Monday, December 28, 2015

2016 Sports Car Predictions

Christmas is in the rearview mirror and 2016 is days away and the sports car season is not that far behind and it kicks off with consecutive 24-hour races; one in Dubai and one in Daytona. Six series will be featured and each will have two predictions. From LMP1 to LMP3, GTE to GT3, here are go.

1. FIA WEC: All Three LMP1 Manufactures Score Over 200 Points
If you thought the 2015 championship battle was great, I think the 2016 could be a little bit better. Toyota was hungover in 2015 but has sobered up for 2016 and I think the Japanese manufacture will give Porsche and Audi a tougher fight. All three manufactures are so balanced that it's tough to pick a favorite to just run away with it. Porsche just won the title but we just saw Toyota struggled mightily after winning the title and Audi is Audi and isn't going anywhere. It is a stretch to say that next November that each manufacture will have one car eligible for the title at the start of the Bahrain finale but I wouldn't be surprised if all three won in 2016 and if there were more races with all three manufactures being represented on the podium.

2. Ferrari Locks Up A GTE Title Before Bahrain
With Proton Competition becoming Porsche's GTE-Pro team, I think AF Corse Ferrari is the favorites for the 2016 World Endurance Cup for GT Manufactures. Last year, Porsche defeated Ferrari by four points for the manufactures' title but Richard Leitz had greater control over the World Endurance Cup for GT Drivers, dethroning Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander by 13.5 points. However, as respectable as Proton Competition is as a team and while Aston Martin will still be there and Ford enters as a fourth manufacture, Ferrari has the goods to dominate in 2016. While the 458 Italia has been put out to pasture and the 488 Italia is the new kid on the block, AF Corse dominated the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup in the 458's debut season in 2011. Porsche is going through changes, Aston Martin's driver lineup isn't set and Ford will struggle for part of the season. This is Ferrari's title to lose.

3. IMSA: A Race Victory Falls Into Ligier's Lap
Last year I said LMP2 cars wouldn't win at all in 2015 and I was right. My tune is changing for 2016. Chip Ganassi Racing will be gone from the Prototype ranks after the 24 Hours of Daytona. Mazda will be there but how competitive will they actually be for race victories? The future of the DeltaWing is unknown. Action Express Racing kept the João Barbosa/Christian Fittipaldi band together and Dane Cameron/Eric Curran is a respectable driver line-up. The Taylor Brothers are still there and Spirit of Daytona Racing returns but with a new driver line-up of Marc Goossens and Ryan Dalziel (and Ryan Hunter-Reay for the three longest races and Long Beach). With the full-time grid likely set at only seven entries, a blind squirrel will find a nut. Michael Shank Racing nearly won at Belle Isle and Mosport last year and I don't see why they couldn't steal a victory in 2016. At the same time, I can see Extreme Speed Motorsports taking one of the first two rounds... actually, scratch that. I can see ESM taking Sebring. Ligier will defeat the Corvette DP at least once.

4. BMW Wins At Least Seven Race Between the Two GT Classes
Porsche is coming off the title. Corvette won the big races but stumbled once again after Le Mans. Ford is getting all the attention. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing BMW kept the driver line-ups together (John Edwards/Lucas Luhr and Bill Auberlen/Dirk Werner) and each won a race in 2015 with the latter taking two victories. Heck, Auberlen and Werner jumped the Daytona-Sebring sweeping duo of Antonio García and Jan Magnussen for second in the championship to Patrick Pilet. However, I expect BMW to be very competitive in GT Daytona as the class has adopted GT3 specifications. Turner Motorsports has put together two exceptional driver combinations in Bret Curtis/Jens Klingmann and Michael Marsal/Markus Palttala. GTD will be fun to watch in 2016 as there has been a proliferation in Lamborghini entries, new Audi entries on the grid, plenty of Porsches and the threatening Vipers.

5. Pirelli World Challenge: Patrick Long Finishes in the Top Two of the Championship
The prodigal son is coming home (to the United States that is). Patrick Long replaces Ryan Dalziel at EFFORT Racing Porsche and his name goes to the top of the list of championship contenders behind only Johnny O'Connell. Long is the last driver to win the PWC title since O'Connell and Cadillac have gone on their run of domination. He won of four of twelve races in 2011 when he last competed full-time in PWC. He won the last PWC race he competed in (a one-off at Miller Motorsports Park in 2012). You could argue Dalziel was the best driver in PWC last season. He only won two races but had ten podiums while O'Connell only scored five and Olivier Beretta had seven. Dalziel finished third in the championship despite missing three races due to FIA WEC duties. When Renger van der Zande ran the Sonoma round as a substitute, the Dutchman finished second and first. EFFORT Racing has the goods and they have a driver that can deliver. If Long doesn't win the title, he will at least make it close.

6. Four Different Manufactures Are Represented in the Top Five of GTS
Last year, three manufactures were represented in the top five with Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet's Michael Cooper taking the team's third consecutive title over Ford's Andrew Aquilante and Porsche's Jack Baldwin. TRG-Aston Martin's Kris Wilson finished sixth in the championship but Wilson won five races, the most victories in GTS and missed six races. Baldwin is switching over to Maserati for 2016. You expect someone will run the new Porsche Cayman GT4. Unfortunately, Kia is leaving the series. Blackdog Speed Shop appears not to be going anywhere, though. TRG and Aston Martin are committed to PWC. There will be a drove of Ford Mustangs out there. I don't see one or two manufactures dominating.

7. Blancpain GT: Belgian Audi Club Team WRT Wins a Specific Championship
Technically this team won titles in 2015. They took the Blancpain GT Series Teams' Championship and Robin Frijns won the Driver's Championship but they should have won a specific title. If it weren't for Laurens Vanthoor breaking his leg at Misano, he and Frijns would have taking the Blancpain Sprint Series title over Bentley's Vincent Abril and Maximilian Buhk. The team also had a shot at the Blancpain Endurance Series title with Stéphane Ortelli (who is leaving the team) and Frank Stippler. Winning the titles for the combination of the two series is nice but you want to take the other pieces of silverware as well. I think they will do that in 2016.

8. The Average Grid Size for Blancpain Sprint Series Will Be Above 20 Entries
I think we are reaching a critical point in the global landscape of GT3 racing. There is nothing wrong with Pirelli World Challenge, European Le Mans Series and Asian Le Mans Series each running GT3-spec cars. But when you get overlap (PWC vs. IMSA, ELMS vs. Blancpain GT vs. British GT vs. ADAC GT Masters, ALMS vs. GT Asia) then problems start to occur. Last year, the BSS grid featured around 18 cars at each round while the BES grids were overflowing with over fifty-plus cars across the three different class at each round. In Europe alone, there are plenty of GT3 sprint series. Along with BSS, there is British GT, ADAC GT Masters and starting in 2016 there will be GT3 Le Mans Cup, a support series to ELMS. However, while I fear GT3 being spread too thin with all these series, I think BSS and Stéphane Ratel has a lot of pull over the GT3 landscape and I think we will larger grids come next year.

9. European Le Mans Series: Jota Sport Scores Fewer Podiums Than in 2015
The team has lost the championship the last two seasons in heartbreaking fashion. Both years Jota Sport has entered as the championship lead and left without a trophy. Jota Sport is a terrific team and deserves a title but with plans to expand to FIA WEC competition in 2016 I think they could be stretching their resources and it could hurt their ELMS effort. They finished on the podium at the first four ELMS round. I still think Jota Sport is an ELMS championship contenders and they don't need four podiums to be champion. Greaves Motorsport won the title and had only three podiums. Despite there being an extra ELMS round in 2016, expecting a team to finish on the podium two-thirds of the time is asking a lot.

10. The Average LMP3 Grid Exceeds Eight Entries
The GTC class (GT3-specs) is gone but I think LMP3 entries will make up for that loss. There were five entries at three of five rounds last year. United Autosport will run a car and Alex Brundle will be one of their drivers. CBP Sport are committed to running at least one car in 2016. Ultimate Racing will enter a Ligier. Ave-Riley is developing an LMP3 chassis. LMP3 will be much more competitive in 2016 and while it's sad to see some GT3 cars go away, I think the fight in LMP3 will make up for it.

11. Asian Le Mans Series: Ferrari Will Not Be Shut Out From Another GT Podium
There are two rounds left in the ALMS season. At Sepang I, the Clearwater Racing McLaren, Team AAI BMW and Team AAI Mercedes made up the GT class podium. Neither the Spirit of Race Ferrari, which finished second at the season opener at Fuji or the Sepang I pole position winning Nexus Infinity Ferrari finishing on the podium. I don't see Ferrari being shut out at Buriram on January 10th or when the series returns to Sepang on January 24th.

12. There Will be At Least One Race Where the LMP3 Winner Finishes Ahead of the GT Winner
It has yet to happen. At Fuji, the GT winning (GT3-specs) Clearwater Racing McLaren and the LMP3 winning DC Racing Ligier finished on the same lap with the McLaren finishing just under 20 seconds ahead. At Sepang I, both LMP3 entries had mechanical issues and the DC Racing Ligier took another victory in class, this time 14 laps behind the Clearwater Racing McLaren. In ELMS, the LMP3 winning car finished ahead of the GTC (GT3-specs) winning only at the final round at Estoril but the LMP3 winner did finish on the same lap in two of the other four rounds. It might be a stretch but I think it will happen.

Don't forget to check out the NASCAR and Et Cetera predictions, which were posted prior to Christmas.