The 2014 racing season is poised to provide us with some of the most memorable moments in recent motorsport history. From major technological advancements to regulation changes, driver signings and even new series, never has there been a year with such major changes across the board.
United SportsCar Racing
North American sports car racing will undergo its biggest change since 1999 when the American Le Mans Series and Grand-Am Road Racing were founded. Earlier this year it was announced that Grand-Am's parent company and racing powerhouse NASCAR purchased the ALMS to create the United SportsCar Racing series, debuting next year at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. The merger marks the end of the top ALMS P1 class, but will still keep the other existing classes, merging the Daytona Prototypes and ALMS P2 as the top tier class, followed by Prototype Challenge (PC), ALMS GT (GTLM), Grand-Am GT (GT Daytona), GT Challenge (GTC) and Grand-Am's GX class. The class restructuring sees a disappointing end to P1 racing in North America, but the new USCR brings with it a stronger, more stable business presence and a more cohesive brand from which drivers, teams and fans will all benefit in the long term.
Le Mans / World Endurance Championship
Moving to the European sports car world, the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (sanctioning body of the 24 Hours of Le Mans) is also introducing a host of changes to its on-track product in an effort to promote efficiency, safety and technology. Beginning next season, the P1 class will consist of closed cockpit-only cars powered by almost regulation-free engines. Gone are the days of air restrictors, 3.4-litre gasoline and 3.7-litre diesel engines.
Instead, manufacturer teams will have free reign on engine size and turbocharging pressure, while privateer engines will be limited to 5.5 litre powerplants. Initially this may seem contradictory to fuel efficiency, but the ACO has balanced it with homologated fuel flow metres for every car, as well as the required use of an Energy Recovery System (ERS) for each manufacturer entry. Depending on the size of the ERS system used (2, 4, 6, or 8 MJ/lap), fuel consumption per lap will correspondingly be reduced from 22 to 32 per cent per lap among manufacturers, and 19 to 24 per cent among privateer LMP1 teams – from a fuel cell that also shrinks by 11 to 14 per cent. It will undoubtedly challenge P1 teams to adopt different technologies and race strategies, and could very well lead to a change in the pecking order.
Along with the technical regulation changes, Porsche is making waves in the endurance world after announcing its return to the 2014 running of Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship. Its LMP1 car is the result of a 2011 announcement to return and challenge the factory Audi squad, which has taken 10 of 14 overall titles at the 24 hour race and will be returning with a successor to the hugely popular R18.
Adding to the hype of the Stuttgart team's return is the signing of current Red Bull F1 driver Mark Webber, who announced his retirement following this season. Webber is returning to Le Mans after a brief stint 1998 and 1999 where he suffered his infamous flip in the Mercedes CLR-GT1 during a pre-race warm up on the Mulsanne Straight.
Formula One has been on the path to ecologically-friendly racing since it introduced its Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) in 2009. Next year the series takes that step even further with what is possibly one of the biggest technological changes it has ever seen. What was once the home of roaring V12s and V10s, the pinnacle of motorsport is dropping another two cylinders from its current 2.4-litre V8 engine in favour of 1.6-litre V6s, which will use turbochargers for the first time since 1988. Engine manufacturers have also adapted a more powerful Energy Recovery System that will use not only kinetic energy, but also discharged heat energy through a new motor generator unit. The current KERS system allows for an 80 horsepower boost for 6.6 seconds per lap, but the new ERS system give drivers 160 horsepower for as long as 33.33 seconds. Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault are the current and only suppliers of the new engines in 2014, while Honda is poised to return in 2015 with McLaren as its sole partner to date. What does this mean for the fans? A new arms race with unfamiliar technology, and a possible change to the running order as we know it.
The team rosters also experienced a massive shakeup when Red Bull announced the signing of its junior driver Daniel Ricciardo to replace Mark Webber alongside three-time (possibly four) reigning champion Sebastian Vettel next year. Ferrari quickly followed up by signing Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen, who returns to the team where he won the 2007 drivers championship. The signing wasn't a huge surprise despite being bought out following the 2008 season for current number-one Fernando Alonso, but after two strong seasons near the top of the standings with the mid-pack Lotus, Raikkonen and his teammate will surely challenge Vettel and Red Bull for race wins and the drivers' and constructors' titles.
Keeping with the technological evolution occurring next year, Formula E is a brand new series that is quickly gaining momentum and the attention from investors and racing enthusiasts worldwide. Sanctioned by the all-powerful FIA, Formula E is an all-electric, zero-emission open wheel Formula-style series that premieres next September. Most importantly, the Formula E car was developed in partnership with top automotive and motorsport suppliers that include Spark Racing Technology (vehicle design), Dallara (chassis), McLaren (powertrain, electronics), Williams F1 (batteries) and Renault (electrical vehicle expertise). The 10 race schedule will travel the globe to Bangkok, Berlin, Beijing, Buenos Aires, London, Los Angeles, Miami, Putrajaya, Rio de Janeiro and Rome.
The signing of former Formula One ace and NASCAR driver Juan Montoya to Penske Racing is undoubtedly the biggest news coming out of the IndyCar camp for 2014. After seven seasons in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Montoya managed just two wins and a top finish of eighth in the standings in 2009. His signing marks his return to open-wheel racing, where he won the 1999 CART championship and spent six seasons in F1, including two top-threes in the drivers standings. He will race alongside Helio Castroneves, Will Power and A.J. Allmendinger (who moves to an occasional role after signing to NASCAR’s Sprint Cup next year) to form one of the strongest teams on the grid. The move could also be a prelude to further driver changes, as GoDaddy's sponsorship and contract with James Hinchcliffe expires at the end of this year, leaving the Canadian with few options if he's not offered an extension.
The 2014 season marks a sea change in the advancement of motorsport and its ever-evolving relationship with road-cars and environmental responsibility. The competition will be fiercer, faster and denser than ever before, showcasing the best of what technology has to offer. They say patience is a virtue, and waiting for the 2014 season is going to test every bit of it.