Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The FIA World Endurance Championship of 2012

Essentially, I am an old-fashioned sort of bloke. I get a great deal of pleasure from remembering how things used to be and wishing, wistfully, for those days to return. Of course I don’t really mean it; the fact of the matter is more that I yearn for the days of my youth because I yearn for my youth. The days when I was younger, I was fitter and more carefree, I suppose. Now I am older, I am wiser, but have to consider more carefully the fact that I shall not live (in this world) for ever.

History is important though. Although Winston Churchill is often credited with saying that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, it was George Santayana who originally coined the phrase in 1906 (The Life of Reason) - “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I would like to think that by not merely remembering, but more importantly, understanding what happened in the past, we can behave more appropriately in the present. And it is this that motivates me to pay attention to what is going on and to try and get under the skin of it a bit, and not just take everything at face value. I know that this can be infuriating to those close to me, but it’s just the way I am.

I am also fundamentally a positive person. I tend to think that things will be OK. As the toast slips from my fingers, I just know that the butter side will land uppermost. Even if things don’t quite go OK, I know that they will turn out OK in the end. There’s always another piece of bread that can go in the toaster. I tend only to prepare for the worst when it happens (perhaps I have more in common with the Murdoch family than I ought to have).

So when the announcement was made that there would be an FIA World Endurance Championship next year, my initial reaction was one of welcome. I had, after all, posed the question at the beginning of the year, asking why we had the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup and not an FIA-sanctioned world championship. And most of the people that I posed the question to thought that although the ACO was doing a reasonably good job of organising the ILMC, an FIA World Championship would be a good thing.

Indeed, now that the announcement has been made, most of the major players are saying publicly that it is a good thing, that to have a World Endurance Championship - organised by the FIA - will improve things for everybody. However, in private, a number of people have vouchsafed to me their misgivings: where will the rounds be? How will it be organised? Who will take part? Is there a place for privateers? How will performance balancing be achieved? What about the GT classes? What happens to the Le Mans Series and the FIA GT World Championship?

But on the positive side, there has been no shortage of announcements. At Le Mans came news of the Le Mans Delta Wing car, to run at Le Mans in 2012, but outside the regulations, making use of the provision of the ACO for innovative technologies. There were two other “new technology” proposals as well, applying for the 56th entry at Le Mans. Then Porsche announced their intended participation with an LMP1 car in 2014. And hot on Porsche’s heels, an all-electric Lola from Drayson Racing. This week came news that Jaguar is going to build an LMP1 car. The intentions of Lotus in LMP1 are perhaps more hopeful than realistic, but these are all the kinds of announcements which indicate that interest in Endurance racing in general, and Le Mans in particular, is high.

The FIA may be the senior partner, but in the coalition of the ACO and FIA that now exists, it is the ACO which seems to be forcing the pace: particularly in the areas of new technologies. The ACO has long appreciated the value of diversity in the entry list at Le Mans, but by reserving its 56th garage for a “special case”, where someone can run outside the regulations, they need to take care that the recipients of this entry do not turn into too many blind alleys. New technology, yes - wacky racers, no thanks!

Talking of the 56th entry, when 56 cars took the start this year, I was blithely commenting that it was the first time that more than 55 cars had started since 1955 (when there were 60). But I had overlooked 1975. Reading Quentin Spurring’s excellent “Official History” book provided the nugget that in 1975, 56 cars also started the race; even though only 55 had qualified. Fausto Morello, from Ecuador, entered in a Porsche Carrera RSR which had failed to qualify, decided to take the start anyway. He managed three laps before anyone noticed!

Anyway, back to the present and the World Endurance Championship. Despite the major revisions to the regulations this year, I think that next year will prove to be more of a new start. Certainly there are questions hanging open at the moment. But importantly, there is time (at the moment) to address them. Provided that things get nailed down before the end of October, then there is every prospect of a successful championship. It may sound a little harsh, but the ALMS and the LMS have no intrinsic right to exist. As I have argued before, a World Championship, of which the 24 hours of Le Mans can be a part, should exist - even though it has not always been so. To my mind, the hierarchy should be ‘top-down’ - in other words, the top level championship should be well-defined, before subsequent layers beneath that can be formulated. What has happened in recent years is that the ACO and the ALMS have ‘gone global’, without the full sanction of the world governing body. And while that has worked well in the last 10 years or so, there needs to be a controlling influence. My big concern is that the control that the FIA will impose will be benevolent and not malicious. But hey, I’m optimistic.


  1. At least here in the States, I really do believe that no ALMS would have meant a premature end to the Chrysler Viper program, and absolutely no Corvette program. Simply put, not enough people over here would have even known that Le Mans existed without the ALMS. And if the ALMS disappeared, that vacuum would return. I think this also holds true for the events here, as I'm quite certain most would have withered and died altogether without the ALMS, and I cannot see them continuing without an ALMS. Along that same vein, I cannot take a "World Championship" that seriously if it lacks even just one round in North America (like what happened with F1 in 2009 when Canada was called off).

    Also, the privateers need a place to run, and I'm not sure the WEC provides a good setting for that, not to mention, some races may have oversubscribed grids, and sportscar racing is still not in the sort of position where it can just turn down entries with impunity. And then there are the Dysons of the world, who have chosen not to run Grand-Am, or another such option, but have no particular intent of running Le Mans on their own dime, if at all.

    The big thing I want from the WEC is to take in the major, classic events. In Europe, that would mean events like the Spa 1000, Nurburgring 1000, Monza 1000, and Le Mans itself, of course. The Fuji 1000 is about the only Asian round that has history with the previous iteration of the series. North America has Sebring, Mosport, and Road America with a least a bit of history in the WSC. Then again, the two most obvious events to include now are Sebring and Road Atlanta. I can't really see South Africa returning, though Kyalami is still there and up-to-code to host the 9 Hours again, in theory. If they go to South America, do either interlagos or Potrero de los Funes.

    As for China, it's a great market, in theory. However, can the WEC get anywhere near enough people to pay Western ticket prices for either Zhuhai or Shanghai to be decent events, and thus get the exposure participants ant? And how well can the Chinese people follow the series online, or on TV? And as a technical thing, after the first year, is Bernie Ecclestone going to demand the WEC run one of the shorter layouts at Shanghai to make sure it doesn't steal F1's thunder?


    Robert Pfeiffer

    Wichita, KS, United States

  2. Robert:
    Thanks for your response - in many ways I’m surprised that I haven’t had more, as I was deliberately provocative in my article. Don’t get me wrong, I think that the ALMS did (is continuing to do?) a marvellous job in fuelling interest in Le Mans-style racing… but endurance races lasting less than three hours? I think not. A section of the US market has always been interested in Le Mans - and the ACO has always courted US customers, particularly in the years since the Second World War. It’s really just a question of hierarchy I suppose - Le Mans is at the top of the tree as far as sportscar racing is concerned. The proliferation of “Le Mans Series” spin-offs, initially under the ACO’s jurisdiction, is an indication of healthy interest, but it is in danger of spoiling the spectacle by reducing the impact. Le Mans being part of an FIA World Championship is excellent news, but I don’t expect it to continue to be so. And are we not due another dip in the cycle in any case?

  3. I don't know that we're headed for another dip, as we've just had one. I think the people involved who were that much on the edge before September 2008 have been flushed out of the system in terms of being involved in LM-type racing.

    I'm not sure the ALMS expressly states itself to be "endurance racing" across the board. Anyway, from the beginning in 1971, IMSA had a mix of race durations. For several seasons in the '70s and into the '80s, the top class (GTO, GTX, even GTP) had individual races ranging from 1 to 24 hours. Two hours seems decent for a street race; pushing three hours can have consequences (the first year at St. Petersburg was a bit much) As for the 2hr 45min stuff, there's some sort of cut-off in the FIA track regulations that occurs at 165min. So, the time limits on the regular rounds probably have something to do with that. You might note that the shortest track in the LMS this year is 2.599 miles (Estoril). Every track the ALMS visits, except for Sebring and Road America, is shorter than that.

    I think it would be hard to take away much brilliance from the Le Mans event itself. The real issue there, I think, is in this age of constant media bombardment, maintaining presence more year-round demands having these other series to keep more of a consistent spotlight on sportscar racing. Also, in the end, the WEC caters to the factories first, and most entries, at Le Mans or elsewhere, are not going to be the full works efforts. Those privateers had to come from somewhere, and you can't be a well-prepared and long-running team anymore by just running LM each year. You need a series to hone your craft, get attention more locally, and where you can get more exposure/moneys-worth out of the investment you made in the equipment.

    Now, if the WEC would just run their South American round at Potrero de los Funes, there would be quite a few people, myself included, who would be very happy.