The WEC is catching F1 in popularity, and it's catching them at a blistering fast pace.
Formula One has always been the pinnacle in the world of motorsport. The drivers, the cars and the teams ... Everything about Formula One has been a cut above the rest. But with the recent announcement that Subaru have confirmed their interest in an LMP1 program and the increasing Ferrari rumors, Formula One needs to watch out. The World Endurance Championship (WEC) and sports car racing is staking its claim to the motorsport world, and I’d say, threatening for the number one position held by F1.
A look back in time
Flashback to the year 1982, the FIA introduced a new formula for sports car racing worldwide - ‘Group C.’ The FIA revolutionized sports car racing, allowing all sorts of engines to compete equally against one another and fuel and pit stop restrictions meant that manufacturers couldn’t solely focus on the engine department of the car.
Ford and Porsche were the first to joi, and then the number of entries sky rocketed with up to eight, even nine different makes running at the top level of sports car racing in the mid 1980’s. By 1989, sports car racing was just as, if not more popular than Formula One, and threatened to knock F1 off the top of the motorsport ladder. Unfortunately the FIA tried to keep revolutionising the series and this led to cost increases and then the ultimate death of Group C in the early 1990’s. We haven’t seen a challenger series to F1 since this time.
Comparing the two - F1 today
Now let’s take a look at the current era of Formula One versus sports car racing. While the 2014 F1 season has frankly been awesome (in my opinion), there has still be a negative light shed on it from fans around the globe. Yes, the racing has been fantastic. Yes, the Mercedes rivalry has been enthralling. And yes, the rise of the young stars such as Ricciardo and Bottas has been joyful to watch.
I’m not denying the season has been poor, but we still head to race weekends with fans showing negative signs towards F1. The sound of the cars is an obvious one we are seeing time and time again. Grand Prix’s are venturing in and out of danger to be held (Russia) and we continually see boring circuits pop up on the calendar (Russia again). This is considering there is a fantastic permanent facility in Russia which the DTM currently use but was looked straight past as an option for the Russian GP.
Comparing the two - WEC today
Compare this to the new generation of sports car racing. The ACO this year brought in a new set of technical regulations for the LMP1 class. The cars are fast, gorgeous to look at, so technologically advanced and they have so much relevance to the modern day road car we all use. The revamped WEC has allowed sports cars to take a firm grasp on the world again.
Europe, America and Asia all receive this show of endurance in a season. The ever dominant Audi continues to return, always looking to improve, Toyota is seeking that first Le Mans win, Porsche (the King of Le Mana) returned this year to add to its history and make some more, while Nissan sits on the sidelines preparing to do battle in 2015.
There is no ridiculous political side of sports cars, there is no driver fighting another driver, it’s brand versus brand for no less than six hours at a time. Then add the famed Le Mans 24 hours, the ultimate prize of the fight. And then add another three classes on track that each have their own unique battle. Sports car racing is epic.
Relevance to everyday life
This is another area where currently, sports car racing is heading the pack. The Le Mans 24 hours is a showcase, a showcase of a brands new and upcoming technology to the public. “See this laser light feature that can see many kilometers ahead into the darkness? That will be on your next Audi road car" (I made that example up by the way). But that is what modern day sports car racing is all about! For a lot of fans, the sound of the cars is a big hit and an absolute must for all who love the series. But don’t you think it is also fantastic that an Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro can do 340+km/h without making a peep?
Different ways of doing the same thing
Look at the hybrid systems this season. All three manufacturers have their own take on it. All manufacturers have their own take on how to harvest the electrical energy. All three manufacturers have their own way of making sure they have the best headlights for the night time running. And all of this technology is for Audi, Toyota and Porsche to filter down into their road cars, saving you fuel, having better vision at night, it might even change your thinking towards the hybrid and replace the image of a dorky Prius (sorry Toyota).
Nissan have already confirmed they have a completely new take on the hybrid system. The series also encourages this. The ACO have the ‘Michelin Green X Challenge’ every year at Le Mans. This prize goes to the car that uses the least amount of fuel during the race.
I haven’t forgotten about tyres either. Michelin are constantly forced to develop new tyres for sports cars. The last few years have seen the rise of their intermediate tyre, which has no groove in it. Ever seen that before? And yes it works, brilliantly in fact. The racing slicks are designed to do four even five stints at a time, which under the load and impacts they go through on a 340+km/h LMP1 machine, is quite an effort.
Reliability of the cars wins and loses races in racing. That is never more evident than in sports car racing. Porsche, this year marked their return to the top level of sports car racing. Did they win Le Mans? No. Were they happy after the race? Yes. In its first year of competition the 919 Hybrid did extremely well at Le Mans. One 919 Hybrid was even in contention for the win.
But look at Audi, their cars run as smooth as silk (most of the time) for 24 hours or close to it. Remember that these cars do this in the heat, the cold, the rain, the sun - every condition. All this while speeding through the French country side at 300+km/h. Imagine how reliable that Audi you were looking at in the showroom is once it’s pumped full of R18 E-Tron Quattro technology.
So, can they knock F1 from the top?
I believe it can be done. With the ACO finding new ways to encourage brands to enter and show off their technology while also learning from it, it doesn’t have a single negative aspect for a manufacturer to enter. More manufacturers with new takes and ideas on the technical regulations, and I think we will see it happen.
The question is what the ACO will do when, or if they have several brands wanting an entry into the LMP1 class and have no room for them. Is it bye bye GTE AM? That’s another story, but for Formula One on the other hand, an inevitable decline into second spot on the ladder of motorsport may be on the horizon, and I don't mind the thought of that at all.