Can WEC regain its star appeal?

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A new plan is supposed to save the series but does it go far enough?

A radical blueprint for the future or a case of rearranging deckchairs? The World Endurance Championship dropped bombshell after bombshell as it unveiled a road map that will take it into the next decade and, hopefully, out of the malaise it faces after the withdrawal from LMP1 of first Audi and now Porsche.

Series boss Gérard Neveu and his bosses at the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, the WEC promoter and organiser of the Le Mans 24 Hours, needed to say something when the circus reconvened in Mexico City in September for the first race after the confirmation of Porsche’s exit. Its solution? Announcing that it had revived the grand plan of a winter season, running across two calendar years and climaxing with the Le Mans 24 Hours. This switch and a return to Sebring, the spiritual home of sports car racing in North America, gave it some good news to shout about.

But did it address the real problem, namely the shortfall in factory P1 entries after the withdrawal of Audi and Porsche? And in the face of lack of manufacturers, the needs of the car makers racing in GTE Pro appear to have been largely ignored.

A RADICAL FORMAT

The switch to a winter season – a northern-hemisphere winter, that is – could be the required tonic for the hangover that follows Le Mans every season. Maintaining interest in the series after a race that dwarfs every other round in prestige and profile has been one of the on-going problems for the WEC since its rebirth in 2012. No one is going to forget about the championship in the future as it approaches its climax at the race that really matters.

The winter season appears on face value to be a simple – and certainly pragmatic – solution to a difficult problem. But a switch to a season that ends with Le Mans could also be counterproductive. It could ultimately detract from the WEC and pile yet more importance on the 24 Hours.

Who will be celebrating hard on Sunday night and who will take the press adverts on Monday morning after Le Mans – the winner of the championship or the winner of the race? The answer to that question is obvious. Aston Martin has provided the answer over the past year or so: the UK manufacturer bought space in the papers after it claimed GTE Pro honours in the 24 Hours this year, but not after it sealed the GT title for drivers in Bahrain.

How to transition to a winter series was one of the hurdles that forced the WEC to shelve such a move when it was first mooted more than three years ago. Its solution is the so-called ‘superseason’, which will incorporate two editions of the 24 Hours at Le Mans over a season stretching from May 2018 to June 2019.

Keeping costs under control was uppermost in the minds of the WEC and the ACO, which is why there were initially only eight races over the course of the superseason – one down on the present nine (though things have since changed, see sidebar). A drawn-out season will allow the WEC grid to be sea-freighted around the world – there will no jumbos involved as there are now. That brings a massive saving in transport costs.

The problem is that a racing team brings in money by going racing. Cars sitting in workshops – or more pertinently in containers in the hold of a ship – aren’t earning, but the money is still going out. Rent and salaries need to be paid.

Four races over the course of 2018 appeared to be a bit light, though that has changed with the reinstatement of Silverstone (which replaces an originally blank date set aside for February 2019).

BACK HOME IN AMERICA 

A return to Sebring, where the series was reborn in 2012, has to be positive for the WEC. The circuit might be bumpy and the facilities modest, but the Florida airfield circuit has a historical importance in endurance racing. Don’t forget it was the scene of the very first world championship sports car race in 1953.

A double-header with the IMSA SportsCar Championship means the WEC will race in front of a ready-made audience of the kind it could only dream about when it has turned up at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin.

The WEC fixture was announced as another 12-hour race, which will kick off two hours after the ‘real’ Sebring 12 Hours. That could change, perhaps, to a 10-hour race.

THE P1 QUESTION

Uppermost in the minds of the ACO, as it was formulating its road map, was saving the LMP1 division. Its plan is to offer the privateers competing with non-hybrid machinery further breaks to allow them to match the performance of the high-tech factory cars, should any remain, over the course of the superseason in 2018/19 and the first winter season in 2019/20.

This is very much as stop-gap solution, but one that threatens to alienate its only potential factory representative in P1. It arguably makes Toyota’s position untenable. Would a manufacturer spending in the region of €100 million on a twin-hybrid P1 really want to return in the knowledge that it could be beaten by a team spending a fraction of that?

The ACO and the FIA, which jointly write the P1 rulebook, have admitted that they will need to look again at the rules announced this June for 2020. They have already said that the zero-emissions requirement, one racing kilometre using only electric power after every refuelling stop, has been abandoned.

A much lower level of technology is likely, though the ACO has insisted that it remains committed to hybridisation. There appears to be something approaching a blank canvas as it begins the process to formulate a new set of rules to attract in new manufacturers ahead of the 2020/21 season.

NO FOCUS ON GTE

There will be no manufacturer representation in LMP1 next year should Toyota decide against continuing. There will be five car makers in GTE Pro, with the arrival of BMW, but the needs of the newcomer and the four incumbent marques have been largely ignored in the revamp of the WEC.

Most pertinently, plans for a qualifying sprint on the Saturday, before the regular six-hour races, have been put on the back-burner. The idea will not reach fruition at any time during the transitional superseason.

The logic of the WEC and the ACO is that it would be wrong to introduce something that adds additional costs at a time when it is trying to keep a cap on budgets over the superseason. It also points out that it wouldn’t be possible to have qualifying events at three of the eight races, the two editions of Le Mans and the Sebring round.

That’s fine, but these are manufacturers with healthy finances, not privateers struggling to survive. They need to get a return on their investment. There’s a feeling among the GTE manufacturers that they have been neglected by the WEC and the ACO.

The on-going dialogue between the WEC, the ACO and the GTE manufacturers appears to remain healthy. Neveu has admitted that there’s a lot of water to pass under the bridge before many of the ideas presented in Mexico are firmed up.

A season climaxing at the Le Mans 24 Hours grabbed the headlines, but won’t save the WEC on its own.

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