Enduring Strength –

Sportscars' Rude Health

Cars-Hero

Radio Le Mans’ John Hindhaugh on how politics, money and the narrow road of the motorsport pyramid has opened the door for Endurance Racing.

As I’ve already reported here, the factory teams at the top of the Endurance Racing pyramid – the FIA World Endurance Championship – are gearing up for 2016 and beyond with the latest versions of their mega-tech, superfast, 1,000+ horsepower hybrid thoroughbreds. Given the extraordinary racing they have delivered in 2015, it’s probably no surprise that they have grabbed both our attention, and the bulk of the coverage on TV, with their headline-making performances.

However, let’s present a little perspective. In 2016, with Nissan and their pair of fully-functional GT-R LM LMP1 challengers, there will be 8 full-season factory cars, plus – for the start of the season – at least two Rebellions and a CLM ByKolles as ‘privateer’ LMP1 entries.

So, eleven cars then – Hardly what might be called a packed grid. Of course in the FIA WEC, as in most endurance series, there are multiple classes of car which, in the case of the WEC, include LMP2 and two categories of GTs.

That will add up to over 30 cars in the World Endurance Championship in 2016.

There’s a similar number of entries in the regional European Le Mans Series, and the same again in the IMSA-run championship in the USA. Add to that the mid-to-late teens competing in the Asian Le Mans Series, and it all starts to add up. That’s before you consider national championships for prototypes and GTs and the rise and rise of GT3 which now – according to Stephane Ratel, creator of the GT3 concept and head of SRO (who run British GT and the highly successful Blancpain GT series) – boasts more than a dozen championships and 333 active cars worldwide.

It’s not that long ago – at least not for someone who has been around paddocks as long as I have – that sportscars, GTs and endurance racing was seen by most drivers as somewhere you went at the end of your career. This is odd because, a little further back – and certainly before my time (stop sniggering at the back) – it was common to see ‘factory’ drivers from Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz and other manufacturers in a Grand Prix race one weekend, and a Sportscar race the next. Indeed, it wasn’t unknown to see ‘Sportscar-bodied’ cars competing in Grands Prix before that form of racing moved to an open-wheeled formula.

Clearly, the expansion of the Endurance Racing calendar provides many opportunities for racing. There are manufacturer teams in LMP1 offering sizeable salaries and, although there are only 8 factory cars, the opportunities are multiplied by three to give 24 paid seats, with probably twice as many drivers earning than in F1 right now. The employment ‘good news’ doesn’t end there.

In GTE Pro, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Porsche and new for 2016, Ford, all have salaried drivers. Depending on the entry list that could be another 18-20 gainfully employed racers. In GTE AM, a non-professional driver (graded by age, experience and previous results, not by earnings) must form a part of the driving team. However, the manufacturers will often either ‘loan’ or rent their retained stars to assist customer teams. So maybe another 4-6 jobs there, then.

LMP2 is also a Pro-Am Formula which gives each of those cars a maximum of two professional-graded drivers. There’s a slight difference here because, while some of these will be paid a salary, it’s not unknown for up-and-coming talent to receive expenses plus a hefty ‘win bonus’, or some other performance/results-based payment.

Adding that all up, and including the private LMP1 teams, that’s somewhere in the region of 40 paid driving opportunities. And that’s just in the WEC!

With that basic arithmetic laid out, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that there is a growing stream of single-seat formula drivers who have started to take more than a passing interest in the longer form of racing. Indeed, there are now more and more young drivers embarking on a racing career who don’t see open-wheel categories as the ‘be all and end all’ – or even as any part of their climb – to professional racing.

Already, Arden International – a team founded by Red Bull Racing F1 team principle Christian Horner, and one which is synonymous with formula series and nurturing young talent – have formed a ‘strategic alliance’ with Jota Racing, a staple in Europe’s Sportscar paddocks for some time.

Arden have a strong history of propelling drivers into F1 – including Carlos Sainz Jr., Daniil Kvyat, Sergio Perez and Heikki Kovalainen. That they have recognised the growing opportunities that Endurance Racing provides speaks volumes. The Arden-Jota partnership is likely to spawn at least one WEC entry next season, in addition to Jota’s regular ELMS programme.

They won’t be the last, either. I’ve already spoken to a high-profile F1 team principal who is a serious prospect for a WEC entry next year. His initial interest has been galvanised by the atmosphere in the paddock, the attitude of the organisers and a solid business case for investors. Most telling for me was his description of the FIA World Endurance Championship as “the opportunity to do some real racing”.

The truth is that the bottleneck between ‘junior’ single-seater series and graduating into F1 has never been narrower. With GP2, GP3, F2, Euro F3, Formula V8 3.5 and various regional variants, there are more feeder championships than ever. The F1 grid isn’t growing; many would argue that ‘decent’ seats are at an all-time low, which has further reduced the attractiveness to career drivers who have already spent – or had spent on their behalf – several millions of Euros on single-seat championships.

With no real career advancement on the horizon after several expensive seasons in junior formula, Arden and others like them are likely to ‘lose’ well-funded drivers to IndyCar or – worse – out of the sport altogether. Endurance Racing offers an alternative, and one that does at least put those drivers in front of manufacturers and private teams who have budget to employ fast, reliable talent. In addition, with the continued development of technology in LMP1 and aerodynamics in LMP2 and even GTE cars, the skills learned in single-seat formula are more relevant in Endurance Racing than ever.

This is already having repercussions across motorsport. The teams at the back of the F1 grid rely on income from super well-funded drivers simply to get them to the start line. Of course it won’t dry up altogether, but add in the likely addition of more manufacturers to WEC from 2017, a fan base and TV audience that is the fastest growing in all of motorsport – not to mention in Endurance Racing generally – and F1 all of a sudden has real competition for funds from all areas, in particular from the WEC.

But before we all shout ‘Hip-Hooray’ and declare Endurance Racing the saviour of professional motorsport, let’s be serious for a moment. F1 hasn’t retained the top position in our sport for all these years by accident. The organisation is headed by a very savvy and politically-astute leader. He has staved off challenges many times in the past, including from Sportscars. The decision to schedule a brand new F1 event in Baku, directly against the Le Mans 24 Hours, was not an accident. As the head of the WEC, Gerard Neveu, notes – Mr Ecclestone “never does anything nonchalantly”.

Over in the Endurance paddocks, there could also be a sticking point. The likelihood is that these young, well-funded formula drivers would primarily be looking for seats in LMP2 cars which best show off their ‘slicks and wings’ skills. It’s still a Pro-Am category, so seats for professional-rated drivers – even ones who can bring cash – are at a premium. The simple solution is to allow all pro teams in LMP2.

On the surface that looks good. A word of caution here, though – ‘Gentlemen’ drivers have funded Auto-racing since the sport began. Sportscar racing is now the last bastion of amateur racing. For LMP2 teams to completely dispense with non-pro racers would be disappointing and dangerous for the future of the sport. I accept that there are ‘probably’ enough young guns to keep the current LMP2 teams in business, but I believe a far more sensible route would be to continue with the Pro-Am formula in ELMS and other regional  series. The all-pro LMP route has been tried before in the USA and grids have not grown despite the two major series combining. For the World Championship, I believe that we can learn from GTE with the formation of LMP2 Pro and LMP2 Am categories. This would allow the ‘Gentlemen’ drivers to continue to play their part in the sport and would actually create additional seats for up-and-coming pro drivers.

The next three-to-five year cycle will be crucial. With regulation changes in GTE, LMP2 and further refinements to the LMP1 efficiency calculations, the sport must embrace the changes in the driver market and continue to attract new manufacturers with regulations that allow innovation and the application of relevant technology.

When all is said and done, though, Endurance Racing is certainly in rude health.