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IMSA drivers, teams at Le Mans to gather reconnaissance for next year’s race

IMSA Le Mans

#48: Ally Cadillac Racing Cadillac DPi, DPi: Chad Knaus

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There are 19 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship drivers in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans and even more series executives and team members at Circuit de la Sarthe.

One of the world’s biggest races annually draws a healthy attendance from the premier U.S.-based sports cars series, but their presence at the 90th edition of Le Mans is as important for the future as now.

When No. 01 DPi Cadillac driver Renger van der Zande received an invite to race in the GTE-Am category at Le Mans, he checked with Chip Ganassi Racing personnel. Permission enthusiastically was granted because his participation is viewed as an advantage for Ganassi’s expected 2023 Le Mans entry in the top prototype class with the new LMDh platform.

“It’s a preparation year,” van der Zande said a few days before heading to France immediately after his Chevrolet Sports Car Classic victory in Detroit with teammate Sebastien Bourdais. “(Ganassi team members) all said the same thing: ‘Go there.’

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“See what the rules changes are from one year to the next. It’s going to be exciting for me to be in a GT and looking in my mirrors and getting passed. Next year it’s going to be fighting for the overall win, and I can’t wait to get started with that new Cadillac. We’ll be developing with it soon on track, which is a super exciting project. Next to the IMSA championship this year, that’s my main focus. That development work with the aim to win Daytona, to win Sebring and Le Mans is a dream come true for me. It’s good to be there this year.”

There will be much American involvement at Le Mans next year. In addition to IMSA teams such as Penske and Ganassi racing prototypes against the hypercars of the World Endurance Championship, the Garage 56 entry also is slated to be a NextGen Camaro prepared by Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR.

Accordingly, a huge influx of those from the U.S.-based sports car industry -- and some key players from NASCAR -- headed overseas from the States this month.

Hendrick Motorsports vice president of competition Chad Knaus, who is overseeing the Garage 56 project (and also calls strategy for the No. 48 Cadillac that includes seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson), has been in Le Mans since last weekend to observe garage inspection processes.

IMSA president John Doonan told NBC Sports that IMSA’s delegation for Le Mans will include at least a dozen people just doing advance work on Garage 56. Doonan leads a group of IMSA senior leadership that travels to Le Mans annually for meetings with the Automobile Club de L’Ouest (ACO) that organizes and oversees Le Mans.

“In preparation for 2023, we will have several folks doing a site visit, folks from Hendrick Motorsports, Goodyear, Chevy will have their big contingent there but a few extra folks part of the Garage 56 project,” Doonan told NBC Sports. “A lot of prelim and prerun activities from a logistics standpoint to a garage setup standpoint to meeting with suppliers such that when we do get the official invitation next January (for Garage 56), everything is in order. We’ll have a strong group over there.”

While Garage 56 will be a monumental undertaking, the lead time has been even longer for the prototype convergence that will bring the LMDh cars (which will race IMSA in the rebranded top category called GTP next year) to compete for the overall Le Mans title in 2023 against the hypercars of WEC.

Manufacturer investment has spiked since the 2020 announcement of LMDh, and IMSA and NASCAR chairman Jim France has likened the crossover as a throwback to the era that inspired “Ford vs. Ferrari.”

Team Penske, which has become a factory Porsche team in the move, will be racing in the top category next year but also is racing in the LMP2 class of Le Mans this year.

Immediately after Will Power’s IndyCar victory at Detroit last Sunday, Team Penske president Tim Cindric traveled to France to check out practice and qualifying. Cindric planned to be back at Road America today for IndyCar practice after taking a train to Paris and flight to America.

His scouting trip was as much about learning the off track rhythm of Le Mans, which is known for its massive festival parties and sponsor activation.

“The expectations of the hospitality and the ambiance -- they build buildings just for this race,” Cindric told NBC Sports. “It’s a lot less about the garage and the race cars than how do you support all the people there and the village there. Porsche has done it for years, but you need to fine-tune that to what fits our program. I’m honestly (going this year) to be able to speak from the experience, rather than just some newbie. We’ve hired some guys on the ground who have worked with Porsche for years. We’ve got some really good insight to how it all works.”

“I’ve never been to Le Mans. I’ve always said I want to go to Le Mans if I have something to do. I’m not a very good race fan.”

Knaus is back at Le Mans for the second consecutive year. Another regular at Le Mans is Gary Nelson, the team manager for Action Express that is the defending DPi championship team and also helping on Garage 56.

There also are many drivers who will be returning with fresh knowledge. In addition to van der Zande, Bourdais also is racing in the LMP2 class, as is JDC-Miller MotorSports Cadillac driver Tristan Vautier (who is making his Le Mans debut).

And of course there is Corvette Racing, which swept the top two spots in qualifying for the GTE Pro grid (with IMSA full-timers Antonio Garcia and Jordan Taylor starting second in the No. 63 Chevrolet Corvette C8.R).

Filipe Albuquerque, Ricky Taylor, Felipe Nasr, Oliver Jarvis, Alex Lynn, Pipo Derani, Olivier Pla and Richard Westbrook are among the other IMSA notables at Le Mans.

Though Ganassi has Le Mans experience in GT (having won the 2016 class with a Ford Mustang), van der Zande said “any information I can get is good” along with the reconnaissance from teammates Bourdais and Lynn racing in LMP2.

“There will be enough eyes open to learn for next year when we get with the top class,” van der Zande said. “I use it as my own benefit to get a feel for how it is to overtake the GT cars, those little details and the track changes that might be on the curbs. Sometimes when you drive a different car on different parts of the track suddenly you see a bump or feel a bump that you don’t feel in the other car, and you learn from it when you get there again. It’s always good to jump around in different cars and get a feel for different lines on the track.

“I see it as a very interesting race weekend and a full prep for when we come back (in 2023).”