FROM RELATIVELY HUMBLE beginnings in 1923 the 24 Hours of Le Mans race has grown to become the biggest motor-racing event in the world.
Every June a field of 180 drivers compete in 60 of the most technically advanced cars for 24 hours, non-stop, in front of hundreds of thousands of fans in Northern France.
The media attention it receives is also huge. The race is attended by 1,425 journalists and 130 million people watch it worldwide. So it is no surprise that it has also become a major commercial success.
However, it is only in the past few years that it has truly fulfilled its potential from a business point of view and much of this is down to the formation of the World Endurance Championship (WEC) in 2012, a unified global series for sportscar racing, for which Le Mans remains the crown jewel.
WEC has bottled the essence of the world’s most famous endurance race and transported it to countries around the world, led by Gerard Neveu, its chief executive, in partnership with the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), which retains overall control of the championship.
When Neveu, the former boss of the Paul Ricard circuit in Southern France, revived WEC four years ago – the series’ title had previously been used between 1981 and 1985 – it became the first endurance racing series with full world championship status since the end of the World Sportscar Championship in 1992.
“People always start to imagine that this is a new championship,” Neveu says. “This is not a new one because just 30 or 40 years ago the sportscar championship was definitely one of the most famous in the world. For two or three decades this championship was sleeping and five years ago I made a joint venture, a partnership [with the ACO] to try to wake up this championship.”
The first year of the reborn series featured eight races in eight countries on five continents. Audi, a long-time Le Mans powerhouse, triumphed over a burgeoning effort from Toyota in the flagship LMP1 category.
Since then the championship has increased in length to nine rounds, created the most technologically advanced motorsport regulations in the world and Porsche, Le Mans’ most successful manufacturer, has returned to LMP1, winning the 2015 24-Hour race and the overall WEC title. Porsche won Le Mans again this year, overcoming unlucky Toyota on the final lap.
For this year Porsche has been joined by Aston Martin, Ferrari, Corvette and Ford in the GTE class.
“[After] five years the progress has been better than we expected,” Neveu says. “The growth has been quicker than we expected before, because we have incredible competitors, the cars are beautiful and the technical regulations are working very well.”
WEC is a subsidiary company of the ACO, which handles all of the organisation and commercial deals around Le Mans, a race that is still unique amongst the championship’s other events.
WEC – The Classes and Teams
The top category of WEC is split in two: manufacturer teams using LMP1-hybrid power units with energy-recovery systems and privateer entries that look similar but do not run the complex engine technology.
They look and sound like spaceships and only the best professional drivers in the world can handle these cars.
LMP1 Teams: Porsche, Audi, Toyota, Rebellion (Privateer), ByKOLLES (Privateer)
The second class of WEC racing is for cars that can have open or closed cockpits and are typically raced by independent constructors. Although they look similar to their LMP1 relatives, these cars use normally aspirated engines and were around 22 seconds slower than the ultimate pole at Le Mans in 2015.
LMP2 teams: G-Drive Racing, SMP Racing, Extreme Speed Motorsports, Baxi DC Racing Alpine, Signature Alpine, Strakka Racing, RGR by Morand, Manor
The Le Mans Grand Touring Endurance cars are based on road-legal two-seat sportscars that must be available for sale through a dealer network of a manufacturer that is recognised by the championship’s endurance committee.
The PRO class is aimed at professional racing drivers, with the AM category mainly aimed at the best gentleman drivers, although the expert drivers often compete in this class as well. The endurance committee can alter the performance of the GTE cars by adding weight or other restrictions to maintain a level playing field in this category.
This is known as the Balance of Performance (BOP), a device used across all forms of sportscar racing.
GTE teams: Aston Martin Racing, Larbre Competition (Corvette), AF Corse (Ferrari), Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK, Dempsey-Proton Racing (Porsche), KCMG (Porsche), Gulf Racing (Porsche)
To continue reading the WEC Focus, please click the links below:
WEC Focus | On the Track
WEC Focus | Fan Engagement
WEC Focus | On the Box
WEC Focus | Sponsorship