For many, sportscar racing is a welcome escape from the complex imbroglio of Formula 1. It does away with the political friction and questionable leadership, and prefers to focus on making the series the most competitive world championship motorsport has to offer. In recent years sportscar racing has had an administrative overhaul, with the re-creation of the World Endurance Championship (WEC) and the ‘merger’ that brought together Grand-Am and ALMS in America. The WEC is my main point of focus here, although the debate can be applied to any of the major sportscar championships across the globe: does sportscar racing need to be more widely accepted by the media, and does it need more mainstream coverage?
Lewis Hamilton’s success in the Formula 1 World Championship has created a new wave of enthusiasm for motorsport in the United Kingdom – in some ways it is a re-creation of the ‘Mansell-mania’ effect, albeit Twitterfied. The media attention that Hamilton received for seeing off his team-mate and nearest title rival Nico Rosberg meant that Britain’s ‘other World Champion’ was left out by the press. Anthony Davidson’s landmark success alongside Sebastien Buemi in the WEC went virtually unnoticed in the daily newspapers the following morning, bar a brief side-note in the general results column (even the Swiss publications managed to avoid mentioning Buemi’s title).
The Toyota factory drivers broke Audi’s endurance racing stronghold by dominating the second half of the season in their TS040 Hybrid, yet the extent of the coverage didn’t reflect their achievement. This was condemned as pitiable by the WEC’s ardent fan-base, and triggered several letters to BBC bosses requesting that Davidson’s efforts be more widely celebrated, in the way that every other British champion is. They do have good reason to feel aggrieved. The FIA considers the WEC to be on par with Formula 1, the WTCC and the WRC as the four pinnacles of motorsport, and as such its fans often expect it to receive some form of enhanced reception from the national press.
However, the sheer monopoly that post-’Bernification’ Formula 1 now possesses over the rest of the motor racing world means that it will always be at the heart of the news, and that almost every WEC-based news story will have some kind of F1-spin to it. A clear example of this was Mark Webber’s crash at the WEC finale in Brazil. News agencies picked up on the lead that a former Formula 1 driver had crashed heavily, but failed to realise that Porsche had won its first race as a factory LMP1 team.
Instances like this suggest that motorsport in general (not just the WEC) will only gain major coverage from news outlets if a shocking or even tragic incident occurs. It’s disheartening to realise that Anthony Davidson is still best remembered for his airborne crash at Le Mans in 2012, and that Allan McNish is still regarded as the Scottish bloke who drove for Toyota, rather than as world champions.
Then again, does the WEC really need to be extensively covered by the so-called ‘mainstream’ media companies? Sportscar racing in itself is a niche sub-genre of a niche sport, unlike Formula 1 which is widely regarded as a separate sport altogether as opposed to the pinnacle of open-wheel racing. The WEC is still seen as an element of sportscar racing (rather than a different sport altogether), so unless it develops a level of popularity that breaks it away from the generic motorsport umbrella it will always be a sub-genre and therefore less well represented by the national media, with the exception of specialist publications.
Another argument is that current sportscar fans will want to maintain the level of exclusivity that the WEC currently offers them. Despite having an ever-increasing number of manufacturer teams the WEC remains a well-kept secret. If the WEC lost its fan interaction through increased coverage and exponential attendances, the loyal fan would suffer as the benefits slowly get taken away. Ticket prices for the 6 Hours of Silverstone are over £100 cheaper than the most affordable British Grand Prix tickets, but spectators get to see over three times the amount of racing, with free access to the paddock and several grandstands. If the WEC becomes as popular as Formula 1, ticket prices will proliferate and the championship will lose its original vibe. Therefore if sportscar racing’s popularity mirrored Formula 1’s it would be without one of the key elements that makes it so special for its current fans. This would be more of a travesty for the championship than if coverage was limited.
To the sportscar first-timer, the number of viewing options available for endurance events nowadays is surprising. In the United Kingdom, MotorsTV now airs the entire WEC season on Freeview; Eurosport covers the Le Mans 24 Hours from start to finish, and Radio Le Mans controls the sound-waves. Each of these comes with expert opinion that satisfies the needs of the hardcore following. While these specialist channels are giving the fans what they deserve, it’s the indomitable broadcasting corporations that are neglecting sportscar events.
Theoretically speaking, endurance races could actually be a wise investment for a company like the BBC. Their red button channels would be the ideal place for full-commentary feeds of four to 24-hour races without interrupting their packed primetime schedule. Therefore, series like the WEC would be accessible for the wider public to engage in without drawing too much unwanted attention that would dampen the spirit of the series.
It’s easy to forget though that the WEC is still in its infancy. Series director Gérard Neveu has pointed out several times that he doesn’t want to rush the development of the championship, and as such he seems more relaxed about the WEC’s representation in the media than others. One of Neveu’s main goals is to arrange the season calendar so that the series can attract more interest. This includes plugging the three month gap that separates the Le Mans showpiece from the tail end of the season – a Nurburgring round has already been added to fill this void but there is still a sizeable gap that could detract attention from the series. Nevertheless, this is something that can be fixed in the next few seasons, and Neveu’s management team have already been toying with alternatives to maintain post-Le Mans interest.
The representation of sportscar racing in the national press will ebb and flow over time. The recent news stories that have linked Formula 1 drivers to the WEC have aided the latter in advertising itself to the F1 community, but as soon as the rumours stop so does the publicity. It’s also clear that Hamilton’s title success contributed heavily to the neglect of Davidson’s title. Had there not been a British driver vying for the F1 drivers’ crown Davidson would have received far more attention from the national press, such is its reliance on home-grown success. As it stands, the WEC doesn’t get enough publicity in the national media – especially considering the level of interest its World Sportscar Championship variant enjoyed during the legendary Group C era. But this isn’t necessarily something that needs to be pressed for right now. The WEC needs to be a slow burner, and although it is already gaining more manufacturer interest than Formula 1 it still needs time to establish itself. As difficult as it is to admit, sportscar racing isn’t supposed to be a nationally-recognised sport. It will, however, continue to produce a thrilling spectacle that will enhance its specialist fan-base in the years to come.
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