Bernie Ecclestone faces a conundrum. And he doesn’t have much time to solve it.
Despite being a 24 hour ‘endurance’ race, last weekend’s Le Mans classic provided more excitement, more sprint racing and more reliability than the entire Formula One season to date.
While F1 struggles to reach any sensible conclusion as to improve the show, the World Endurance Championship (WEC) continues to thrive. Testament to this was the announcement of Ford returning to the sport in 2016, completely bypassing the F1 route.
Their decision makes perfect sense however. It is a series of pure motorsport, where equality among the three (and a half) classes reigns supreme.
It is a manufacturer haven, and one from which F1 can take a lot of lessons. Here are three transferable regulations to help bring F1 back from an impending and irreversible doom:
WEC permits the participation of two different Le Mans Prototype (LMP1 and LMP2) and GT (GTE Pro and GTE Am) cars in the same race, with each competing for ‘class victory’. It is a race within a race and ensures there is an equal amount of incentive among every single car.
F1 needs to adopt an equivalent of LMP1 for high budget teams and a second tier, which like LMP2, requires teams to operate from a restricted budget – which they cannot exceed. Teams should be able to graduate as well as relegate themselves to either class at their choosing, thus reducing the prospect of losing manufacturers due to financial situations solely.
This would therefore give midfield and back-markers something tangible to compete for, rather than simply praying for a point here or there on any given weekend. Teams can, if they are quick enough, race for overall victory like the WEC.
Drivers and constructor championship points and trophies would be awarded after each race in separate podium ceremonies, while all teams and drivers practice and qualify together as one.
With the added incentive of points and trophies along with added press and advertising coverage, the introduction of classes can stem the inequality of cash distribution among the F1 teams, and more importantly, help attracted new ones.
Engine groups – Hybrids v Non Hybrids
Engine regulations in the WEC are strict but demand excellent efficiency through relevant technology. The majority of LMP1 cars are required to run Hybrid engines and are limited to just five for the whole season. The cost of the powerplants are such that making them as durable as possible is but the only option.
New manufacturers entering the sport have more room for adaption and have seven for their first season.
Those not using the Hybrid engines have two engines per race weekend.
The fact that Porsche managed to complete 24 hours of sprint racing – along with a combined six hours of qualifying and four of practice – without blowing a single engine baffles many F1 fans, who are now resigned to the customary Renault or Honda V6 Turbos dismantling with the equivalent of just a handful of laps under their belt.
Hybrids also have more relevance than the current F1 engine regulations. The emphasis is on the mix between fuel power and reusable energy. F1 has exploited Energy Recovery System (ERS) in its various guises since 2009. At the top of LMP1, ERS generation is open. This has seen rapid innovation in how energy is gathered, stored and redistributed. Toyota uses supercapacitors whereas Nissan and Porsche use batteries.
Innovation pushes boundaries, and boundaries are broken with money. The ‘half class’ in LMP1 which makes up the ‘three and a half’ mentioned earlier, does not use Hybrid engines and run on a much tighter budget.
If Bernie Ecclestone wants to make F1 more relevant with its road car technology, then Hybrids are the way to go. Whether the F1 supremo wants to take note of the success of WEC let alone learn from it, is his prerogative.
Atmosphere and fan interaction
Le Mans dishes up the absolute best of sportscar racing. The atmosphere is second to none. The event unbelievably lasts a whole week and the cars, instead of going deep into parc fermé late at night, are scrutineered in the middle of the town centre. And it is not the only place where you can get within inches of touching the cars.
Tuesday before the race, fans are given unfettered access to the track, paddock and pitlane and can meet their idols – 56 of them – for autographs and photos. Fan forums, like in F1 are very well attended as well.
Back in the town centre on Friday, it is the drivers parade and another chance to grab a selfie with the likely winners. Last weekend, it was completely natural to see Audi drivers André Lotterer and Marcel Fässler up on perches throwing t-shirts to enthusiastic fans, grinning with a child-like immaturity that all fans lap up.
During the race weekend, fans can experience a similar atmosphere to that of F1, with the occasional ferris wheel and rock concerts, but there is more than that. Le Mans is a driver’s circuit and the race is attended and eaten up by pure car lovers.
Manufacturers do that. Their passion is exuded and the fans are their equal. The combination of these two make the WEC understandably irresistible. Of course, Nico Hülkenberg and Mark Webber finishing first and second on Sunday only makes F1’s crisis even more precarious.