Readers of www.dailysportscar.com will, I hope, have read my race report from the final round of the 2013 Asian Le Mans Series at Sepang, Malaysia. It was a trip organised very much at the last minute, thanks to the ACO and its partners, Total and Michelin. And it was a very short trip: my outbound flight left Heathrow late on Friday night, and I was back home early enough on Monday morning to see my children off to school.
In all, I spent a little over 24 hours in Malaysia, and a total of 10 hours at the Sepang track itself. But it was a most enjoyable trip; one which I was glad I had made, but one which by its very nature revealed the lengths to which the ACO is willing to go to promote its Asian Le Mans Series.
I spent some time talking to Mark Thomas, the man who is in charge, and you can read that interview here. But despite the upbeat nature of it all, the Le Mans Series races that have been held thus far cannot really be regarded as unqualified successes.
The first race which carried the title of an Asian Le Mans Series race was at Okayama in Japan in November 2009 - two 500km races held back to back, which was supposed to be followed by a further ‘double 500’ at Shanghai in China. A 23-car grid took the start in Japan, which was, by the standards of the time, somewhat disappointing, and the Chinese race was cancelled.
In 2010, the ACO contracted Mark Thomas’s S2M Group to take charge of sales and marketing in Asia, and ILMC races at Zhuhai in China were organised in 2010 and 2011. Renewed efforts were made, and a six-round Asian Le Mans Series for 2013 was announced last year, which planned to visit China, Japan, South Korea and Indonesia. In the end, of course, only four of those took place, with the final round at Sepang, in Malaysia, in a season of uncertainty and small grids.
What has become clear to me, though, in the last fortnight since my interest in the Asian Le Mans Series has been piqued, is the size of the prize. Or at least the perceived size of the prize. A conversation over dinner when I arrived in KL on Saturday night revealed how big the market place in Asia is to companies like Total and Michelin, and how badly they want to get a part of the economic growth of the Asian region.
For the ACO, their Endurance Racing pyramid is underpinned by continental Le Mans Series in Europe, America and Asia. Even if the American Le Mans Series name no longer exists, endurance racing of one form or another seems set to continue in the US, and the ACO will ensure that it maintains the transatlantic links originally forged by Don Panoz. In Europe, there are strong national championships, and a tradition of long-distance racing.
But Asia has been, as the ACO is all too aware, a tough nut to crack. The biggest problem is the nature of the beast itself. To the uneducated and simplistic western eye, Asia is a different culture; sure, but it is the sum of many disparate cultures. If one excludes Australia and New Zealand (which is fair enough, for that belongs to Australasia, in my mind, but then the AsLMS compromises itself by allowing drivers from the Antipodes to count as Asian, in terms of their rules concerning crew composition), one still needs to consider whether India, Russia and the Middle East should count as being within the continent, and therefore on a full Asian calendar.
At the moment, the brief is clear: the footprint is restricted to Japan and South-eastern Asia. But even within that zone, there are logistical, cultural and political obstacles to overcome. As Mark Thomas noted, there is no other pan-Asian sporting series, even on the scale of the Asian Le Mans Series; and if that is the case, one wonders why not, when the countries of the area clearly have a sporting heritage, as shown by their Olympic successes.
The answer, in my view, lies in the fact that the constituent parts of Asia do not necessarily have an ‘Asian Identity’. In much the same way, Italians, Germans and Spanish (to take but three) may be part of Europe, but they do not regard themselves as being European. For a Japanese or Chinese team to pack up and travel to, say Sepang, they might as well go the whole hog and go to somewhere with real heritage, such as Sebring or Spa.
But what is also clear, is that this is a complex situation. It may well be the case that there is more money available in Asia for business in general, and racing teams and sponsors in particular, to go after. Just look at the brand visibility of names like Petronas. Traditionalists like myself may drone on about motor-racing heartlands and the heritage of the sport, but the future doesn't belong to us; it belongs to those with vision and an entrepreneurial spirit.
I am put in mind of the so-called Serenity Prayer that can be found on tea-towels in cheap tourist shops: “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,” it goes.
It may be trite, but it is a prayer that many of those involved in the Asian Le Mans Series could well offer to their respective deities. The ACO is only a club, remember, not a multinational business. Its prized possession is the 24 hours of Le Mans. To build a structure that promotes and supports this pearl of great price is a worthy ambition, but it is that event itself that needs the focus. Its survival and prosperity are not dependent on the Asian Le Mans Series. My biggest concern, on returning from Malaysia, is that there doesn’t seem to be an exit plan.