Why making Le Mans the WEC finale is a disaster – and how to fix it
The WEC has decided to go up against its biggest event. Not smart. But a simple change would fix this problem.
This weekend, 250,000 racing fans will descend on Circuit de la Sarthe for the 86th running of Le Mans 24 Hours.
Around the world, a TV audience in the hundreds of millions will tune in to watch some of the biggest names in motorsport. Le Mans is unquestionably the most significant endurance race on the planet and, alongside the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500, one of the three greatest races in any discipline.
Put simply, it is a very big deal.
Le Mans is never short on fans. Pic: Sutton Images
The trouble is, the rest of the FIA World Endurance Championship – of which Le Mans is the marquee event – is not such a big deal. Interest in the series was never huge and has declined further in recent seasons.
It’s not massively different across the pond: the Indy 500 is the biggest single-day sporting event in the world, whereas IndyCar is is nowhere near as popular with the American public as a struggling NASCAR.
But while IndyCar has shown signs of progress, the WEC was pushed to the brink last year when Porsche followed Audi in exiting the top-tier LMP1 class. That left Toyota as the only manufacturer standing, and effectively the only team capable of winning on pace (cue interested text message from Fernando Alonso).
This led to some serious soul-searching from the WEC top brass and, ultimately, the decision was made to switch to a new season format. 2018-19 is a transitional year – branded a ‘super season’ – which began at Spa in May and ends at next year’s Le Mans 24 Hours.
The 2018-19 season with feature two Le Mans runnings, after which the race will become the season finale. Pic: Sutton Images
From 2019-20 onwards, the 24 Hours will become the closing race of the WEC campaign. This is not a radical idea: it has long been spoken about as a solution to the series’ woes, other series such as Formula E use a similar season format.
But it is not the answer to the WEC’s prayers. In fact, it is only going to make things worse for the championship as it looks to build a brand that extends beyond one very long race each June.
THE WEC VS. LE MANS: THERE'S ONLY ONE WINNER
We’ve established that Le Mans is big. It is bigger than every other WEC race put together, and then some.
Winning Le Mans is the chief objective of every team entered in the WEC. The title is a nice bonus or a so-so consolation prize, but there is no one on the grid who would prioritise it over Le Mans. I’d bet that if you offered any team the option of winning Le Mans but retiring from every other WEC race, they’d take it.
Le Mans wins are a big deal. WEC titles are nice, but they mean less. Pic: Sutton Images
And so for a good solid week in June the WEC ceases to matter. Everything is geared towards winning the 24 Hours. With this in mind, making it the season-ending race is asking for trouble.
Here is a disaster scenario for this new format. Say the crew that wins Le Mans also happens to miss out on the title by a single point; they won’t be fussed. Actually, they will celebrate as if the title did not exist.
Meanwhile, what if a crew were to lose the lead at La Sarthe on the very last lap but still seal the WEC title. They wouldn’t be celebrating. In fact, they would be devastated at losing a Le Mans victory. The WEC crown will have no meaning for them in that moment.
Even if a crew finishes third, having never contended for the Le Mans win, and seals the title in the process, their achievement will be totally overshadowed. They may well be happy to have won the WEC, but the focus – from press, from fans, for the drivers themselves – will be on the Le Mans winners.
Toyota lost victory on the very last lap in 2016. Would these boys have celebrated winning the WEC title that day? Pic: Sutton Images
The only way the WEC champions will be genuinely happy is if they also win Le Mans. This is not an unlikely scenario being as the 24 Hours awards double points, but the focus will still be on Le Mans and not the WEC title. The drivers will talk about how happy they are to have won the race and will probably need reminding about the championship.
What, then, is the point of winning the WEC title? In all of these scenarios it may as well not exist. The WEC has decided to go up against its own biggest event – and it is quite plainly going to lose.
A POINTLESS SOLUTION
But a very simple change could fix everything. All that needs to happen is for the Le Mans 24 Hours to become a non-championship exhibition race. Retain the season format, with Le Mans coming right after the final WEC race. Just don’t award points at La Sarthe.
The rest of the WEC would still mean something. As is the case now, a full-season WEC entry could come with guaranteed spot on the grid at Le Mans, which would certainly keep fields healthy.
The WEC grid is reasonable this year, though there is no real competition for Toyota. Pic: Sutton Images
The race before the 24 Hours – staged at a time when interest in sportscar racing is beginning to peak – would be the WEC title decider. This race would mean something and the champions could really celebrate their achievement. Because winning the WEC is an achievement – one that deserves better.
If the current calendar format were retained, the season finale would be at Spa – and what a venue to stage a championship decider that would be. In reality, money might talk much louder than plain old excitement, but we can dream.
With the titles decided, trophies could be awarded during the Le Mans week, giving the winners some extra press coverage. With that sorted, it would be on to the serious business of a 24-hour race.
Whatever happens to the WEC, Le Mans will remain a hugely significant event. Pic: Sutton Images
How would being an exhibition race affect Le Mans? The short answer is that it would not.
Fans and TV viewers would not care – you can be sure than many are already totally unaware of the points ramifications of the race – while no victorious driver will step from the car and say: “Yeah, it’s nice to win Le Mans, but I would be much happier if I’d scored some points today.” In fact, all that it would serve to do is give the remainder of the WEC season some much-needed breathing space.
This would not be enough to fix all of the series’ ills – that will take root and branch reform, beginning with the new rules that will be introduced for the 2020/21 season.
But it would certainly prevent Le Mans from overshadowing the WEC title battle at a time when the series needs to strengthen its identity. It is a simple fact that, when it comes to endurance racing, you cannot hope to upstage the Le Mans 24 Hours. The WEC should know that better than anyone.