International racing

What next for the WEC? Series bosses play down the effect of Audi's departure

Audi’s withdrawal from the World Endurance Championship at the end of this season is not a catastrophe, according to series boss Gérard Neveu. Yet behind the business-as-usual front he is portraying along with the top brass from WEC promoter the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, there must be an understanding of the pressing need to attract a new manufacturer to join Porsche and Toyota in the LMP1 division. 

There is no requirement for the WEC to have more than two car makers in its premier class. Two is the minimum stated in the ACO’s contract with the FIA. Think back to 2012, and Peugeot’s sudden withdrawal ahead of the rebirth of world championship sports car racing. Toyota had to be persuaded to enter the full championship in what had been planned as a development year in which it would pick and choose its races. 

Back then WEC knew a third manufacturer was on its way, as Porsche announced it would return to the top flight a month after the new-look WEC was confirmed in June 2011. 

Nearly five years on, Neveu and the ACO must be acutely aware that the WEC is vulnerable until they attract a third marque. Should either of the remaining P1 participants pull out, the series and its centrepiece, the Le Mans 24 Hours, would be in trouble. 

Neveu and ACO president Pierre Fillon insist that other manufacturers are interested in joining the P1 division. They have refused to name any potential newbies or set any kind of timeline for the arrival of a third marque. 

The truth is that there is no new name on the imminent horizon. The cost of competing in the technological playground of LMP1 is immense and remains an obstacle to potential entrants. 

Peugeot has an interest in returning to an arena in which it was successful over the course of a five-year stint prior to the relaunch of the WEC. But competitions boss Bruno Famin maintained that a comeback is not possible while expenditure remains at present levels. 

“Our boss has said we will come back when the conditions are right,” Famin said. “The first concerns the financial health of PSA (Peugeot’s parent company) and the second the cost of competing in the WEC. PSA is a little bit better [than at the time of its withdrawal], but the costs are still too high.”

The WEC takes cost reduction very seriously; there’s even a specific working group dedicated to the task. But limits on testing and personnel that can be taken to the races, a cap on the time each manufacturer can spend in the wind tunnel, and restricting the number of engines used each season will not reduce the required budget to a level Peugeot would regard as acceptable. Famin said that “a 10 per cent reduction” is not the figure we are talking about. 

Peugeot’s claims come at a time when the technological scope of the regulations is about to widen. A new cycle of rules to be introduced in 2018 will allow an extra energy-retrieval system – three rather than two – and increase the amount of hybrid energy that can be deployed over the course of a lap. A 10-megajoule class is being added above the existing 8MJ category. 

The question is whether it is time for the ACO and the FIA to divert the course of the technological road map in the name of cost reduction. Neveu and Fillon wouldn’t be drawn on that one. 

“The main target is to reduce costs and create conditions that welcome manufacturers, but this is not something new,” said Neveu. “There is a commission working on that and today is not the time to comment on any delay or adjustment to the technical regulations.”

The good news for the WEC is that it has time to tempt another manufacturer. Porsche’s participation is confirmed until the end of 2018 and senior bosses have suggested that they envisage a long-term presence in the brand’s traditional motor sport stomping ground, admittedly one from which it was absent in the 15 years leading up to its 2014 return. 

Toyota is committed at least until the end of the 2017 season and, just as significantly, Toyota Motorsport GmbH technical director Pascal Vasselon has insisted that there is “no end-date” set for the programme. Like Porsche, TMG is already working on a new car for the 2018 regulations, which are likely to be in force until 2020 or ’21.

That said, Audi was doing likewise and had all but finished its 2017 contender based around this year’s R18 e-tron quattro. The money already spent didn’t stop the axe from ending its 18-year stint in the prototype ranks.

The privateer conundrum

It is not just with manufacturer teams that the WEC and Le Mans are facing a shortfall in LMP1 entries. The gradual collapse of the privateer field has continued with the decision of the Anglo-Swiss Rebellion Racing to step down to LMP2 for 2017, leaving only the German-based ByKolles squad with any firm plans to compete against the factories next year. 

The ACO is keenly aware of the importance of the privateer in its premier class, particularly in the lean years of manufacturer participation. It hasn’t forgotten that in 2004-05, two of the three years in which Audi wasn’t represented by the factory Joest squad at Le Mans, it was the true independents – the likes of Pescarolo Sport and Racing for Holland – who took on the works-backed Audi R8s fielded under the banner of national importers. 

A series of rules breaks for the non-hybrid privateer cars, to be
phased in over the next two seasons
and designed to edge them closer to factory entries, has yet to have the desired effect of attracting more teams. Bringing more P1 privateers to the table has been described by ACO sporting director Vincent Beaumesnil as his “number one priority”.

Not all bad news

Neveu insisted that it will be business as usual for the WEC in 2017. The optimum entry of 32 full-season cars in the WEC is attainable, he said. 

“There are good prospects in front of us and in the coming months we will have good news about new LMP2 teams, maybe privateer LMP1 teams, and we already have had an announcement about a new manufacturer in GTE [BMW’s decision to join in 2018],” he said. 

“The WEC is not only about two, four or six LMP1s.”