Growing Pains?

Rob Ridley speaks to Gérard Neveu, head of motor racing’s WEC (World Endurance Championship), about growth for the series after it was sanctioned for another three years in June.

In any lifetime, the teenage years are crucial in determining one’s future path.

According to chief executive Gérard Neveu, the WEC is now entering this phase, as the endurance motor racing series looks to build on a three-year extension to an organisational agreement between the ACO (Automobile Club of the West) and the FIA (International Motor Sport Federation). The new deal, covering 2015-2017, was unveiled in June at the 24 Hours of Le Mans – the WEC’s showpiece event.

“When we started three years ago we said that this championship was a baby,” Neveu told SportBusiness International. “The baby is growing up very healthy and I think we are now in the teenage period.

“The target is to bring the championship into an adult position in three years’ time.”

ACO, which created and has organised the 24 Hours of Le Mans since 1923, acts as the promoter of the WEC via its subsidiary Le Mans Endurance Management (LMEM), with the FIA overseeing the championship in its role as motor sport’s global governing body.

In March 2012, the WEC held its first race in the United States at the annual 12 Hours of Sebring in Florida, bringing endurance racing back to the world stage. Looking back at its development since then, Neveu highlights one major challenge that the series had to overcome in its formative years; when the WEC launched in 2012, French automotive firm Peugeot also announced the closure of its Le Mans and endurance racing programme, citing the challenging economic environment in Europe along with a desire to concentrate resources on its commercial performance.

“The first challenge we faced was the retirement of Peugeot, but fortunately our base of manufacturers was strong at the beginning,” says Neveu. “Secondly, we didn’t have a lot of time to sit down and draw up a definitive strategy for the WEC’s future. We had to grow up very quickly and secure the partners we needed for future development.”

Conservative Calendar

The WEC has certain key development goals in mind over the term of its new three-year contract, says Neveu.

“We want to attract more manufacturers to the WEC, because then we are in a stronger position in terms of more marketing, more activation and a wider fanbase,” he adds.

“With regards to marketing and PR, we initially wanted to enhance the championship’s credibility and the value of the sport around the world. Now we are in place for the next three years, we need to develop this further.”

Neveu also says that the WEC will adopt a conservative strategy when it comes to enhancing the calendar. The championship currently consists of eight rounds, encompassing Europe, the Americas and Asia, with the Le Mans 24 Hours acting as the pinnacle of the season.

This season’s campaign commenced with the UK’s Six Hours of Silverstone on April 20 and, aside from Le Mans, takes in additional six-hour events at Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium; Circuit of the Americas in the United States; Fuji, Japan; Shanghai, China; and Sakhir, Bahrain, before concluding in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on November 30.

Former Formula One driver Mark Webber who races for Porsche in the WEC – Getty Images Sport

“We want to improve the WEC calendar,” Neveu says. “We believe stability and continuity are key in terms of its quality. The model is most definitely focused around Le Mans, using the 24-hour race as the showpiece and the six-hour events around it.

“First of all, the number of races will be limited. We have to be reasonable because we have agreed the economic model of the WEC with manufacturers and teams. If we expand too quickly we can damage the balance between our commercial partners, the teams and the manufacturers.

“We are looking at emerging markets for motor sport, that’s no secret, but we would only add a race if all conditions were correct. We won’t create a new race on a small island in the middle of the Pacific just on the offer of a lot of money.”

Pushing Boundaries

Porsche has returned to the WEC’s elite rank this season to compete against Audi and Toyota, with the battle between Germany and Japan set to be evened up next year through the addition of Nissan to the championship.

British sportscar manufacturer McLaren is also targeting a return to Le Mans from 2016 and Neveu says discussions are progressing with prospective new manufacturers.

“Nissan is a competitor that prides itself on innovation and its involvement will be a big plus to the WEC,” he adds.

“We are talking to a number of other manufacturers and we are very confident that in the near future we will be able to announce further additions.

“We try to provide manufacturers with the best platform for their marketing and make sure they benefit from competing in the WEC.”

One of the major attractions to WEC manufacturers is the championship’s ability to be used as a testbed for new technology that can ultimately be transferred to road car divisions. Indeed, Nissan made history at Le Mans this year ahead of its full WEC entry with its Zeod RC car recording the first ever all-electric lap of the circuit, topping 300-kilometres-per-hour on the iconic Mulsanne Straight.

The Zeod RC was also the first car in modern history to compete at Le Mans without traditional rear view mirrors, instead utilising a camera and integrated radar device – technologies that are being tested to further enhance road car systems like the Nissan Safety Shield, which uses innovative technology to make drivers aware of potential dangers.

“We believe that hybrid technology will be the main area of progress over the next two to three years because it offers so many different areas to explore,” Neveu adds. “If we can keep a perfect working relationship between the technical department of the ACO, the FIA and the promoter – and if everyone can continue to pull in the same direction – we will remain the place where the next revolutions in technology are displayed.”

With the WEC guaranteed through to 2017, championship organisers can now afford to set goals for when it enters its adult life.

“The world is developing very quickly, but my wish is that in 2017 we will have two or three additional manufacturers, nine events during the season and strong competitive racing across the different categories, but still with the fantastic human spirit ingrained in the series,” says Neveu, stressing that the sport’s future depends on the people involved.

“I’d also like to add two or three additional commercial partners, have our WEC app reach a million downloads, and an average of 80,000 fans attending each race. That would be perfect.

“We will have to make the right choices and make no mistakes. With the quality of our product, manufacturers and partners – and now that we have been through this growing period – there is no excuse for us not to have success at the end.”

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