We've been robbed!

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Damien Smith, Editor

We’ve been robbed! Peugeot’s snap decision to pull out of sports car racing has knocked the stuffing out of both Le Mans and the new FIA World Endurance Championship. There’s nothing new here, of course. Manufacturers have always used and abused motor racing, coming and going as they see fit. But this withdrawal is a particularly sharp kick in the guts.

The birth of the new world championship is FIA president Jean Todt’s biggest achievement so far, and Peugeot Sport — the team he once ran — played a pivotal role in its conception. To quit less than two months before the first race, as its own staff prepared to test a hybrid 908 at Sebring, must have felt like a betrayal to a man who takes things personally. Peugeot is likely to return one day, if finances allow. But for now the best thing about a company that produces dull road cars is over. What a shortsighted and plain selfish decision, totally in keeping with a corporate beancounter boardroom mentality.

So how successful do we judge the team’s five-year sports car campaign, and what has the Peugeot board left in its wake?

Peugeot’s technicians consistently produced speed that left Audi gasping, beating the German giant more often that not and claiming back-to-back Intercontinental Le Mans Cup titles. The trouble is that those successes, under a series name that meant nothing to the outside world, were offset by regular disappointments in the one race that really counts. A single win in five at the Le Mans 24 Hours is a poor return. Failure is a strong word for a team that has won so many races with such a great car, but as Andrew Frankel writes in our Bentley Speed 8 test, one-off wins at La Sarthe during specific eras are easy to forget. Peugeot won many great battles, but the war — perhaps the most intense we’ve ever seen at Le Mans — went to Audi.

As for what happens next, Todt must be relieved that Toyota has stepped into the breach with its own promising hybrid, the T5030 (see page 18). The Japanese giant should have won Le Mans in the late 1990s with its beautiful GT-One, before its barren and strangely forgettable eight-year campaign in Formula 1. Now Toyota is back where it belongs, although history tells us that victory first time out is a near impossibility at Le Mans. Audi should win both the race and the world title, and that’s its problem: nothing less than victory will be the harsh expectation.

The advent of the hybrid age and the potential of what is to come from Toyota, and in the future from Porsche too, will keep us all hooked. But this year, without the 908s, it’s harder to get worked up, isn’t it? Cheers, Peugeot.

The French company is far from the only one showing signs of unfathomable madness this month. Take the owner of MINI. You’d think a second place on the Monte Carlo Rally would be a reason to cheer for BMW. Instead, it decides to downgrade Dani Sordo’s Prodriverun entry to privateer status and promote a less experienced, less successful team with two unknown Portuguese drivers. A budget shortfall and BMW’s new commitment to the DTM are to blame. But check out our story on p18. Does this decision make sense to you? No, me neither.

Seven Lords and a Green Party MP have now waded into the debate about whether F1 should return to Bahrain in April this year. In a letter to The Times, they made their “concern” over the running of the race all too clear. The letter refers to the independent commission of inquiry which reported in the autumn on the ugly riots that destabilised the Arab state last spring. The Lords and the MP, Caroline Lucas, hoped the commission’s findings would “provide a starting point for political reform which both government and opposition forces could agree upon”, but they write: “Two months on we see an entrenchment of the positions of both sides which risks letting more extreme voices dictate the progress of the conflict… Given the current dire situation, with daily street protests and the deaths of more civilians, we do not believe that the time is right for F1 to return to Bahrain.”

They’re not alone. Grand Prix racing has often shown itself to be out of touch with the real world, but never more than now. It’s just embarrassing that we’ve got this far and still the race remains on the calendar.

In the May issue last year we reported on the ill-conceived makeover of the Nürburgring. The mammoth shopping mall, the rollercoaster we’ve never seen working… it all seemed to be missing the point about the draw of the Nordschleife. Meanwhile, as `Nurodisney’ struggled, long-established local businesses complained of a controlling ‘monopoly’ that was threatening their existence. Fears over the future of the world’s bestloved race circuit are growing. The state of Rhineland-Palatinate, which owns a 90 per cent stake in the Nürburgring, has fallen out with its controversial leaseholder. Now the state has cancelled the deal, citing a lack of lease payments as the reason for the divorce, which looks set to be heading for the courts. A new leaseholder is now being sought, according to minister Roger Lewentz, who also reckons he’s talking to Bernie Ecclestone about a new F1 deal.

Since 2009 the Nüburgring and Hockenheim have shared the German GP on alternate years. Hockenheim will welcome F1 this year, but following previous losses on the race the Nürburgring might not necessarily take its turn in 2013. Bernie is said to be keen to resolve the problems and secure the race. But without a new leaseholder and in view of a potentially lengthy court case that could stop the state from appointing one, how can a deal be done? If legal strife thwarts the ‘Ring, the onus will fall on Hockenheim to host the race every year — which it clearly can’t afford. Will Germany be forced to share its GP with another country, as Belgium and France might?

Races shared between racing’s heartland European countries would have been a laughing matter once upon a time, but not any longer. In fact, it now seems the most likely solution for circuits struggling to turn a profit. If only Ecclestone would lower his race fees… Best not hold our breath on that one, eh?

Back at the Nürburgring, fears go way beyond the hosting of the GP. The leaseholder dispute is threatening jobs and the day-to-day operation of the beloved Nordschleife, too. The grand old circuit remains a popular tourist attraction, despite the disapproval of the ‘green’ politicians in the state-ruling coalition, and the track’s value to car manufacturers remains obvious given the amount of time their models spend pounding round the place. Everyone loves ‘Green Hell’ (except perhaps the ‘greens’ themselves — ahem), so it’s inconceivable that it should ever close.., isn’t it? Hang on, here’s an idea. If all these manufacturers hold the place in such high esteem, why don’t they club together and take over the lease themselves? What a way for the car giants to put something back into the world of motoring, by securing the greatest drivers’ circuit we’ve ever known.

It couldn’t happen, of course. Imagine the politics, the egos, the competition between each company. Too much self-interest, not enough ‘pay-back’. Some bean-counter in a boardroom would eventually pull the plug. We’ve seen that before, haven’t we?

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