Part III of IV on the ALMS
Rocked by a sour economy, decimated by manufacturer defections and a TV deal that has been panned by fans and the media (“It’s About the Content Not the Medium”) the American Le Mans Series is in damage control mode.
Yet the biggest blow to the ALMS may end up being the one thrown by its partner, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest. The ACO are the organizers of the 24 Hours at Le Mans, and partners with the European Le Mans Series (LMS) and North America’s ALMS. In 2010 the ACO started another series, the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup. Known as the ILMC, it is the ACO’s vision of a new world championship series for sports cars. In its second year, the ILMC is boasting strong fields in LMP and GT. At Sebring, round one of the ILMC series, the field was one of the best in recent history and round 2 at SPA boasted a superlative field in LMP and GT and Le Mans is setting up to be another great race.
Sebring, with exception of the new ABC-ESPN TV coverage, was a huge success. The LMP and GT grid was one of the best and the racing was exciting all the way to the end. Had there not been a GT field at Long Beach, there would not have been a race. With only two LMP cars on the grid, the event had to send shivers down the backs of the ALMS hierarchy. If trying to deflect all the criticism over the ABC-ESPN3.com TV Internet package wasn’t enough, how could they dodge and spin this. The ILMC, as feared, is affecting car counts in the ALMS. Manufacturers and teams that would have supported the American LeMans Series have jumped to the world stage and with them sponsors more focused on global market exposure than domestic.
The news only got worse. While not unexpected, (at Sebring several key members of Highcroft Racing had moved to other teams by choice) Highcroft Racing did not return following a brilliant run at Sebring. Within weeks of Long Beach the team withdrew, not unexpected, from Le Mans and Honda ended its participation with the team and series about as unceremoniously as it did in Formula 1.
With Lime Rock next up on the ALMS calendar, the LMP field does not look to be any better than Long Beach. The grid will be made up of a competitive GT field and the slower LMPC cars. Don’t expect this to change until the ILMC race at Petit Le Mans this fall that should attract a strong field madde up of mostly the Euro-based LMP and GT squads competing for the world championship.
As it stands Sebring and Petit Le Mans will be series most relevant races in 2011 for the fans, the teams and their sponsors. This is not good, no matter how you try to the spin it or for the future of the series. Having only two relevant events affects revenues for the teams, the circuits and the ALMS. The ALMS could only have one major event in 2012 at Sebring. Petit-Le Mans almost did not make the ILMC calendar this year and there is no guarantee that it will in 2012. If the ACO can add another race or two, especially in Asia or South America, or both, the Road Atlanta venue is out as an ILMC race and with it a major field.
In 2012 the GT category, the ALMS bread and butter the last couple of years, may lose some key teams to the Grand AM. It would not be a shocker if BMW, already committed to the ILMC, chose the Grand AM as its North American program for prototypes and GT. The same could be true for GM (Corvette) and one Ferrari team. With favorable new Daytona Prototype and GT rules and a better TV package it’s not unrealistic.
Next week, what’s next for the ALMS and what does 2012 and beyond look like will be looked at in the last of this series.