Introducing the World Endurance Championship
The World Endurance Championship (WEC), a joint venture between Le Mans 24 Hours organisers ACO and world motorsport's governing body, the FIA, represents a bold new dawn for endurance racing. Here, WEC chief executive Gerard Neveu explains why he believes the championship has a bright future.
The inaugural World Endurance Championship began in March, at the Sebring circuit in the United States. A collaborative effort between world motorsport’s governing body, the FIA, and the Automobile Club d’Ouest, organisers of the annual Le Mans 24 Hour race, the series has been conceived as a means of repairing the fractured sportscar and endurance racing scene and offering a better return on investment for competing manufacturers.
The first season includes the Le Mans 24 Hours in June, as well as races at Spa and Silverstone, plus trips to Bahrain, China, Japan and Brazil. It will feature manufacturers including Audi, which has dominated endurance racing over the past decade, although Peugeot’s withdrawal just before the start of the season dealt a considerable blow to the new series.
Ahead of the second round of the championship in Belgium last weekend, World Endurance Championship chief executive Gerard Neveu remained disappointed with Peugeot’s decision but positive that the series, soon to be boosted by the entrance of Toyota, has the makings of a long-term success.
What sort of preparatory work did you do before the start of the first World Endurance Championship season?
We had a very quick time to do it because ACO and the FIA made the official announcement of the championship last June during the last edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours. We started work during the summer in August with the FIA and the sporting commission group because the sporting regulations were a lot of work. We did a job all through the winter with all the teams, constructors, and with the FIA to make sure we have good rules, a good world championship with good titles for drivers and teams and in the end we started the season with 30 permanent cars, which is a lot for the first year especially if you consider Peugeot disappeared suddenly for stupid reasons. We also have to add wildcards, the cars we invite race to race, depending on the opportunity. In Spa we have 12 wildcards, so 42 cars on the grid including 27 LMPs. That’s a fantastic grid.
"We have to explain what the WEC is, we have to create the value of the WEC"
What kind of factors have gone into deciding the venues for the first season?
We immediately had discussions with the different circuits to try and build a calendar, but it was very late in the season and we were in last position because all the other championships had already published their calendars. The idea was to find a compromise between different continents, first of all, because this is an FIA championship and you need to make sure you are on at least three continents. The second thing was to find a good a good average of legendary places to welcome endurance races – but also you have to find a place where you can earn money for sure, because there is an economical side. There the sort of mandatory places where you have to go, for example of course Le Mans where the endurance race was born and the most famous race of the season.
Comprehensive television coverage is going to be of fundamental importance - what is the strategy for achieving that?
The idea was to keep the same director, the same permanent team, the same editorial team and try to create an authentic programme with new graphics, with all the different things. We did a job through the winter to be able to provide a final production process and procedure for the season – ACO made a big effort for the budget on this. The second thing was as soon as we had the production and programme to make sure we had the visibility all around the world, which is very difficult in the first year because we have to explain what the WEC is, we have to create the value of the WEC.
We took the decision to select IMG to sell the rights around the world and we also made the connection with local promoters in the countries we are visiting to try to find the best support. We started in January or February and there have been no weeks when we don’t have new signatures for TV support for the WEC, so it looks very interesting. For sure, we have to consider this is year zero and we have to increase and develop very quickly.
How big a blow was Peugeot’s dramatic last-minute decision to pull out of endurance racing?
The problem was not to see Peugeot leaving the championship, to be honest. We have to be ready to accept there are different factors for a company and they have to consider financial strategy and so many things. The problem was the timing because when we do a championship like this, when we prepare it, we did not just decide one morning to do it. It was a long discussion and to be honest ACO discussed having this championship with the FIA because there was pressure coming from companies like Peugeot.
We did all this job last year because Peugeot asked for that so we said ‘ok’. During the winter they participated with us in all the workshops, all the seminars, to develop – ‘go ahead, go ahead, go ahead’ – and two hours before the official registration they said ‘finally we are not coming and we are cancelling the whole programme’ which was totally a disaster. A disaster.
With Peugeot’s withdrawal in mind, how important is Toyota’s entry into the WEC?
I have a lot of respect for Audi, because Dr. [Wolfgang] Ulrich [head of Audi Sport] stayed very cool. It was very wrong news for him and he said ‘no doubt Gerard, we stay together and if we can help you we will do it, this is a fantastic championship and we will continue in this project with you’.
"Toyota have helped us to keep a credibility immediately from the first year"
It gave us all the possibility to start a quick discussion with Toyota, who were supposed to arrive in the championship in 2013, but we knew they were supposed to do the Le Mans 24 Hours and one or two other races this year and we knew technically they looked to be on the right level, so we asked them if they would advance their arrival to the world championship just to keep a sporting interest for the 2012 season. They have helped us to keep a credibility immediately from the first year.
How would you assess the long-term potential of the series?
What you have to consider is we are not just doing a world championship for 2012. We are managing this championship like you would drive a race car - not just looking at the car but the next corner. It was not the best condition to start this championship in 2012 but finally we have more than 30 permanent cars. we have big manufacturers like Audi, Toyota, Aston Martin, Porsche, Ferrari, Corvette participating and the interest is really serious from the media and fans. And we know Porsche will officially join the LMP1 championship in 2014 – I hope that means they will do some races next year – and also Toyota will do a full season next year, with a full programme. It will start to jump more and more and we are having discussions now with other manufacturers and constructors around the world for different programmes.
What are the goals for the remainder of 2012?
From my point of view when you start a brand like this you have to make sure that after one season everyone knows what the WEC is. We are bringing a new brand and we have to create the value. In three years, three seasons, we will have to judge the average speed of the championship regarding the marketing, visibility, the TV coverage, all the sponsorship partnerships, everything around the event. First of all this season we need to have credibility with all the members of the family – constructors and competitors, partners like Rolex and Michelin, the media.
My target for the end of the season is I would like to have more cars next year, more constructors, more visibility for the next three years and make sure everyone is happy and make sure the marriage between the FIA and the ACO is still a love story at the end of the season. If that’s the case we can start next season in the best condition.
A full, comprehensive feature on the commercial strategy behind the Le Mans 24 Hours race and the new World Endurance Championship will be published in the June issue of SportsPro. To subscribe today click here.
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