Sports car racing has its world championship again after a 20-year hiatus. It does not seem likely to have two races running within one event ever again.
The question now is who blinks first.
Or at least that's what I deduced from this past weekend's 60th Anniversary Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, a joint round of the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patron, beginning its 14th season, and the new FIA World Endurance Championship in its first race.
This is the first and only combined round of the two championships in 2012. What happens for 2013 depends on whether politics, ego and hubris win out over common sense, great racing and, the key influencer, the fans.
Sebring is the coin potentially about to be flipped with the two championships on either side. America's proudest, longest-running endurance race has grown over the last 14 years, fostered by the efforts of the ALMS and its founder Don Panoz's vision. It grew to include the WEC's predecessor, the awkwardly named, but basically similar Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, in 2011 as running truly alongside the ALMS a year ago.
Yet, for 2013, the WEC seems to want a North American, WEC-only round (with Austin's Circuit of the Americas being a potential venue) and not a joint one between it and the ALMS.
With WEC teams on one side of the paddock and pit lane, and ALMS on the other, the divide seemed more like a chasm. And in no place was that clearer than the class structure, although it had to be set up that way.
The ALMS' usual five of P1, P2, GT, PC and GTC were joined by the WEC's LMP1, LMP2, GTE Pro and GTE Am. We had nine total classes this race (for instance, three Ferrari 458s were run in three different classes, RIGHT), even though efforts were made by ALMS Timing & Scoring and TV partners to attempt to simplify the process. Even that goal, designed to help the fans, wasn't uniform. P1 and P2 were combined in both platforms, while GT in Timing & Scoring combined ALMS GT and WEC GTE Pro, and the ESPN3 webcast made GT a combo of those two plus the WEC's GTE Am. Confused yet?
Media members and participants alike were when, on the final lap, an AF Corse Ferrari 458 that everyone thought was Olivier Beretta collided with then-GT leader Joey Hand in the BMW Team RLL M3. Yet the apparent contact, Hand's saving and then pass of the limping Ferrari through Turn 17 wasn't Beretta, but rather Gianmaria Bruni in the sister Ferrari that was more than 100 laps down.
The funny thing was that both Hand and Beretta won – Hand took the ALMS GT win and Beretta the WEC GTE Pro. But Beretta didn't come into the media room looking or sounding like a winner; he sounded as though he had been defeated – and he was.
There was also the awkward bit of how to handle pre-race and post-race ceremonies, from figuring out who were the proper speakers, VIPs and grand marshals to determining how to reward all the class winners in the podium festivities.
There were 10 podiums, for an overall top three and a top three in each of the nine classes. For good measure, there were also four total winners in the Michelin GREEN X Challenge, a prototype and a GT winner apiece from the WEC and ALMS.
The podium ceremony started just after the 10:30 p.m. checkered flag and ended only slightly before 1 a.m., and the ALMS did a masterful job of keeping the post-race interview process succinct and moving to where it wrapped up about only 15 minutes after the final podium.
That put a wrap on the 2012 Sebring proceedings. Moving forward, the question is whether a joint race can co-exist – and, perhaps, whether it should.
Earlier in the race, there had been a statement that much more succinctly described the balance of having two races within one. It came from the outgoing ACO president, Jean-Claude Plassart, who had been instrumental in launching the ILMC before the WEC's creation.
“The aim is not to have two races together,” Plassart said when asked whether the WEC car count of 30 this race had room to grow for 2013. The implication was that an increased WEC number could kick the ALMS out of Sebring.
The statement was made during an in-race media conference with five FIA and ACO principals, which included Plassart, FIA President Jean Todt (LEFT), FIA Endurance Commission President Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones, ACO vp Pierre Fillon, and FIA Senate/ACCUS President Nick Craw. WEC CEO Gerard Neveu was also present though not on the direct panel. Still, Todt's presence at Sebring, rather than Melbourne for the Formula 1 season opener, showed the FIA meant business with the WEC.
“I had three choices,” Todt said when asked why he came to Sebring. “One was to stay at home, the other choice was Melbourne and the last to come here. Simply, the reason why I came here is the first World Endurance Championship race under the FIA umbrella. It's a historic moment.”