Indeed it is for the WEC, but this race also required a take from the ALMS – and its president and CEO, Scott Atherton (LEFT, with Plassart), provided one earlier this week.
“It actually exceeded my expectations,” Atherton said. “With all the moving parts connected to this event, it had all the makings of a real challenging and potentially fraught-with-danger experience. Still, this was a textbook example of cooperation, compromise and mutual respect that started at the top and permeated every aspect of the event.”
Atherton elaborated on why the race had to progress as it did, with the nine-class structure and how, given the state of play, it was the only realistic option.
“In a perfect environment, it would be one race, with one winner overall and class winners based on what classes were represented,” he says. “But from an American Le Mans Series and IMSA perspective, we wanted to make sure our season-long competitors were treated with respect and dignity.
“Still, we wanted to make sure that because of the significance of the 60th running, with it being Sebring and bringing numerous world entries, we didn't want to lose that aspect of the event. The only way we could ensure this race would have the top levels of factory LMP content and leading European teams in addition to top teams in American Le Mans Series was to combine the races. That started us down the process of what that all means.”
In Atherton's eyes, the Plassart “two races” statement was more the words of an ideal situation, rather than a direct blow across the brow.
“What Jean-Claude is saying is that ideally, for both parties, it's one race – and you avoid the confusion, and complexities, that come with combining these two entities,” Atherton said. “That might be a bit of a simplistic view, in that it implies one or the other is no longer part of the equation. That's been an option, but it hasn't been a viable option to put on an event like what we had.”
The philosophy difference is paramount here. Plassart explained his with the unofficial – if more pronounced – ladder system to the WEC.
“Here you have the ALMS and races all in America,” Plassart said. “The best teams and drivers, new teams and drivers race there, and then the best ones then go to World Endurance Championship and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. What we're doing in America, Europe, launching in Asia, it is the foundation. We need to keep growing new teams, products there to get them to the World Endurance Championship and Le Mans.”
The view there, of course, is that in the FIA's eyes, the ALMS is fine as a branch of the WEC, and as a feeder to the WEC – but not equal with the WEC. That perspective seems to ignore history, in that the WEC might not have ever launched without the ALMS, and it's a key point made by Atherton.
“The birth mother of the World Endurance Championship is the American Le Mans Series,” he said. “The birth father of the entire current FIA WEC is Don Panoz. It was Don who originally had the idea and the vision in 1999 to go to Le Mans, and suggest that they export their brand, and export their rulebook outside the La Sarthe region in France to allow a championship in North America. It borrowed their brand equity, and utilized their technical rules and regulations to begin a standalone series, but was otherwise completely autonomous to Le Mans.
“From that catalyst, that idea, successful series grew in North America and Europe, and the ground laid the last 14 years has helped create the critical mass and substance needed to evolve it into a true world championship.”
Ironically, then, it's the ALMS that has been burned in terms of manufacturer LMP1 entries who have opted instead for the WEC. The people affected most are the American fans, who have to look elsewhere to find the marquee prototypes.
The WEC has the global cachet, FIA sanctioning and factory prototype entrants, but it's also a new championship – and it's foolish to think it would launch to the level of fan interest in a year or so. Todt, too, admits the WEC is a long-term project, and that it's got a mere fraction of interest and name recognition as Formula 1, within the FIA family.
Fans, ideally, just want to see a simplified, streamlined and understandable sports car race – Audi vs. Toyota vs. HPD and BMW vs. Corvette vs. Porsche vs. Ferrari. None of the madness or confusion over which class was which, which series was which, and the like.
The hardest part about following sports car racing is constantly mastering the changing rules and regulations and trying to split your eyes among various series, classes and championships. Try doing that for two championships competing in the same race at the same time!
Sebring was the first battleground between these two championships. Sebring's history, name-recognition and space are things that Austin – great a facility as it may be when it opens – lacks. Most likely, The WEC would be racing in front of a comparative handful of enthusiasts in Austin.
The ALMS can continue trying to make a joint WEC/ALMS round work at Sebring, as part of its preservation to its ACO link and its direct tie-in, but it's apparent the FIA isn't interested in including the ALMS as a part of its races if it doesn't have to. It could also enforce the fact Sebring is a Panoz-owned track, and let that do the talking in terms of which series would race there.
Or, would ALMS chance making the break from the ACO altogether? It seems strong enough from a pure car count perspective for 2012 that outside of the Audis, which were in a race by themselves anyway, there wasn't that much gained for the ALMS through the WEC's presence this year. The larger concern would be losing the Le Mans connection.
Regardless of what happens for 2013, the obvious point is that next year's Sebring needs to be a cleaner and simpler event. The race, the ALMS and the fans all deserve better.
Grand as the 2012 race may have been, the confusion and politics that affected it should be, like the race, consigned to history.