As teams prepared to descend on Sebring International Raceway in two weeks for the 62nd running of the 12 hours of Sebring, Level 5 motorsports has surprised the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship with the announcement of their departure from the series, effective immediately. The announcement made on Wednesday by team manager David Stone, marks the first occasion in which a team has publicly acknowledge that IMSA policy changes were the primary reason for their departure.
Despite having won the GTD class in this year’s running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona. The four-time American Le Mans Series class champions, which fielded a pair of Ferrari 458 Italia GT3 cars and scored its first class victory at Daytona with drivers Bill Sweedler, Townsend Bell, Jeff Segal, Alessandro Pier Guidi and team owner Scott Tucker, has decided to leave the series. “The decision was 100 percent my responsibility,” Stone stated, “Scott Tucker has placed all operational responsibilities and decisions squarely on my shoulders. Based on various reasons, it’s my opinion that participation in the TUDOR Championship for 2014 is not in the best interest of Level 5.”
Initially set to run the entire 11-round TUDOR United SportsCar Championship fielding at least one Ferrari, team manager David Stone made the decision to pull the plug on the program Monday. “I want to be really clear that I’m not trying to be negative or disrespectful of the TUDOR Championship. I have no ill will or negativity against them. They need to do what they feel is right for them, just as I must do the same for Level 5.”
Stone stated there were a number of factors that contributed to his decision, including IMSA’s ruling at the Rolex 24 that initially penalized the race-leading No. 555 Ferrari for avoidable contact. Although the No. 45 Flying Lizard Motorsports Audi R8 LMS crew celebrated as winners in victory lane, IMSA later reversed the penalty and awarding Level 5 the win.
According to Stone, the team, in his opinion, should not have entered the series in 2014 to begin with as this being a development year for the series. “As was apparent, the time fame it was taking for them to provide rules and driver rankings led me to believe they’ve got their hands full and I do not envy the position they were and are still in.” He stated, “The series needs time to sort itself out and I don’t want to be one of the participants that has to suffer through that the first year. I feel that the series has focused more on quantity than quality. The reality is you can only properly support so many teams at any given track at one time.”
Additional factors weighted into the teams decision, initially Level had received interest for three customer Prototype Challenge cars, however due to IMSA’s initial class capacity regulations released in October, along with a revision in the schedule, these prospective clients opted to pull out. Stone also attributed the series’ reduction in paddock space to their decision. “Right now, it’s a reorganization and reshuffle of Level 5 to do what is sensible for the team,” he said. “If the right opportunity presents itself to start another race-winning operation, then we would consider doing that. Our options are wide open.”
Stone also made mention of his views towards policy and rule changes, stating “I feel like every team that has a full-season entry should have an elected representative from their team, there should be regular meetings with a certain list of topics to be debated, decided and voted on.” He continued, “I believe until racers have a voice to create a series that they want to race in, it is unlikely to change in any significant and meaningful way,” Stone makes a strong point, as the TUDOR Championship continues to make changes, it would be wise to listen to the drivers and teams. “Create a series that’s consistent with what racers want as opposed to a sanctioning body dictating the environment. After all, we are the customers.”
While Stone has stated that a return to the TUDOR Championship in any class this year is unlikely for Level 5, the team is actively exploring programs in the Pirelli World Challenge, using the same Ferraris used at Daytona. In addition, the will also continue to manage and support cars in the Ferrari Challenge.
As for the future of drivers Bill Sweedler and Townsend Bell, who currently lead the GTD drivers’ championship, rumors have begun to circulate through the community of a deal being worked out with AIM Autosport. As reported last fall, the Grand-Am Rolex GT champions AIM Autosport were close to fielding a single Ferrari in the GTD class for the 2014 season; however that deal unfortunately fell through. A connection between the two teams has already been established as Ian Willis, team principle at AIM Autosport, attended the Rolex 24 and worked with Level 5. Stone commented that “AIM is who I recommended to Bill and Townsend to carry on with; we’ll assist their program if that’s what ends up happening,”
We will continue to watch these developments as this could potentially spark additional departures from the series. It has been public knowledge since the creation of the TUDOR Championship that increasing cost and continued rule and policy changes have been a factor for many teams deciding their future. The comments and reasons behind Level 5’s departure are legitimate, and may cause additional teams to reevaluate their plans for the 2014 TUDOR United SportsCar Championship.