Drivers relish adding their input to GTP development

Drivers relish adding their input to GTP development

As the new LMDh prototypes that will compete in the 2023 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship were unveiled in recent months, the focus was naturally on the styling and engineering of these high-tech machines. The state-of-the-art, hybrid-powered prototypes from Porsche, Cadillac, Acura and BMW are the result of thousands of hours of wind tunnel research and computer simulations.

Now that testing and development of the LMDh cars that will compete in the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class has entered the full on-track phase, drivers become an increasingly important part of the equation. It’s up to them to verify and correlate theoretical data generated by the engineers and technicians with their real-world, seat-of-the-pants experience and expertise.

Truly new cars don’t come along very often in the modern era, so it’s a responsibility that drivers relish.

“Oh my God, this is a dream come true,” Ricky Taylor exclaimed after stepping out of the Acura ARX-06 LMDh prepared by Wayne Taylor Racing following a recent test day at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta. “Personally as a driver, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“I think for any driver, you dream that you can be part of a new car, to be able to put your fingerprint upon it,” Taylor continued. “Filipe (Albuquerque, co-driver) and I both talk about it a lot. This is our chance to really make this car ours, to work with Honda Performance Development. This car was really built from the ground up with the experience of Filipe and I from the DPi era and HPD’s experience, along with WTR’s experience over the course of their sports car racing career.”

Sebastien Bourdais has been part of new car development programs in Indy cars, Formula 1 and sports cars over the last 20 years. He’s seen the process evolve as lessons learned from the past and the power of computer modeling have combined to produce racing cars that are a much more “finished” product straight out of the box now.

Bourdais, who is developing the Cadillac V-LMDh with Chip Ganassi Racing co-driver Renger van der Zande, was impressed by the new car’s baseline from the first time it hit the track.

“With all the sim work and all the tools that the teams and manufacturers have at their disposal, the cars are not completely optimized, but they’re darn close to raceable race cars straight out of the truck,” he said. “That’s amazing — but for me, the old guy, that’s a little sad, because I loved those days when you threw a car on the track and you didn’t know if it was going to turn left or right.

“With this car, there was a lot of work done pre-running that actually, surprisingly, correlates with the track,” Bourdais added. “That gives you a good idea of how close those tools are these days to reality. For sure, it compresses the development time and how much it takes you to get to where you want to be. It’s quite amazing.”

Along with refining engine driveability and handling of the new GTP contenders, the drivers are learning how to maximize the potential of the hybrid system that stores and deploys electric power in multiple ways. Bourdais is stimulated by the challenge of developing new skills as a driver.

“Everything is different,” he remarked. “That’s part of every new car program, and that’s also what makes it fun. You’re not doing the same stuff over and over again. You’ve got to dismiss what you think you know and start with a fresh mind and get going with new ideas and new ways to function. That’s why it’s never boring because you very frequently have kind of a big reset.”

Van der Zande enjoys the teamwork aspect among the drivers that goes into developing a new car. It’s the only time that he and Bourdais will work directly with their Cadillac counterparts Pipo Derani and Alexander Sims, the drivers for Action Express Racing.

Sports car drivers are always expected to work together, but the spirit of collaboration when working in a group environment to get a car up to speed is even stronger than on race weekends.

“There’s a little bit of ‘no ego’ whenever you go onto a track in the early days because there is no pressure to put in a good lap time,” van der Zande said. “So many things are changing. The biggest thing is that it brings a different perspective, and we all become better as a group. When four drivers are contributing, there is always an angle you are not seeing from your own perspective. It’s like putting everything you know on the table and sharing instead of keeping it to yourself.

“Everyone is working toward a common goal of sharing the evolution of the car, because everything that goes well with the evolution is going to be better for you.”

While improvements in technology have sped up and refined the process of designing and creating a new racing car, the driver is still the crucial final piece of the puzzle in terms of extracting performance and lap times.

In a computer-driven arena, the human element is still absolutely vital.

“That’s why manufacturers hire some drivers instead of others,” Bourdais said. “I’m very proud and honored to be a part of Cadillac Racing. We have great lineups and we’re hoping to make a difference, for sure.”

Manufacturers will continue private testing of their LMDh cars ahead of the next IMSA-sanctioned test Dec. 6-7 at Daytona International Speedway. The 2023 WeatherTech Championship season begins with Roar Before the Rolex 24 testing, Jan. 20-22, ahead of the 61st Rolex 24 At Daytona on Jan. 28-29.