Can WEC ever reach F1's level of popularity?

After last weekend’s scintillating WEC opener, comparisons are again being made between the series and F1. Jamie Klein investigates whether endurance racing really can challenge the popularity of the established pinnacle of motorsport.

Can WEC ever reach F1's level of popularity?
WEC logo
#7 Audi Sport Team Joest R18 e-tron quattro: Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer, Benoit Tréluyer
Race winners: Benoit Tréluyer, Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer
#17 Porsche Team 919 Hybrid: Timo Bernhard, Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley
Podium: race winners Benoit Tréluyer, Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer, second place Romain Dumas, Neel Jani, Marc Lieb, third place Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima
Mark Webber, Porsche Team WEC Driver
#98 Aston Martin Racing Vantage V8: Paul Dalla Lana, Mathias Lauda, Pedro Lamy
#51 AF Corse Ferrari F458 Italia: Gianmaria Bruni, Toni Vilander
Andre Lotterer, Audi Sport Team Joest
#8 Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R18 e-tron quattro: Lucas di Grassi, Loic Duval, Oliver Jarvis
#1 Toyota Racing TS040 Hybrid: Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima
Neel Jani, Porsche Team
LMP1 Podium: second place Romain Dumas, Neel Jani, Marc Lieb and winners Benoit Tréluyer, Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer and third place Sébastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson, Kazuki Nakajima

An unsustainable financial model that threatens to decimate grid numbers, a brazen disregard for tradition and history, declining audiences both on TV and live at circuits and an apparent inability to attract new sponsors mean that these are parlous times for Formula 1.

Indeed, several paddock observers have pointed towards the World Endurance Championship's healthy grids, rising profile and burgeoning manufacturer involvement as evidence that F1 needs to adapt fast, or risk being eclipsed by its more forward-looking rival series in the near future.

However, it is easy to forget that, for all its many problems, F1 continues to enjoy an enormous global profile that the WEC has yet to even approach despite clear gains made in recent years, as the numbers from last weekend's opening round at Silverstone confirm.

Getting an audience

A live race day audience for the six-hour event of 45,000 can perhaps be considered a mild disappointment, given that 43,000 turned out the previous year in far less pleasant weather, while Motors TV's live coverage attracted a peak of just 24,000 viewers in the UK.

Of course, Motors TV is very much a niche broadcaster, but therein lies the challenge – convincing the bigger stations to commit to airing six hours of live coverage, or 24 in the case of the jewel in the WEC's crown at Le Mans.

After all, a major presence on free-to-air TV networks was key to F1 being able to establish itself as the sporting behemoth it is today, the more recent trend towards striking deals with pay-TV channels often being blamed for a decline in viewing audiences.

But, even if this considerable obstacle could somehow be overcome, there remains the problem of enticing the general public to tune in for such prolonged periods.

And those that would advocate shorter races to get around this problem would do well to remember what happened when the old World Sportscar Championship slashed race distances in the early 1990s in a bid to make itself more appealing to TV broadcasters.

More nuanced

The TV coverage question is nevertheless only part of a broader problem that the WEC faces in its quest to grow – namely the fact that endurance racing generally tends to be much more nuanced, and thus harder for a casual audience to fully grasp, than a 90-minute F1 sprint.

For example, the very fact that two or three drivers share each car (a necessity in races of such length) is a major sticking point, as it hinders the emergence of star drivers that the uninitiated viewer can readily identify and rally behind, beyond those such as Mark Webber with extensive F1 backgrounds.

As brilliant a driver as he is, it's almost impossible to imagine someone like Andre Lotterer ever becoming a global sporting icon in the mould of Lewis Hamilton or Fernando Alonso, no matter how many times he wins Le Mans, simply because of his reliance on his two teammates in any given race.

Then there's the matter of all the technology – while the notion of a V6 diesel-powered Audi using a flywheel-based hybrid system doing battle with a Porsche equipped with lithium-ion batteries and propelled by a petrol V4 may quicken the pulse of the purist, Joe Public is hardly likely to care.

What does excite the casual viewer is the sort of wheel-to-wheel action seen at Silverstone last weekend, but the subtle ebb-and-flow that is typical of most endurance races simply won't cut it, no matter how innovative and road-relevant modern prototype machinery may be. 

No need for change

None of this is to suggest that the WEC needs to change; far from it. The evidence suggests that it has been doing everything right so far, and any attempts to broaden its appeal through gimmickry will no doubt alienate its core fanbase and can lead only to disaster.

The championship ought to stick to the formula that has proven such a hit with the purist, but at the same time recognise that this means it is unlikely to ever scale the same heights of popularity that F1 has managed in an age of ever-diminishing attention spans.

Whether F1 ends up imploding is another matter altogether, and if this happens, WEC – as well as other series such as IndyCar and Formula E – would surely pick up some of the slack, and could easily become the predominant motorsport series globally given its current trajectory.

But, to think that endurance racing could ever rival sports such as football, tennis, golf and athletics worldwide in the way that F1 currently does is to stray into the realm of fantasy.

shares
comments
Di Grassi column: 2015 will be mega in the WEC
Previous article

Di Grassi column: 2015 will be mega in the WEC

Next article

Benoît Tréluyer: Victory!

Benoît Tréluyer: Victory!
Load comments
The unanswered questions that define WEC 2021's controversial ending Prime

The unanswered questions that define WEC 2021's controversial ending

OPINION: The deeply unsatisfying ending to a brilliant World Endurance Championship GTE Pro battle in Bahrain had Ferrari provisionally heading back from the desert as the victor. But Porsche plans to appeal the outcome, which rests on a number of confusing elements that have yet to be satisfactorily explained.

WEC
Nov 9, 2021
How the WEC's heavyweight duel reached its controversial flashpoint Prime

How the WEC's heavyweight duel reached its controversial flashpoint

The Ferrari versus Porsche fight for the FIA World Endurance Championship's GTE Pro title had been a finely-poised affair, right up until Alessandro Pier Guidi's punt on Michael Christensen in the closing stages of the Bahrain 8 Hours handed Ferrari a provisional title, pending Porsche's appeal. Here's how the controversy played out.

WEC
Nov 8, 2021
The remarkable fixes Toyota used to avert another Le Mans disaster Prime

The remarkable fixes Toyota used to avert another Le Mans disaster

The 1-2 finish achieved by Toyota at this year's Le Mans 24 Hours was a result that will have surprised few, given its status as pre-event favourite. But the result was anything but straightforward, as worsening fuel pressure concerns required the team's drivers and engineers to pursue "creative fixes" on the fly. Here is the full story of how it reached the end without a lengthy pit visit

Le Mans
Nov 3, 2021
The 10 greatest drives of lost legend Jo Siffert Prime

The 10 greatest drives of lost legend Jo Siffert

It's 50 years since Jo Siffert was killed in his prime at Brands Hatch. The Swiss scored just two world championship wins in a Formula 1 career spent largely with privateer teams, but showed on numerous occasions in single-seaters and in sportscars with Porsche that he could beat any of the best drivers of his era given the right equipment.

Formula 1
Oct 24, 2021
Inside the Le Mans finish too barmy for Hollywood Prime

Inside the Le Mans finish too barmy for Hollywood

Team WRT has been at the forefront of GT racing for years and made a successful move to prototypes for 2021, capped by an LMP2 win on its Le Mans debut. It could've been even better had the race been one lap shorter, when its cars ran 1-2, but the stranger-than-fiction reality has spurred the team to reach greater heights.

Le Mans
Oct 16, 2021
Why Toyota's Le Mans victory was not as simple as it looked Prime

Why Toyota's Le Mans victory was not as simple as it looked

Toyota scored its fourth Le Mans 24 Hours victory and a 1-2, with the #7 car of Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez beating the #8. But although it looked straightforward from the outside, Toyota faced serious problem that had to be solved with some quick-thinking and ingenuity.

Le Mans
Aug 24, 2021
What we've learned from the Le Mans 24 Hours so far Prime

What we've learned from the Le Mans 24 Hours so far

The new dawn for the FIA World Endurance Championship has arrived at Le Mans, as Hypercars prepare to duel for victory in the world's oldest endurance race. Motorsport.com picks out the 10 things we have learned in the build up to the race.

Le Mans
Aug 21, 2021
Le Mans 2021: The team-by-team guide Prime

Le Mans 2021: The team-by-team guide

After a two-month delay due to the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 Le Mans 24 Hours is set to get underway with the start of the Hypercar era at the Circuit de la Sarthe.

Le Mans
Aug 21, 2021