And in case anyone doesn’t have it, here is the schedule that has been announced:
March 17th - Sebring, USA (12 hours)
May 5th - Spa, Belgium (6 hours)
June 16th / 17th - Le Mans, France (24 hours)
August 25th - Silverstone, Great Britain (6 hours)
September 16th - Interlagos, Brazil (6 hours)
September 30th - Fuji, Japan (6 hours)
October 20th - Sakhir, Bahrain (6 hours)
November 11th or 18th - China - TBA (6 hours)
Given the hints about the schedule that were being dropped by both the ACO and the FIA prior to the announcement, I was surprised by the amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth that appeared afterwards in various outlets.
On the list are four current Grand Prix circuits: Spa, Silverstone, Interlagos and Sakhir; note though that the Bahrain Formula 1 event is scheduled to take place on April 22nd, so perhaps the FIA is thinking that that a final decision about the wisdom of that event can be made following the success or otherwise of the Grand Prix.
Then there is Mount Fuji, used as recently as 2008 for the Japanese Grand Prix, and bearing in mind the fact that the circuit is owned by Toyota, one can imagine why the FIA came to announce the Japanese round there.
That leaves Le Mans and Sebring, which despite the protestations of many of our transatlantic cousins are to my mind the two circuits in the world that have the most claim to be home to worthy endurance races.
Overall, I think it is a good schedule. Undoubtedly, FIA politics is at play; but I wouldn’t expect anything else - that happens when you have an FIA-approved championship.
There are two big points that warrant further comment though: one, the inclusion of Bahrain; and two, the exclusion (by virtue of a date clash) of Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta.
First, Bahrain. Given the political unrest, I would be far happier if it weren’t on the calendar at all. I almost certainly won’t be going anyway, but if I were to be invited, I would feel uncomfortable, knowing the disregard that authorities there have shown to simple human rights; more fundamentally than that: basic human kindness and tolerance.
As I mentioned already – there is no doubt that politics is at play. The FIA, for whatever reason, wants to hold a Grand Prix there. From all those whom I have read on the matter, before the unrest became an issue, the Grand Prix was popular, the facilities good and the organisation smooth. I suspect there is a personal chemistry between the individuals involved, and having two FIA-sanctioned, world championship events scheduled provides the possibility for a face-saving cancellation, while still enabling promises to be kept.
The chairman of the circuit, Zayed Al-Zayani, has attempted on a number of occasions to resolve some of the problems between the protesters and the government. Clearly he has a vested interest in smoothing the waters, but the very fact that he has been involved illustrates the gravity of the situation and the importance of political stability to the staging of international sports events in Bahrain.
I don’t buy the argument made by Gérard Neveu, the FIA’s WEC manager, that making the date clash with Petit Le Mans was unavoidable. I think what we have here is a clear rattling of the FIA’s sabre to let Scott Atherton and his team know who is now in charge. It is obvious to me that two US races were never going to be in the World Endurance Championship. Equally clear is that the only two contenders were Road Atlanta and Sebring. Quite aside from Sebring’s claim to a longer race and a classic pedigree, it is also the case that Sebring is a Spring race and Petit Le Mans an Autumnal one. The biggest problem the FIA had in drawing up the calendar has been that there are too many races in the second half of the season. The only alternative that would have allowed Petit Le Mans to remain on the calendar (at the expense of Sebring) would have been to have scheduled Bahrain for a March / April date. But that would have put it too close to the Formula One race for comfort. (Although an F1 / WEC double header would have been interesting).
Sebring in March is a known factor. Bahrain could be a shambles. The FIA may not be averse to risk, but in this case, they have taken the safe (at least safer) option.
Whatever the vagaries of the calendar, it is shaping up to be an interesting season ahead. Audi’s 2011 was character-building (their words) - the Le Mans win serving to shine a bright light on an otherwise dismal season. Peugeot will have to up its game in order not to succumb to an improved Audi next year - none of this year’s successes in the ILMC were run-away victories. Then there’s Toyota. I won’t be surprised to see them right on the pace from Sebring onwards.
I was lucky enough to have dinner recently with Audi engineers Howden ‘H’ Haynes, Leena Gade and Kyle Wilson-Clarke… highly informative and entertaining and of which more another time. They can’t wait for the season to start - and although there’s the small matter of Christmas to overcome first, I know how they feel.
I hear that the FIA has now issued an amendment to this calendar - the date for the Bahrain event has been moved to September 29th and the Japanese round to October 14th. Shock! The Bahrain date now clashes with the Britcar 24 hours at Silverstone. Politics afoot? Have the FIA decided to aim its torpedoes at James Tucker? Frankly, I doubt it. I don't know why the decision has been made, but I don't see that it makes any difference. Even if there are those entrants in the WEC who want to race at Road Atlanta, the schedule, while it doesn't have an actual race date clash, doesn't really make it feasible.
I stand by my previous remarks. I believe the Bahrain GP will be cancelled and the WEC will go ahead at Sakhir. FIA honour will be satisfied.