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.”
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.