latest GT offerings. While the manufacturers agreed on the chassis concept, they were unable to find common ground regarding the engine. Most manufacturers currently involved in GTE wanted to retain sonic engine air-restrictors, while the GT3 manufacturers favoured an alternative system, and the use of production-based engines.

The Current Situation

GTE: Stagnating manufacturer interest

In 2014, at the time of the convergence talks, there were 5 manufacturers (Aston Martin, Corvette, Dodge, Ferrari, Porsche). However, since then, the number of manufacturers in GTE have remained stagnant. The number had remained at 5 in 2020 (Aston Martin/BMW/Corvette/Ferrari/Porsche), following the withdrawals of Dodge and Ford at the end of 2014, and 2019 respectively.

In addition, of the 5 marques listed, only 3 (Aston Martin, Ferrari, and Porsche) are currently competing in the World Endurance Championship. Previously, during the 2018-19 season, BMW ran a works-supported programme, although it was later discontinued following just one season in the WEC. However, its’ IMSA WTSC program with BMW Team RLL in GTLM was unaffected, with the team securing a class victory at the 2020 Rolex 24 at Daytona.

It should be noted that compared to GT3, which can be found in many national and international championships worldwide, GTE is used only in a handful of series, namely the European Le Mans Series, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, and the FIA World Endurance Championship.

GT3: Going from strength to strength

Unlike GTE, GT3 has continued to prove popular with manufacturers. The class boasts over 10 different manufacturers, and a total of 52 cars have been homologated with the FIA as of 2019. Factory-supported GT3 Competition has also risen in popularity, with the number of manufacturers participating in the Intercontinental GT Challenge rising from 4 in the first year of the series (2016), to 8 in 2019.

Convergence during the 2022 rules cycle?

Both GTE and GT3 had been due for a rule refresh in 2022, once more bringing about the possibility of convergence. In past interviews, Corvette Racing programme manager Doug Fehan, as well as BMW Motorsport director Jens Marquardt had expressed interest in convergence. However, Porsche Director of GT Factory Motorsports, Pascal Zurlinden had disagreed, stressing the importance of maintaining separate platforms for factory and pro-am racing. However, when the 2022 GT3 regulations were confirmed and released to manufacturers in December 2019, no mention of convergence was made in the media.

Why convergence is inevitable

Works-Supported Motorsport: The Electric Factor & COVID-19

Last week, Audi announced it would cease to compete in the DTM, owing to the high costs of running both it’s works Formula E and DTM Programmes – Image by Matt Buck on Flickr

For now, it appears that GT Convergence is highly unlikely to occur within the 2022 rules cycle, given that the 2022 GT3 regulations have already been approved by the FIA World Motor Sport Council. However, with the rise of electric motorsport seeing more manufacturers divert funds towards Electric Motorsport, budgets for conventionally powered motorsport are likely to shrink in the coming years.

The situation is not helped by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has also hit the Automotive Industry hard, with the lack of sales caused by movement control orders in various countries causing manufacturers to halt production, shrinking the amount of capital on hand for manufacturers. This in turn, will lead to manufacturers reviewing, and likely reducing or cutting funding for non-essential expenditures such as motorsport, a likely situation which FIA President Jean Todt had acknowledged earlier in the week.

Last week saw Audi announce the termination of its Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) programme following the 2020 season, owing to the high costs of running both its Formula E and DTM works programmes. The decision comes as parent company Volkswagen Group continues its pivot towards electric mobility, with Volkswagen Motorsport having announced in November 2019 that it would terminate all internal combustion engine-based motorsport activities. Following that initial announcement by Volkswagen Motorsport, Audi had already terminated its factory campaign in the FIA World Touring Car Cup (WTCR) in December 2019, a day after the factory-supported WRT had announced its departure from the series.

The cost of constructing and designing 2 different cars for 2 near-identical categories is expensive. Development costs are easily incurred through a variety of means, including crash-testing, aerodynamic work, and on track testing. In the post COVID-19 economic landscape, with manufacturers attempting to cut any unnecessary costs, this increasingly unsustainable practice is unlikely to remain viable for long.

Privateers: COVID-19’s financial impact & the cost of competition

Owing to COVID-19, which has led to the cessation of motorsport activities indefinitely, it is quite likely that many independent teams have been hit financially. Most Privateers are dependent on funding from sponsorships, or funds from Gentlemen Drivers to contribute towards the team budgets, with certain teams running testing programmes as a means of providing additional funding. Sponsor agreements are complex and may include several clauses that specify a list of conditions to be made for payments to be delivered to teams. In times like these, where the brand exposure for sponsors is virtually non-existent due to a lack of racing, it is highly possible that pay-outs will be reduced. The poor global economic outlook may also lead to sponsor dropouts or non-payment, with the shortfall in funds leading to missed races, or in some cases, teams closing their doors.

Like almost all race cars, the prices of GTE and GT3 cars are never listed on the manufacturer’s sLike almost all race cars, the prices of GTE and GT3 cars are never listed on the manufacturer’s sites, but based on information available online, most GT3 cars have a price that falls in the region of below €500,000, not inclusive of spare parts. The price of most GTE cars on the other hand, while differing between marques, is much steeper, with the Porsche 911 RSR (2017) coming in at €991,000, while a 2018 estimate by Dailysportscar gave the price of a Aston Martin Vantage GTE at £750,000 GBP (roughly €848,00 EUR). It should also be noted that of the 5 GTE cars, only the Ferrari and the Aston Martin can be converted between GT3 and GTE specification. Dailysportscar also estimated the cost of a conversion kit to be £200,000.

WithWith the figures given above, Dailysportscar estimated a team competing in both GT3 and GTE with a single Aston Martin Vantage chassis could easily save £500k GBP, excluding the cost of spares packages. For a two-car team, the savings would be multiplied.

Final Thoughts

GT Convergence is a topic that was discussed over half a decade ago, and is something that continues to be brought up from time to time. In these trying times, where funds are tight for both manufacturers and privateers, it is indeed the perfect time to bring about discussions for convergence once more. With the limited opportunities for competition in GTE, compared to GT3, GT Convergence is a topic that was discussed over half a decade ago and is something that continues to be brought up from time to time. In these trying times, where funds are tight for both manufacturers and privateers, it is indeed the perfect time to bring about discussions for convergence once more. With the limited opportunities for competition in GTE, compared to GT3, and the high-costs involved for manufacturers and privateers running campaigns in both categories, perhaps it is time to return to the discussion table to decide upon a single unified direction for GT racing, or at the bare minimum, the shared chassis “GT” & “GT+” concepts of 2014.

While the rules for the 2022 GT3 rules cycle have been approved, with the current worldwide situation, could there be a possibility of a delay in introducing the new regulations? It is certainly a possibility, one that could be made in the name of cost reduction, and a move that has been made by both Formula 1 and Formula E. Both championships have announced that competitors will carry their cars (F1) and powertrains (FE) over for the next racing season, with F1 delaying the introduction of a new technical ruleset, while Formula E has delayed a bodywork update for the Gen2 car. Should the 2022 GT3 rules cycle be delayed, it could be possible for GT Convergence talks to begin once more, and hopefully result in a positive outcome for all parties involved.