It had to happen, I suppose. It was inevitable that a major manufacturer would withdraw from the World Endurance Championship at some point. But in my view, the bombshell that Audi dropped when it announced its intention to withdraw from the championship at the end of the current season, is not as severe as the one that Peugeot dropped when it pulled out at the beginning of 2012. At that time, remember, the FIA had only recently launched their World Endurance Championship, and the title that Peugeot and Audi had been fighting over was the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, the final round of which the French manufacturer had won, with a dominant 1-2 victory by a lap over the nearest opposition.
In January 2012, the latest 908 HDI was already at Sebring, ready for testing, when the plug was pulled on the racing programme, leaving a large number of racing folk with uncertain futures, to say nothing of a gaping hole in the championship. By June 2012, two Toyotas had been hastily prepared to lend some respectability to the grid for Le Mans and in 2014, Porsche arrived with the immediately-competitive 919 Hybrid. And ever since, we’ve been treated to some of the best racing ever seen at such a high level of the sport.
But to put this into context, let us not forget that in 2003, 2004 and 2005 Joest Racing was not present at Le Mans (although obviously various team personnel were involved in the race). On the other hand, readers may remember 1996 and 1997, when the team cobbled together an entry for Le Mans – and ended up winning – with the WSC95 Porsche.
Joest Racing certainly has access to several R18s in their workshop, including a non-hybrid ultra that ran in 2012. Although it would be five years old next year, it would probably still be able to carry off the Privateers’ trophy. If Joest is going to continue to be involved in the World Endurance Championship, it is going to have to find some funding from somewhere. It wouldn’t be the first time. Think back to various Porsches 956s and 962s entered by Joest in the eighties – they had some substantial sponsorship packages. Don’t forget that Reinhold was a successful driver in the past. He didn’t get there by paying all his own bills. There may also be those in the Audi AG boardroom who would welcome the opportunity to see some “four rings” branding at Le Mans in 2017.
Racing goes in cycles. It always has. Periods of strength are followed by periods of weakness. And the period of weakness for which we are now headed is only relative. So I am not about to turn away from sportscar racing - I think there will be some great races next year. Nevertheless, I thought I would add my few thoughts here to those of everyone else who has written or spoken on the subject.
The first thing to say is that no-one in my circle of contacts has really expressed surprise at Audi’s decision to withdraw. Rumours that it was to happen at the end of 2017 were increasing and no-one denies that what Audi has been this year is nothing like the force that it was even as recently as two or three years ago.
Secondly, I do not believe that it is necessarily a good thing if endurance races are without fail close, exciting races with side-by-side racing and close finishes. Such is not the nature of the beast, and if those in control have such an aim, then we are headed in the wrong direction.
Thirdly, getting more manufacturers involved in LMP1 is not worth doing if it is not done properly. Whether it is BMW, Peugeot or Ford (all of which I could easily show up with a prototype in the next five years) we must avoid another fiasco like that of Nissan’s LMP1 foray in 2015. Although the episode demonstrated admirably that it is quite hard to do what Porsche and Toyota have done, the Nismo effort failed to deliver much else. The sport needs to get on with what it does and allow nature – or whatever it is that governs these things – to take its course.
Enough of the philosophy though: on a pragmatic level, what’s going to happen in 2017? Well, there are still things to be decided, for sure. The most crucial of those decisions is for Toyota. Take two cars to Le Mans, or three? The arguments given in previous years for only entering two cars are surely still valid? If not, and if the view taken in the Japanese boardroom is that extreme steps must be taken to avert the disappointments of Le Mans 2016, then the incremental cost of a third car is not as much as the potential benefit of having a 50% better chance of getting the car to the finish. Then, although Porsche has been tight-lipped on the subject, surely Weissach will respond with a third Porsche 919 as well? In turn, this would be good news for the ACO – needing to fill 60 garages at Le Mans – as well as for Messrs Jarvis, Tréluyer, Lotterer, Fässler et al.
Otherwise, it is difficult to see where the former Audi drivers might end up. One assumes that Lucas di Grassi and Loïc Duval will occupy themselves with Formula E, but what of the others? Well, I would suggest that they go and have a chat with Nicolas Lapierre. I grant you that LMP2 will look different next year, but I reckon that the Frenchman, who was unceremoniously dumped by Toyota at the end of 2014, might have some interesting thoughts on the competitiveness of the class and how much fun there is to be derived from the racing – if not the financial reward.
It was interesting that the Audi announcement specifically mentioned Formula E as being one of its focus points for the immediate future. While I agree with Gary Watkins in Autosport that the remarks might have been disingenuous, I wonder also whether it means that Daniel Abt’s team might be getting even more resource from Audi next year. Is a Formula E arms race about to start?
Back to endurance racing though. Even if the World Endurance Championship may have suffered a blow with Audi’s withdrawal, there is no sign of any reduction in interest in LMP2, LMP3 or GT racing. Talk of convergence of GTE and GT3 racing has been replaced by arguments about who can provide the best LMP3 racing. GT4 is flourishing on the national level. All in all, things could be a lot worse.
Stéphane Ratel’s Blancpain GT Series has announced a ten round series for 2017 – five for the endurance series, two of which depart from the normal three hours duration - the 1000km race into the night at Paul Ricard, and the showpiece Spa 24 hours, surely one of the highlights of the season.
The Creventic organisation – addressing a somewhat different marketplace from Ratel – is expanding in 2017, with a six-round GT series, featuring three 24-hour races, rounded off by a non-championship 24-hour race at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas.
Now Creventic doesn’t really target the sort of teams that contend the World Endurance Championship, but nevertheless, if you include the ADAC’s Nürburgring 24 hours, you have six 24-hour races to participate in, if you are so minded, without counting Le Mans or Daytona. With several high-profile 12-hour races as well, is it all too much?
It depends. At the Brno Epilog 24-hour race last month, I had the sense that the culture of a 24-hour race has changed, certainly in the Creventic series. There was a time when nothing would be spared to get the car to the finish, when taking the flag was everything. At Le Mans, that culture still exists. But in some of the ‘lesser’ 24-hour races that we have these days, there is an element of “let’s just pack up and get some sleep”, which was new to me this year. At least in part, I think, that is because we simply have too much of a good thing. It is still special to race through the night, to pit yourself against fatigue and push through to the end, but like many things these days, “it isn’t like it used to be”!
I am put in mind of the athletes that one reads about these days that complete multiple marathons – often on consecutive days. I have nothing but respect for such people, but it is inevitable that by their actions, they devalue the single event. In effect, more is less. Those who have read Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘David and Goliath’ will know the effect of the inverted ‘U’ curve. Oftentimes, more is less.
As always, your comments are welcome!