Le Mans tops bill in new world series

The new-for-2010 Intercontinental Le Mans Cup will expand to become a World Championship in all but name with the Le Mans 24 Hours at its centre next year.

The Intercontinental Cup, which begins with three end-of-season races this year, will grow to six or seven rounds. It will encompass the most important events in the Le Mans Series in Europe and America, a race in Japan for the first time and the 24 Hours, which will count for double points.

It will be the first time that Le Mans has been incorporated into a series since its split with the FIA after the 1992 event — the last time the French enduro counted towards the dying Sportscar World Championship. The move represents a U-turn by the Le Mans organiser, the Automobile Club de l'Ouest, which had always maintained that the 24 Hours must remain as a stand-alone race.

ACO director general Remy Brouard explained that it was important for the 24 Hours to be "the focal point" of a series bearing the Le Mans name. He claimed it was a logical move because teams looking to do the championship would want to do Le Mans and therefore it wouldn't "add extra cost" to budgets.

He also admitted that it would help bolster entries in the championship, because "teams wanting to do Le Mans would have to commit to the Intercontinental Cup".

Peugeot was the first manufacturer to commit to the expanded series next year, while competitions boss Wolfgang Ullrich said it was Audi's intention to take part subject to budgets being finalised at the end of the season.

Peugeot Sport director Olivier Quesnel called for the Intercontinental Cup to become a World Championship.

"That's what we are waiting for," he said. "The term Intercontinental Cup means nothing. It should be the Endurance World Championship or something similar."

The ACO remained non-committal on that point. ACO president Jean-Claude Plassart entertained FIA boss Jean Todt at Le Mans in June, but said before his arrival that he "did not know if he would have time to discuss it".

The ACO's announcement comes at a time when the first World Championship for sports cars since the death of the SWC at the end of 1992 has just got up and running. The boss of the FIA GT1 World Championship, Stephane Ratel, rejected claims that the Intercontinental Cup could be viewed as a world series.

"Only a championship with the world title is a true World Championship," he insisted. "When I go to a potential race promoter, I am selling an official FIA World Championship. There is a lot of difference between that and an Intercontinental Cup."

Ratel claimed the Intercontinental Cup would not be a direct rival to the GT1 World Championship.

"They are two very different products," he said. "Le Mans is about long-distance racing focused on prototypes. The World Championship is about short races for GT cars."

The ACO also announced ahead of this year's 24 Hours that it would not be inviting back GT1 machinery built to the new World Championship rules. Instead it will have just one class for GT2 machinery, with a sub-class for one-year-old cars driven by amateur drivers.

Ratel admitted surprise at the decision, but claimed that it could help his cause by creating a further distinction between the two codes of sports car racing.