While sports car racing has often seen a power struggle between differing sanctioning bodies and organizations, the latest chapter in this story came last weekend in Zhuhai, China. The ACO – caretakers of the FIA's new-for-2012 World Endurance Championship – fired a direct shot across the bow of its partner, the American Le Mans Series, when the 2012 WEC calendar was announced.
The eight-race global championship, an effective re-branding of this year's Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, takes the series beyond Europe and North America to Brazil, Japan, China, and – here's the kicker – Bahrain. The Bahrain announcement came completely out of left field to most sports car observers (and some officials), particularly in that it was set for the same date as Road Atlanta's Petit Le Mans, which in both 2010 and '11 served as a joint round of the ALMS and ILMC. And, in both years, it featured a bumper grid of entries and brought more than 100,000 fans through the turnstiles. No small accomplishment, given the current economic situation.
There were rumblings before this year's ALMS “State of the Series,” held annually at Petit, that the ALMS might break off its long-standing partnership with the ACO. A break could have meant the ALMS charted its own path without the direct link to Le Mans. It was starting to do that anyway – the two Challenge classes created for 2010 didn't fall under the ACO class specification for Le Mans.
That break didn't happen, in large part, because one of ALMS's greatest assets is its link to La Sarthe. Dating back to 1999, many of the prototypes and GT cars run at Le Mans have also been able to do battle on a full-season basis in the U.S.; now, clearly, it's a case of either/or. That's been evident in the rapid decline of factory prototype entrants since 2008 and, with no disrespect to the privateers, the ALMS was always manufacturer-driven first (and still is in the GT class, which has now soldiered ahead as the series' best class, and the one which still sees its teams go to Le Mans).
What that means, of course, is that while the ALMS remains tied in partnership with the ACO, the French don't appear to be interested in returning the favor to their North American counterparts. The ACO now has the FIA sanctioning to give Le Mans its place as the centerpiece of the new sports car world championship, which is its top priority.
The two will go ahead in staging next year's 12 Hours of Sebring as the first WEC/ALMS joint round, but further events beyond that are anyone's guess. A political squabble between the two has already sprouted up with suggestions that the ALMS' GTC class might not be allowed inclusion in the race, although that has apparently now been resolved.
Make no mistake, the reason some of the events were included in the 2012 WEC is because the WEC manufacturers want to go there. China stands out as the most emerging economic market that needs to be captured. Peugeot wants South America and Brazil's Interlagos fits that bill, while Toyota and Japan are an obvious pairing.
Bahrain is the elephant in the room, though. The fact ALMS President and CEO Scott Atherton used the word “suddenly” and the phrase “the ALMS has worked to assist the ACO in advancing our sport on a worldwide basis” in his statement does more than imply the Americans were taken by surprise by the decision. The question is whether they knew what they were getting themselves into when they re-upped with the ACO, knowing the WEC could act on behalf of its own self-interest first and potentially do irreparable harm to the ALMS. Only those present in the meeting rooms can say for sure.
What Bahrain seems to lack for auto manufacturers in terms of sales, ambiance, scenery, fans or political stability, it does offer two things bigger than most. Bahrain should feature a very large sanctioning fee and a chance at redemption for Bernie Ecclestone. Hear me out.
As Ecclestone pushed F1 into the Middle East – which began with Bahrain in 2004 – he now has the opportunity to see a second FIA-sanctioned world championship regain a foothold in the region. If it works, Ecclestone can use the WEC round as a successful test case for an F1 return. Otherwise, why Bahrain, given Yas Marina in Abu Dhabi, Dubai Autodrome or Qatar could all be available in that part of the world?