FU­TURE OF MO­TOR­SPORT

In the first in­stal­ment of a new se­ries that scru­ti­nises the prospects of mo­tor­sport, the evo team attempts to find a so­lu­tion to the prob­lem that is the World En­durance Cham­pi­onship

Evo - - CONTENTS FEATURES - by STU­ART GAL­LAGHER

In the first of a se­ries of per­ti­nent ar­ti­cles, the evo team dis­cusses what en­durance rac­ing needs to do to sur­vive – and then thrive

AS A MO­TOR­SPORT FAN, YOU MAY BE ASK­ING WHAT in the name of Nel­son Pi­quet Jr is going on with your sport. Man­u­fac­tur­ers are jump­ing ships and join­ing band­wag­ons quicker than NPJ could re­act to a ra­dio mes­sage dur­ing a night race. And once-head­line mo­tor­sport se­ries are now star­ing at vast empty spa­ces in the pad­dock where the cor­po­rate hospi­tal­ity units of the world’s big­gest car mak­ers pre­vi­ously stood.

For­mula E would ap­pear, on the face of it, to be the big­gest bene­fac­tor of this shake-up. Re­cently Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Porsche all con­firmed their switch to the all-elec­tric sin­gle-seater se­ries with full works teams, and within days of each other. Merc ditched Ger­many’s DTM tour­ing car se­ries to fund the switch, while Porsche will end its World En­durance Cham­pi­onship pro­gramme two years early to fo­cus on its first sin­gle­seater cam­paign since its dis­as­trous Foot­work tie-up in F1 back in 1991.

With Audi looking for some­where to spend its eu­ros af­ter with­draw­ing from WEC last year and BMW hav­ing danced around the pe­riph­ery of

‘ Spec­ta­tors are lost as to what they are meant to be watch­ing and in which sport they should in­vest time’

top-line mo­tor­sport with a pres­ence in DTM and also IMSA GT rac­ing in the USA in re­cent years, both will now field fac­tory teams in For­mula E. BMW is also re­turn­ing to the FIA World En­durance Cham­pi­onship – in the GTE class, with its new M8, from 2018.

Man­u­fac­tur­ers have al­ways been key to mo­tor­sport and its suc­cess – al­though not al­ways for the right rea­sons. And now some of the se­ries and their pro­mot­ers – who scoffed at the man­u­fac­turer top ta­bles – find them­selves at a lunch buf­fet with noth­ing more than a few over­cooked parsnips and limp cab­bage to shove around their plates.

For­mula 1 knows this sce­nario only too well: it has courted boardroom mil­lions more than any other se­ries, only to lose it all again. In fact, ev­ery head­line mo­tor­sport cat­e­gory does this, but it feels – and looks – like more are suf­fer­ing than ever be­fore and going through a pe­riod of huge tran­si­tion. It’s leav­ing the spec­ta­tors lost as to what they are meant to be watch­ing, who they should sup­port and which sport they should in­vest their time and money in.

We feel the same in the evo of­fice. What’s hap­pened to the mo­tor­sport we know and love? Is it a case of our rose-tinted glasses get­ting darker with each new race we watch? Are our mem­o­ries play­ing tricks on us, mak­ing us think it was all bet­ter back in the day? Or should we ac­cept that change is hap­pen­ing, whether we like it or not, and em­brace what we have?

It’s a tricky one, be­cause mo­tor­sport to many of us means so much more than what hap­pens on track for a cou­ple of laps or hours on a Sun­day af­ter­noon. It’s the cars mo­tor­sport in­spires that ex­cite just as much, from iconic sin­gle-seaters such as a Gor­don Mur­ray-de­signed Mclaren to the leg­ends of en­durance rac­ing, from Jaguar’s XJR be­he­moths to Porsche’s all-conquering 956/962s. And the Group A, B and even N ve­hi­cles that cre­ated ri­val­ries that were as fierce in the car parks as they were on track or on the rally stage. And, of course, the venues. Mo­tor­sport was about the ul­ti­mate test, but is it still so? Has ap­peal­ing to a wider au­di­ence that has less ap­petite to dili­gently fol­low a sport than it has a de­sire to be able to say ‘I’ve been there, done that and here’s the selfie to prove it’ done more harm than good?

What’s the an­swer? Is there a so­lu­tion? In a bid to find one, or at least come up with a num­ber of sug­ges­tions, evo is sit­ting around a ta­ble – and will again in the fu­ture – crack­ing open the bis­cuits and dis­cussing the fu­ture mo­tor­sport over a cup of tea.

The key cat­e­gories up for dis­cus­sion over the com­ing months will be For­mula 1, the World En­durance Cham­pi­onship, the World Rally Cham­pi­onship, tour­ing cars (in­clud­ing BTCC, DTM, TCR and Aus­tralian Su­per­cars), For­mula E and Ral­ly­cross. The ‘ex­perts’ are evo’s deputy ed­i­tor Adam Towler, road test ed­i­tor James Dis­dale, con­tribut­ing ed­i­tors Richard Meaden, John Barker and Colin Good­win, and staff writer Antony In­gram.

This month we’re looking at the World En­durance Cham­pi­onship – and oh how the mighty have fallen in this par­tic­u­lar se­ries. One minute it’s the envy of many a race-se­ries pro­moter around the globe, then it’s left with a head­line cat­e­gory (LMP1) that’s buried it­self so deep in the gravel trap that there’s no plant ma­chin­ery strong enough to ex­tract it. The World En­durance Cham­pi­onship has seem­ingly been black-flagged just as it was head­ing for cer­tain vic­tory.

Audi’s de­par­ture last year and Porsche’s this have dec­i­mated the LMP1 cat­e­gory, and while we all en­joyed the fe­ro­cious pace of the R18 e-tron and 919 Hy­brid and their jet-fighter-style ap­proach to weav­ing through traf­fic in the dead of night, se­cretly we all knew it wasn’t sus­tain­able and sooner or later sportscar rac­ing would eat it­self. Again.

‘Sadly, sportscar rac­ing has gone down one of its pe­ri­odic blind al­leys,’ says Towler. ‘It’s a cycli­cal thing – not a rea­son to panic, just to have a re­think. The LMP1 cars are too com­plex, too ex­pen­sive, too fast and not iden­ti­fi­able as gen­uine sports cars.’

It’s a sen­ti­ment shared by all of us. ‘The re­cent decade of LMP1 rac­ing has been ab­so­lutely fas­ci­nat­ing and has turned out some of the most ad­vanced cars ever made,’ adds In­gram. ‘But the rapidly es­ca­lat­ing ex­pense and in­creas­ing ir­rel­e­vance for road cars was al­ways going to lead to it burn­ing out. There’s also a dis­con­nect here be­tween how great peo­ple say this se­ries is and their de­sire to ac­tu­ally watch it.’

In the past, sportscar rac­ing ap­pealed to the en­thu­si­ast, the die-hard and a col­lec­tive who would think noth­ing about catch­ing a flight to Se­bring in the USA to watch a packed grid race

‘ The sport has al­ways been at its best when pri­va­teers can com­pete at the front of the grid’

around an old bomber base. It still does to­day, but is that the au­di­ence the man­u­fac­tur­ers in LMP1 are looking to ap­peal to? Unlikely.

So what’s the fix? WEC is in the for­tu­nate po­si­tion of of­fer­ing mul­ti­ple classes, and while the top cat­e­gory has run its bat­ter­ies dry, there are three more to pick up the pieces. ‘I love the GTE cars,’ says Meaden. ‘The com­pe­ti­tion is es­pe­cially fierce at the mo­ment. It feels like WEC needs a pro­to­type class, but the GTE cars are the ones that res­onate most with fans.’

Towler – ac­tu­ally, all of us – are in agree­ment with Dickie when it comes to the GTE cat­e­gory, but evo’s deputy ed­i­tor would go a step fur­ther. ‘The pro­to­type classes need to go,’ ex­plains Towler. ‘The WEC should be GT1, GT2, GT3 and GT4. The return to GT1 would cover cars such as the next Mclaren P1 and La­fer­rari.

‘The ex­ist­ing GTE class would be­come the new GT2, with per­haps a lit­tle more power al­lowed – say 600 to 650bhp. The cur­rent GT3 cars rac­ing in the likes of the Blanc­pain GT Se­ries and Ger­many’s VLN En­durance Cham­pi­onship would be al­lowed in, open­ing up the se­ries to vastly more man­u­fac­tur­ers, teams and driv­ers. And GT4 should be the en­try point, be­cause races such as Le Mans should have min­nows in them – Porsche Cay­mans and Lo­tus Ex­iges bat­tling at the foot of the field.’

Colin Good­win is in agree­ment but fears for the sport at a na­tional level: ‘I flew over Sil­ver­stone re­cently and thought there was a track­day tak­ing place on a Sun­day. It was only when I got home that I dis­cov­ered it was a round of the Bri­tish GT Cham­pi­onship. No one is at­tend­ing the races that were once re­garded as must-visit events and that’s a big prob­lem.’

But is the is­sue only the cars? There is also the ar­gu­ment that too many peo­ple are try­ing to have the same sized slice from the same di­min­ish­ing pie and all they are left with is a hand­ful of crumbs. WEC, ELMS, Blanc­pain, IMSA and VLN are all chas­ing the same teams and bud­gets to race sim­i­lar cars. And then there are the venues. WEC, with its man­u­fac­turer mil­lions, has been pushed to far-flung lo­ca­tions where there is no au­di­ence, in­ter­est or rel­e­vance for en­durance rac­ing. A mar­ket­ing pres­ence in Shang­hai may help shift Q7s or Cayennes, but that re­gion’s au­di­ence would un­doubt­edly be bet­ter served by throw­ing a few thou­sand quid at a lo­cal so­cial-me­dia star than spend­ing a cou­ple of mil­lion eu­ros at a race the lo­cals have no ap­petite for. Mo­tor­sport’s ob­ses­sion with conquering new ter­ri­to­ries around the world is its down­fall.

As men­tioned, sportscar rac­ing has had a cycli­cal habit for gen­er­a­tions, and most of the dead-ends it has found it­self rac­ing into have come about when the man­u­fac­tur­ers have be­come more in­ter­ested in com­pet­ing in a costly technology bat­tle rather than a mo­tor race. The sport has also been at its best – and one of its big­gest ap­peals has al­ways been – when pri­va­teer and in­de­pen­dent teams have been able to com­pete at the front of the grid and for over­all vic­tory with a car they have bought from, and is sup­ported by, the man­u­fac­tur­ers (as in the lower GT cat­e­gories). Some of the most mem­o­rable sportscar vic­to­ries have been at the hands of the pri­va­teers and in­de­pen­dent teams, and per­haps now is a good time to hand back con­trol to al­low the World En­durance Cham­pi­onship to shine again at the hands of those who have made mem­o­ries in the past.

Man­u­fac­tur­ers have much to gain from sup­port­ing a se­ries such as WEC, but we be­lieve this sup­port is best pro­vided when they act as a sup­plier rather than fac­tory teams.

T H E F U T U R E O F M OTO RS P O RT

Above: a re­vived GT1 class in en­durance rac­ing would give cars such as the Mclaren P1 GTR a home in top-tier com­pe­ti­tion. Right: Audi’s abrupt de­par­ture from LMP1 was fol­lowed by the even more abrupt loss of Porsche. With­out them, the only hy­brid LMP1 con­tender will be Toy­ota

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