The 2018 IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge might be the most anticipated season yet, with several key storylines already developing.
The third in a series of articles, here are 10 big questions surrounding the Continental Tire Challenge GT heading into next season:
1. Which manufacturers will field GT4 cars and how will they compare to returning manufacturers?
The anticipation surrounding the 2018 Continental Tire Challenge Grand Sport (GS) class grows every day. Next season, all cars competing in the class will use GT4 technical specifications. Manufacturers immediately expressed interest in the platform after that 2016 decision, which will bear even more fruit in 2018.
This year saw Aston Martin, Chevrolet, Ford, McLaren and Porsche debut their GT4 cars with each manufacturer winning at least one race. At a minimum, new GT4 models from Audi, BMW and Mercedes-AMG are expected in 2018. One would have to dig deep into the record books to find when GS competition was previously this diverse.
How will the newcomers compare to returning manufacturers? Several teams in the Street Tuner (ST) class have made their intentions known about moving up to GS, but what new teams could enter the picture? Which manufacturer will outlast the others when the checkered flag falls at Road Atlanta next October?
2. How many manufacturers will participate in TCR’s first year of North American competition?
TCR is one of the biggest and most intriguing questions heading into 2018. IMSA is the first sanctioning body to incorporate TCR fully into North American sports car racing, and the interest from manufacturers started from Day One, including existing and potentially new manufacturers.
This new class will feature four- or five-door racecars, such as hatchbacks and sedans, and will perform between the GS and ST classes. All manufacturers with marketing investments in the United States are welcome to participate, so the question becomes which manufacturers will branch out in this new class? With each marque and each team on the same learning curve, which will come out on top?
3. Can Porsche repeat its performance in GS for another championship?
The Porsche Cayman GT4 appeared to be the “car of choice” in 2017 for most teams in GS, with six Porsches making up the 13-car field at the season-ending FOX Factory 120 at Road Atlanta. The manufacturer only totaled two wins, but brought home what mattered most – the driver, team and manufacturer championships.
Bodymotion Racing, CJ Wilson Racing, RS1, and Team TGM all fielded Porsches this year. Will each return to the championship-winning manufacturer? A Porsche race car landed on the podium in seven of 10 races this year, even sweeping the steps at the BMW Endurance Challenge at Daytona. How strong will its presence be felt with the incoming competition?
4. Can McLaren add more accomplishments after a rollercoaster first year?
McLaren gathered a handful of trophies throughout its first season of IMSA Continental Tire Challenge competition in 2017. Paul Holton, Matt Plumb and C360R delivered the manufacturer’s first checkered flag at Circuit of The Americas in May. A McLaren also led the field to green five times as the pole winner in 2017 – four times by Holton and once by Chris Green with Motorsports In Action.
However, there were a few growing pains along the way. Inevitably, mechanical issues arise during the development of a new car, but how will McLaren and its teams attack this offseason to resolve those first-year problems? If they do, will it be McLaren’s turn on the top step on 2018?
5. Has Motorsports In Action put its bad luck behind them?
One of the biggest “What If” questions of 2017 concerns that of the Canadian team Motorsports In Action. What if a last-minute mechanical issue didn’t keep the car from competing at Circuit of The Americas? What if late-race contact from another competitor didn’t spoil a podium finish at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca?
The answers to these questions may have easily positioned the team, in just its rookie year of IMSA competition, atop the championship standings. After closing out the season in its McLaren GT4 with a win at Road Atlanta, this team could be one to watch with the talented duo of Jesse Lazare and Chris Green – both graduates of the IMSA-sanctioned Ultra 94 Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge by Yokohama – but only if the bad luck remains in the past. Where will they stack up in their sophomore season?
6. With a season-long lineup, what surprises could Ford bring?
Ford closely competed with Porsche in the 2017 manufacturer championship, ultimately finishing second by just seven points. Ford had three wins to its name, but on any given weekend, the driver lineups and number of cars competing in each race were a mystery.
KohR Motorsports, who posted all three of Ford’s wins, rotated a total of five drivers in either one or two cars. VOLT Racing, led in its first season by owner and co-driver Alan Brynjolfsson, switched from a McLaren GT4 to a Ford Mustang GT4 midway through 2017.
If KohR or VOLT, or even a new team, compete with a season-long lineup in a Ford Mustang GT4, could Ford win the GS title?
7. With Eric Foss and Jeff Mosing moving up to GS, who will slide into ST’s top spot?
The No. 56 Murillo Racing team is going out on top as 2017 ST-class champions.
The team started the year with five consecutive podiums, and after Foss scored his second championship in four years, he is looking to tie all-time leader Scott Maxwell with three titles in the series. Murillo Racing also took home the 2017 team championship and helped Porsche win its fourth consecutive ST manufacturer title.
However, the defending champions have their eyes on moving up the ranks to the GS class. Will the longtime partnership of Foss and Mosing smooth over any speed bumps that come with a new car, new class and new competitors? With Murillo’s move, which ST team will take the honors in 2018?
8. After breakthrough victories in 2017, how will MINI perform in 2018?
Right out of the gate in 2017, the MINI JCW Team showed they were a force to be reckoned with, as they scored the underdog victory at the season-opening, four-hour BMW Endurance Challenge at Daytona. Two victories, including a 1-2 sweep at Watkins Glen, were a dramatic improvement from 2016 when the manufacturer failed to place on the podium at all.
Three MINIs were on the entry list each race in 2017, but what will the 2018 lineup look like? How will MINI JCW Team, led by Team Principal Luis Perocarpi, follow up its most successful year yet?
9. Can Mazda return to the top of the ST standings?
Freedom Autosport came within minutes of delivering Mazda’s second consecutive ST championship in 2016. With three cars, Freedom was considered an early favorite entering 2017, but a slow start to the season hindered any chance for Mazda to regain first place.
The No. 25 and No. 27 Freedom Autosport cars finished 1-2 in consecutive races this year at Lime Rock Park and Road America. The No. 26 also posted its best result in September, a runner-up finish at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
After being minutes shy in 2016 and coming on very strong towards the end of 2017, will Freedom Autosport field all three cars again in 2018? If so, which car could return the marque to its former glory?
10. How will the series’ global impact expand with the incorporation of universal regulations?
In January 2018, the hours, days and years of planning for the future of the Continental Tire Challenge will finally come to fruition. With the integration of universal specifications like GT4 and TCR, the series has emerged as a global platform for premium manufacturers to compete on the best road courses in North America.
The sky is the limit for the series, with some manufacturers announcing their intentions to join the Continental Tire Challenge in either GS or TCR, and in some cases, both. Next season is expected to be a breakout year for the series, so who will make it to the grid in 2018? Could we see previously unseen cars in North America that have not been able to race here because of the new universal specifications? One thing is for certain; the arrow is pointing straight up for the Continental Tire Challenge.