Formula 1 is often heralded as the pinnacle of motor sport. Despite this, the pinnacle of auto racing titles is arguably the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The annual endurance race brings drivers from notable competitor to historical figure, as the race is prioritized year round despite the teams racing continuing throughout the year.
Often, Formula 1 drivers would make the jump into endurance racing just for the privilege of competing in such a storied event, including Nico Hülkenberg, who won the event in 2015. However, in 2016, we won’t see these drivers in the Le Mans line-up.
Formula 1’s governing body has decided that their European Grand Prix is to be run on the same weekend, keeping F1 drivers out of the race. Despite the history of the race itself, the FIA World Endurance Championship is still a young race league. So, why would the FIA commit what the WEC head Gerard Neveu stated as “a clear attack on us and this race”? Well, for a variety of reasons, the WEC is sneaking up on F1 in popularity and prestige.
Here are a few reasons why:
1. Constant action: A common complaint about a lot of different types of motor sport is that the races are too long and that nothing interesting happens outside of the first and last laps. This can especially be applied by the casual observer to Formula 1, where the second place finisher could be considered the true victor as the winner is so often the same. Overtaking in Formula 1 happens throughout the field, but not much at the front. Once a Mercedes car gets to first place (often they’re already there from qualifying), there’s a good chance they’ll be there all race.
With WEC running multiple classes of different speed, class, and experience levels, there is constant overtaking on the track, adding a whole new level of chaos to the races. An exceptional example is Benoît Tréulyer’s incredible overtake in the 2011 24 Hours of Le Mans, in which he went past a fellow LMP1 competitor as well as a GT3 class car. The races may be long, but they are jam-packed with excitement. This greatly sets them apart from Formula 1 who can’t seem to find that level of excitement-to-race-time ratio that WEC now has.
2. Sports fans like teams: Former Red Bull F1 driver and 2015 World Endurance Champion Mark Webber said of WEC: “The individual side of F1 is so intense but I now enjoy sharing the car with two other team-mates“.
Anyone familiar with Webber’s time in F1 knows that him expressing a liking towards his team-mates is unexpected. He and Sebastian Vettel had a heated rivalry through their time racing together, something that divided fans of the team. There is a similar distinction now with the Mercedes F1 team; fans largely are split between devotion towards Nico Rosberg or Lewis Hamilton rather than being a fan of Mercedes as a whole.
In WEC, cars are shared between three drivers throughout the race. This is both in the name of physical limitations (try even driving a sim for six hours or more and you will be physically and mentally exhausted) and team tactics. Not only this, but the race teams are broken up into multiple cars similar to in Formula 1.
The difference is that these separations prove to have more of a teamwork effect and rivalries between the team’s cars rarely arise. This means when you are a fan of Mark Webber’s Porsche race team, you are a fan of a completely cohesive and well-oiled machine operating similarly to your favourite “Big Four” team. This adds a layer of fan identity to a team that is only sometimes seen in Formula 1.
3. Formula 1 is unstable: In the last few months, fans have been presented with only issues in Formula 1. Between the controversies surrounding qualifying changes, issues with constant rule changes in an attempt to bring excitement and competition back to the racing, and the considerable amount of criticism brought upon F1 President Bernie Ecclestone, the current state of F1 is turbulent.
This has a direct effect on not only who will watch the races, but who will participate. Audi is a leading team in multiple tiers of WEC, and refused to enter F1 due to the uncertainty within the sport. And who can blame them? With the attention slowly shifting away from F1, of course fans will turn to WEC.
The racing is similar, but with enough spice to change things up, the races are infrequent enough that setting aside the time to watch a minimum six-hour race isn’t as big a commitment, and there are familiar names like Webber and Hülkenberg to ease you into the sport. Many Formula 1 fanatics are unlikely to make the overseas jump to NASCAR or IndyCar, so WEC has a large fanbase to adopt.
4. WEC is new and exciting: Although steeped in the history of Le Mans, the actual WEC series originated in 2012. Since then, the sport has garnered a considerable amount of attention. Some of that attention has been in the shape of manufacturer participation. The 2016 season brings a Ford team to the GT3 class, with driver Andy Priaulx stating that “WEC is the place to be“.
Formula 1 has a revolving door of lower tier teams coming in and out of the sport with varying amounts of success. Currently, their biggest addition is American-owned and operated Haas F1, bringing a North American flavour to the sport that has not been seen in some time.
However, with Chevrolet and Ford both running their own teams in endurance racing, America has already been injecting brand identity directly into the sport. This, coupled with the freshness of the series, shows that their worldwide reach is underway and healthy in a way that F1’s isn’t. If F1 is getting stale for you, no matter where you are, WEC might just cleanse your palate.
5. WEC cars look incredible: This one is a less. Formula 1 cars are some of the most beautiful racing machines imaginable. Take a look at the McLaren Honda’s of the 80’s and the Williams of the late 90’s. Those are some of the most striking vehicles you will see anywhere. That said, Formula 1’s new rule packages and the era of long, ugly noses still in recent memory, the cars don’t have the physical excellence they once had.
If you want to gauge the visual impact of an LMP1 machine, simply show one to someone who has never heard of endurance racing. Not only do they look futuristic in photos, on the track WEC has a sense of speed that is accentuated by the lower and slower classes that the LMP1 class racers are put up again. This makes a sport that is just fun to watch and cars that will grace the screensaver of all of your personal devices.
I should explain that I am a massive Formula 1 fan. I have been following the sport since childhood and, despite my criticisms, don’t see myself stopping following any time soon. However, WEC is onto something with its approach to endurance racing and no one can blame F1 for reacting to it. Endurance racing can only grow, and this is going to be an issue for the original king of the hill both in how it is run and how many people tune in to each Grand Prix.
Hopefully, the successes of WEC will inspire F1 to sort itself out, get back to what makes it great, and return to its rightful place as the undisputed pinnacle of racing. Until then, you will find an increasing number of people counting down the days until the 24 Hours of Le Mans.