Some 20 years after the demise of the original world championship for sports cars, and after a number of false dawns, the series is finally to be re-instigated. The FIA World Endurance Championship begins next year and just might signal the beginning of another classic era for sports car racing. If the likes of Toyota and Jaguar – both known to be weighing up a return to the prototype ranks to join Audi, Peugeot and Porsche – are swayed by the chance to race for a world title then the outlook is good.
The WEC, which revives the name used for the 40-season world championship in 1981-'85, isn't entirely new, of course: it's effectively a re-branding of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup. The Automobile Club de l'Ouest-run series, currently in its first full season, had already come to be regarded as a world championship in all but name. World status for the ILMC in 2012 was both a natural step and a required step, and one that the major participants had been pushing for from the word go.
Perhaps Hugues de Chaunac, whose ORECA team won this year's ILMC opener at Sebring with a year-old Peugeot 908 HDi summed it up best when he said, “ILMC means nothing. It must be a world championship.” De Chaunac was spot on because the ILMC was a world championship in all but name, but its difficult-to-say acronym made it near impossible to promote. In contrast, the World Endurance Championship means exactly what it says. And that will be important when motorsports bosses head into the boardroom, cap in hand, when marketing men knock on a sponsor's door and when racetracks put up posters for a forthcoming round of the championship.
If the ILMC, with the Le Mans 24 Hours at its heart, was exactly what long-distance sports car racing needed, then the World Endurance Championship was the banner it needed. Yet is it all good news? The answer to that question is almost certainly “No.” There's a lot of sports car racing in the world right now and the cake can only be cut so many ways: the more championships there are, the thinner the slices.
There's even a world championship for sports cars already, though it's not the spiritual successor of the series that ran from 1953 to '92. The FIA GT1 World Championship is something different altogether. It is not an endurance championship – the races are only one hour in duration, there is (sacrilegiously to the minds of many) no refueling, overt manufacturer participation in the form of full factory teams is not allowed and, of course, there are no prototypes.
FIA GT1 was given the go-ahead under the old Max Mosley regime at the governing body of world motorsport. His successor, Jean Todt, was making positive noises about a world championship for endurance racing from the beginning of his presidency in October 2009 and, on the announcement of the WEC during Le Mans week this year, he revealed that discussions about the series had begun almost immediately after he took his current role. He believes there is room for both world championships because they are “completely different concepts.”
Yet inevitably they'll be, to some extent, competing for the same teams and manufacturers, the same sponsors, the same TV airtime and events at the same tracks. If two series so different are competitors, then what about the championships that will run to the same rulebook as the ILMC – namely, the American Le Mans Series and the Le Mans Series in Europe? The competition for entries, whether from factory or privateer teams, will be intense.
Would Audi be racing full time in the ALMS this year if there was no ILMC? There's good evidence to suggest it would. Audi North America had a budget, reputed to be $5 million, and was looking for ways of topping up that figure to bring a pair of last year's R15+ LMP1s onto the grid for the whole season. Highcroft Racing came close to securing a deal to represent Audi in the ALMS, while Penske Racing and at least one other team is known to have had discussions about the plan.
The hope must be that the arrival of a world championship will increase the pool of manufacturers competing in international sports car racing and that some of the big players will opt for multiple programs. That's certainly a scenario that ALMS boss Scott Atherton can envisage.
“Is there a concern? I'd be lying if I said there wasn't,” he says, “but the U.S. is a very big market for most of the manufacturers involved and, for most of them, it represents one of their top priorities. It is very difficult to build an audience when you are in a market one or two weekends a year. Formula 1 found that.”
Say Toyota presses the button on its plans to return to the prototype ranks and mounts a WEC program around its first bid for outright honors at Le Mans since 1999 (RIGHT). Surely it would therefore consider an ALMS program in a country in which it's a major player and has built cars, as well as sold them, since the 1980s? There's no official answer to that question because the Japanese manufacturer refuses to talk about its plans except to say that it's continuing to evaluate hybrid technology for racing. But if Toyota returns to Le Mans to promote a message, why wouldn't it want to sing the same song in a marketplace where it sells more hybrids than any other manufacturer?