Auf wiedersehen. Au revoir. Goodbye. Porsche last week announced it is leaving the highest ranks of sports-car racing, terminating its Le Mans Prototype 919 Hybrid (LMP1) program at the end of the 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship season. No matter how you say it, this is a devastating blow to the WEC and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The news release issued from Weissach came nine months after a similar press release from Ingolstadt, which announced Audi’s withdrawal from the WEC at the end of the 2016 season. And it now leaves Toyota, at least for a moment, the only remaining car manufacturer willing to compete in the LMP1 Hybrid class for 2018. Porsche’s decision also leaves the highest level of sports-car racing, an FIA-designated world championship, on the brink of collapse.
The German manufacturer’s desire to pursue a Formula E program is the reason it cited for its departure from the World Endurance Championship and Le Mans. Porsche board member Michael Steiner was quoted in the release saying, “For us, Formula E is the ultimate competitive environment for driving forward the development of high-performance vehicles in the areas such as environmental friendliness, efficiency, and sustainability.” He went on to say, “Entering Formula E and achieving success in this category are the logical outcomes to our Mission E road-car program.”
All of which is true, of course. But let’s not forget a Formula E project has a fraction of the budget of virtually any other racing program, and Porsche could have easily chosen to stay in the WEC and pursue its Formula E aspirations at the same time. BMW is doing this. It already competes in Formula E with Andretti Autosport and will expand that program in the coming years, while also developing the new M8 GTE LM program that will debut in sports-car competition in 2018. Mercedes has announced its Formula E program and continues to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in Formula 1.
It is easy to speculate on other reasons behind Porsche’s decision. The most obvious is the financial impact of the Volkswagen diesel scandal across all of the parent company’s brands. Another is the realization within Porsche of the need to build a new car for the 2018 season — one that would be obsolete if the WEC’s 2020 regulations, announced at Le Mans in June, take effect. Two brand-new prototypes in three years would be a huge financial commitment. And while the Porsche racing operation has great respect for its Toyota counterparts, the German luxury brand’s marketing arm realizes competing only against a mass-market brand is a no-win situation. On paper Porsche should win every race against Toyota. Losing to another luxury brand such as Ferrari, Audi, or Mercedes is easy to spin for the marketing types, but not so much when Toyota is standing on the top step of the podium. Meanwhile, in Formula E, the electric-power-only series has FIA world championship status, costs a fraction of the WEC, is easy to market to millennials, and provides a great place to gain technical expertise that transfers into EV production cars.
Perhaps the most important reason of all is the very real prospect of Porsche returning to F1 in 2021. According to a German source, two key members of the Porsche sports-car program — Andreas Seidl, the Porsche LMP1 team boss and technical director, and LMP1 team principal Fritz Enzinger, both of whom have previous F1 experience with Sauber-BMW F1 — are pushing hard for Porsche to return to open-wheel racing’s top tier. Their rationale is the cost of an F1 program, once sponsorship money is included into the equation, is essentially the same cost of the current LMP1 Hybrid program. And F1 will provide far more brand exposure across a 20-race schedule than a nine-race WEC season. Also, as much as 70 percent of the exposure Porsche got from the WEC program came from a single race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. So now, the 2021 F1 season is the target, and three years of preparation and budget are needed. This, not Formula E, appears to have been the death knell of Porsche’s WEC program.
This brings us to the response from French racing organizations WEC and FIA regarding the news of Porsche’s withdrawal, which is included in its entirely below. The first part of the press release was apparently written by a 4-year-old Parisian stomping his feet because his favorite toy was taken away. The balance of the news release contains more denial than a mortician performing CPR to someone on an embalming table.
“The manufacturer Porsche, which recently confirmed its participation in the FIA LMP1-H World Endurance Championship up to the end of the 2018 season, and which has been actively involved in the development of the technical regulations that will come into force in 2020, has just announced the withdrawal of its LMP1 Hybrids from the end of the 2017 season.
“The Automobile Club de l’Ouest, promoter of the WEC and organizer of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, regrets this precipitous departure, as it does the abruptness of the decision from one of endurance racing’s most successful and lauded manufacturers.
“However, the ACO and the FIA, guardians of the existence and quality of the FIA World Endurance championship, have immediately set to work to put forward to everyone involved in endurance racing the outline of the 2018 season — a season which promises to be quite exceptional thanks to the introduction of new innovations.
“Clearly, the reduction of costs and stability, but also inventiveness and audacity, will be vital in making it possible to stage an increasingly spectacular and attractive championship with the sport of endurance racing at the forefront.
“This unprecedented 2018 World Championship will, without doubt, excite and enthuse competitors, partners, and fans of endurance racing alike.
“We look forward to seeing you in Mexico City on September 2 and 3 for the next WEC event when further information will be given.”
Within FIA/WEC circles, it is believed the contract between the FIA/WEC and the ACO/Le Mans stipulates that three car manufacturers must compete in the LMP1 Hybrid class or the ACO can terminate the contract. This is a very real possibility but not necessarily inevitable. Here are possible scenarios for the 2018 season.
I fully expect Toyota to depart the WEC in the coming months. There is no reason for it to stay, no point in spending millions of dollars racing against no one. When this happens, the WEC will collapse immediately. However, this doesn’t mean Toyota will not compete at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2018. It very well could if the ACO does one thing, namely develop a set of regulations that allows non-hybrid prototypes to compete on equal footing with Toyota. Currently, European-based Ginetta and Dallara are developing LMP1 privateer cars. But to really ensure their strength and future, Le Mans organizers need big-name manufacturers to participate for the overall win. They must invite the IMSA DPi teams to France to compete for the overall victory in 2018.
You think this is farfetched? Think again.
The ACO needs manufacturers at Le Mans — partly for the prestige, mostly for the money they bring to France. IMSA, with its DPi class, has Cadillac, Mazda, Nissan, and Acura (coming in 2018). Allowing these manufacturers to race in the LMP1 class at Le Mans would ensure a massive amount of marketing money pouring into Le Sarthe. This is much needed not only at the racing circuit but, more importantly, in the city of Le Mans. Local merchants and businesses took a huge financial hit with Audi no longer racing in Le Sarthe. This will only get worse in 2018 with Porsche’s withdrawal. Pierre Fillion, president of the ACO and a resident of Le Mans, is feeling more pressure from local citizens than from any other group. Imagine these headlines leading up to the 2018 race, the press coverage, and the financial impact they would bring:
“Team Penske Races for Le Mans 24 Hours Victory”
“Joest Racing Returns to Le Mans with Japanese Entrant”
“Acura and Mazda Determined to Take Le Mans Glory from Toyota”
“Cadillac Races at Le Mans 24 Hours”
“Jeff Gordon and Dale Jr. Race for Cadillac, Wayne Taylor Racing at Le Mans”
The Le Mans 24 does not need the FIA or the World Endurance Championship to continue to be one of the crown jewels of all of racing. It no longer has the German entrants from Audi and Porsche. But as much as it might pain them, the French need help from the U.S. and the IMSA series with one American and three Japanese car companies, which will race in the U.S. in 2018. The manufacturers and teams racing in North America can provide much needed media attention, marketing muscle, and financial commitments to Le Mans.
And mark my words. If this happens, everyone will be saying the same thing: Arigato. Merci. Thank you.