About two years ago, the World Endurance Championship (WEC) seemed to be carrying a lot of momentum. The top level of multi-class, multi-driver endurance racing had heavy involvement from manufacturers, led by three automotive giants in the premier LMP1 category that were spending huge amounts of cash to push not only the limits on the race track, but the limits of automotive technology as well. Anchored by the 24 Hours of Le Mans - the series’ crown jewel - the WEC was a globe-trotting showcase of some of the finest drivers, teams, and machines a race fan could hope to witness. But two years is a long time.
In 2016, Audi dropped a massive bombshell, announcing that the 2016 season would be the last for their team: Arguably the most successful program in the history of sports car racing. Before the WEC had time to recover from that blow, Porsche announced the same in 2017. Both brands had opted to shutter their wildly expensive LMP1 programs for “greener pastures” elsewhere. While brands like Ford, Aston Martin, Ferrari, and even Porsche (by way of their customer programs) were still represented in the lower-performance GT divisions, LMP1 was suddenly left with only...Toyota. LMP1: The fastest of the fast, the richest of the rich, the sexiest of the sexy, the advanced-est of the advanced, the class that is on the cover of the programs, the cars that are showcased on commercials and race tickets, the cars right at the front of that picture up top, was now a category stripped down to just two cars. Toyota expressed their loyalty to the series for the next couple of seasons, and to the WEC’s credit (enjoy this, it’s the only credit they’re getting in this blog), the rule book has been opened to allow some privateers into the mix for the LMP1 category. What’s a “privateer,” you ask? Well, there are companies out there making chassis and engines to fit the LMP1 specifications. Someone like you or me – if we had the cash – could buy a car, buy an engine, hire some drivers and personnel, and could enter in the WEC to take on the mighty Toyota car conglomerate and their uber-deep pockets. Toyota went from being the lovable “David” against the dual “Goliaths” of Audi and Porsche to the biggest fish in the pond. And unfortunately for everyone, both they AND the WEC know it.
History lesson over, people. Now it’s time for the ranting to begin.
My first gripe involves the oddly “fluid” nature of the WEC’s upcoming schedule, and the way Toyota seems to be able to manipulate it. Toyota signed driver Fernando Alonso to one of its race seats for the upcoming season. It’s a huge win for both Toyota and the WEC to have him on the grid: Alonso is a two-time Formula 1 world champion, believed by many to belong on the Mt. Rushmore of greatest drivers in the modern era, and he is extremely popular the world over. Personally, he’s one of my favorite two or three drivers ever, so I’m extremely excited to see how he does in this new discipline. There’s just one issue that Toyota seems to have overlooked: Mr. Alonso is a still-employed Formula 1 driver. That means on the same weekend the WEC was supposed to be racing in Japan at Fuji Speedway – a track OWNED BY TOYOTA, by the way – Fernando is scheduled to be in Austin, Texas doing his day job at the U.S. Grand Prix. Oh no! What a P.R. nightmare that is! Our star driver unable to compete at our home race, on the track that WE OWN! What a gaff. . . So Toyota went to the WEC and asked for the schedule to be changed. What the WEC SHOULD have said is something like this:
“See, it’s really not our problem that you didn’t look at the schedule before signing Mr. Alonso. The fact of the matter is, changing the race date will put too much strain on the local promoters, affect too many fans who are already planning trips and buying tickets, and the other teams and drivers who have other commitments outside of our series. There’s nothing we can do for you okay have a good weekend byeee.”
What the WEC ACTUALLY said went a little something like this:
“Sure, ok! Whatever you say!”
The WEC agreed with Toyota and moved the date of the Japanese round…to the same date as IMSA’s season-ending Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, an event where multiple WEC drivers are scheduled to drive. Trying to accommodate ONE famous participant has now left many others scrambling to try and re-work their plans. I’m not sure of the exact number, but I know there’s at least 6 drivers that are supposed to drive in both events and are now left scrambling, as are the many teams who may have to find replacement drivers last minute (I’m available, and have a helmet, by the way…). The WEC’s solution? Oh, just have IMSA change the date of their race too! Scott Atherton, president of the IMSA series and all-around badass, sent them a more professional version of the following message: “F off, bro. Not my problem.” Praise be to Atherton and his team for not caving to special interests. Maybe the WEC can take a lesson from its American counterpart.
Gripe #2 has to do with a rumor (I repeat, RUMOR) that has been floating around about the way that the WEC was planning to deal with the privateer LMP1 entries that are stepping up to challenge the Toyotas. Remember earlier in this piece when I mentioned all the people like you and me buying a cool LMP1 prototype? Well those “every-men” have received their parts and pieces and have recently gone testing to get ready for the upcoming season. The results have been good….REALLY good…almost TOO good according to Toyota and the WEC. It appears that these cars, despite being far cheaper, less complicated, with normally aspirated engines as opposed to Toyota’s futuristic turbo hybrid power unit capable of up to 1,000hp, are posting performance figures very similar to what Toyota’s car is achieving. The folks from Toyota aren’t too happy about this, seeing as they are the last of the major manufacturers in the premier class and are dumping oodles (scientific term) more money into this than the privateers are. The RUMOR is that Toyota complained to the sanctioning body and the WEC is ACTUALLY CONSIDERING PENALIZING privateer teams who are faster than Toyota through certain speed traps. What. The. Hell?! News flash:
THAT’S NOT RACING!
The fact that this is even a RUMOR is nothing short of staggering to me. How can the rule-makers of a race series actually consider telling most of their participants “Oh yeah, by the way, you guys aren’t allowed to place any higher than 3rd today. If you do, the penalties will be swift and severe.” As a race team, whether you are backed by a large corporation or not, your job is to do what it takes to finish ahead of your competition. Period. You owe it to the people behind the scenes who work long hours getting the car ready, organizing the travel/logistics/hospitality, the sponsors who have a financial stake in what you’re doing and the fans who spend their hard-earned money hoping to see a good show that weekend. And as a sanctioning body, your job is to provide safe, fair, and level ground on which your participants can compete. If I was an owner of one of these privateer teams and the WEC officials told me that I couldn’t race for the win, I would find all of the middle fingers on planet Earth to hold up in their faces, politely tell them all to eat an entire tray of lukewarm male members, turn on my heels and pack up my car and team to go racing somewhere else, never to return.
Look, I get it. As a governing body of any kind, whether you’re in charge of a race league, soccer league, amateur tiddlywinks league, or a governing body overseeing a municipality, it’s a thankless job. You will NEVER make everyone happy. And the WEC probably feels indebted to Toyota for sticking with the series and providing its technology, marketing and cash during a period of mass exodus from the flagship class in the sport. But the idea has always been to never let the interests of the few govern the many. As a sanctioning body, you are supposed to be welcoming new participants, not alienating them. You are meant to find a balance that allows input from every participant, new and tenured, while having the backbone to stand up and tell someone “No” when needed. The minute that inmates are allowed to run the prison, even the ones who have spent the most time in the weight room and have the biggest muscles, is the minute that everything will begin to unravel. If the WEC doesn’t change its philosophy quickly, in a short period of time we will all be asking the question, “What was the name of that one series that used to run at Le Mans….?”