Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Starting Again: the New World Endurance Championship

I knew a lot of time had passed since I last managed to write anything here, but I was somewhat shocked to find that more than six months has slipped by since my last post. It was never my intention to make this a regular affair, but still, it feels rather awkward, sitting here writing after so long away from the blog.

It is not as if there has been a shortage of topics. I keep a little notebook of ideas that might make suitable subjects, and looking back, I find various entries. Some are typically Truswellian analyses of races; some are reflections on things I’ve been up to (and there have been many), still others are more whimsical thoughts on cultural and historical aspects of the sport – but in all cases, I try to keep to my Golden Rule of not writing anything that you can find elsewhere. Although I try to keep to facts and reportage, rather than fiction or scurrilous rumour and speculation, I do find that a lot of the things I want to comment on are covered perfectly well elsewhere on the Internet leaving little space to address my particular niche. There may be no shortage of burning issues, but I wonder why you might want to read my take on such things rather than anyone else’s?

Having said all that, the World Endurance Championship seems to have gone through such an upheaval in the last six months that maybe readers might want to comment on a few of my own thoughts.

The announcement by Porsche that the factory LMP1 team will be withdrawing at the end of the 2017 season forced the hand of the WEC. Action was needed – although there is a good argument that action was necessary regardless of the decisions in the boardrooms of Stuttgart. On the other hand, in the early 1990’s, when the FIA brought World Championship-level sportscar racing to its knees by forcing the use of 3.5 litre normally-aspirated engines and shortening race distances to be more TV-friendly, we were left with no World Championship for 1993 and a rather ad hoc look to the Le Mans 24-hour centrepiece.

It may have seemed like the end of the world at the time, but by the end of the decade not only had we FIA-sanctioned Championships for both Sportscars and GTs, but we had a Le Mans 24-hour race with entries from seven different manufacturers, contributing 20 out of the 48 starters in 1999.

It was certainly a difficult transition, but the point is that nature took its course, (or perhaps more accurately some visionary entrepreneurs had the space to innovate) and without FIA intervention or direction, the sport found its feet and headed into the new millennium.

We are not talking ancient history here – the fact is that the foundations for today’s endurance racing formulae (prototypes and GT cars) were laid only twenty years ago – but the culture of the sport (indeed everything generally) has changed since then. Laissez-faire as a doctrine may have had its origins in the late 18th century, but doing nothing is simply not an option in today’s world. GĂ©rard Neveu (CEO of the FIA WEC*) felt that he had to take some decisions and act. Having made the announcements in Mexico about the direction of the Championship, there may be some ‘clarifications’, but there is no going back.

Unfortunately for him, and for Pierre Fillon (President of the ACO*), the future of the World Endurance Championship will be directed as much by the actions of the major motor manufacturers and the teams that enter the cars as it will by their decision-making. Whether the 2018-2019 ‘super-season’ will be regarded as a success or not will depend largely on who takes part, and how good the races are.

Readers of this blog will surely be sufficiently knowledgeable to understand Toyota’s dilemma. Effectively, the Japanese manufacturer needs to decide now whether to participate, at enormous cost, with a strong chance of being handicapped out of contention, or to walk away, from both the Le Mans 24 hours and the World Endurance Championship. I suspect a decision has already been taken in Japan, if not yet made public.

Personally, I don’t really mind. In my opinion, the success of the 2018-2019 season will depend on the quality and parity of privateers participating in the premier class. The possibility of a win at Le Mans, never mind a unique World Championship, must be tempting.

As far as the GT classes are concerned, there has been less decisiveness from the organising bodies. Or at least, with six manufacturers likely to be represented next year, the obvious tactic is to ensure stability. For the immediate future, I wouldn’t argue with that. Yet in the longer term, I would like to see the fastest of the GT cars being able to compete for overall victories. Consider that the current pace of GTE-Pro cars could have enabled them to win Le Mans in the mid-1990’s. I was there, and I wasn’t thinking how slowly the prototypes were going.

There are ways and means of controlling pace: larger tanks, faster refuelling, different tyre allowances; it need not always depend on changing technical regulations, although it is clear that the technical ability exists in the FIA and ACO to manage that.

My biggest misgiving however, is the proposal that Le Mans should be the final round of future World Endurance Championships. I also see this as being the most difficult decision to change, at least from the political point of view.

The problem with Le Mans being the decisive round in the championship is that decisions could be made, either at a corporate level or even within a multi-car team, which could – no, will – impact the outright result of the world’s biggest endurance race. It happened in 1966, but every other year in the history of the race (except, I suppose in the first few years in the 1920’s when drivers had an eye on the biennial and triennial cups), the race has been as pure a race, as free from commercial or political intervention, as any sporting event there is.

Porsche has demonstrated this year its willingness to manipulate races in the WEC to ensure it secures drivers’ as well as manufacturers’ championships. What if such ‘team orders’ were put into effect at Le Mans? Not a thought that appeals to my particular taste, I must admit.

Or suppose that Toyota, having won the 24 hours in 2018, gets to the 2019 race needing only to finish fifth (say) to secure the World Endurance Championship’s inaugural ‘Superseason’. I can imagine Pascal Vasselon (not Hugues de Chaunac, admittedly) telling his drivers to slow down, preserve the machinery, and not even attempt to win, that finishing the race at all costs was more important than winning. Would anyone else find that distasteful?

*Footnote: I mention Neveu’s and Fillon’s specific roles since I think (some might disagree) that the distinction between the ACO and the WEC (which belongs to the FIA) is important. The ACO was founded in 1906 and has organised the Le Mans 24 hours since its inception, whereas the WEC (as an organisation) was established by the FIA in 2012.

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