The 2016 FIA World Endurance Championship has just ended, and Audi won the season finale. In fact, Audi finished first and second in the Six Hours of Bahrain, which is a fitting end to the German manufacturer’s 18-year LMP1 racing program. But the finale was perhaps not as fitting as it should have been, with the race occurring in the shadow of virtually empty grandstands. Bahrain is not quite the circuit you think of when endurance sports-car racing’s marvelous history flashes through your mind’s eye, now is it?
At first blush, the decision by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) to schedule the season-ending and potentially championship-deciding race in Bahrain seems a bit odd. But it also seems to be the way of modern sport.
The FIA is the motorsports equivalent to FIFA (the soccer federation responsible for the World Cup), and the IOC (International Olympic Committee). All three of these organizations control their respective sports/events on a global scale. Two of these organizations, FIFA and the IOC, have been embroiled in controversy in recent years, with accusations of bribery in awarding countries the World Cup and Olympics. The FIA has never been accused of any such poor behavior.
However, the three organizations do share at least one similarity: the setting of notably high standards in order for a country or a venue to host an event. Those places must meet criteria including new or updated venues, infrastructure improvements, and creature comforts. Some of these things are certainly necessary, but much of it has little or nothing to do with the sports or the competitors. Ultimately, all of it has to do with money.
The Olympic movement is at a tipping point. With escalating costs to host the games — $6.4 billion for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, $14 billion for the 2012 London Summer Olympics, and $51 billion for the 2014 winter games in Sochi, Russia — countries’ decisions not to bid on the Olympics has almost become routine. And when the public has become aware of the IOC’s demands to potential host cities, existing bids have been withdrawn.
Oslo, Norway recently said nei takk to those demands and withdrew its bid to host the 2020 Winter Olympic Games. The IOC’s requirements detailed in a 700-page manifesto the host city must agree to included.
- IOC members demanded to meet the King of Norway.
- Norway was required to host and pay for a cocktail reception for IOC board members after the opening ceremonies.
- IOC-exclusive highway lanes, closed to the general public during the games.
- Every hotel room stocked with Coke products, seasonal fruits, and cakes for IOC board members.
- The IOC president must be welcomed “ceremoniously” upon his arrival to Oslo.
Norway’s citizens were made aware of these demands by local news reports and voiced their concerns, especially at an estimated cost of $5.6 billion. Oslo walked way — as did Stockholm, Lviv, Krakow, Munich, St. Moritz, Hamburg, and Boston.
The IOC as a result was forced to make adjustments. Beijing was recently awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics, thus becoming the first city to host both the summer and winter games. Beijing was awarded the winter games because venues built for the 2008 Summer Olympics will be repurposed for them, saving billions of dollars in new construction costs. But this part of China is extremely dry, so the Chinese will spend billions rerouting water and building ski resorts relatively nearby during the next six years.
Coincidentally, 2022 is also the year Qatar will host the FIFA World Cup. Twelve new soccer stadiums are being constructed at an estimated cost approaching $200 billion, and workers from Nepal, India, and Bangladesh are doing the majority of this work. Upon their arrival in Qatar, the workers discovered they are prohibited from leaving the country without first obtaining permission from their employers. They are essentially enslaved with pay, but overlooked and ignored by soccer’s governing body.
We may be at the beginning of a trend where these two major sporting events will only be hosted by countries willing to kowtow to the demands, egos, and whims of IOC board members, and which are willing to spend billions on structures that may only be used for three weeks but provide a counter-balance to negative international public perception. Specifically, poor human rights records.
Which brings us back to the FIA. Its demands are certainly less than those imposed by its World Cup and Olympic counterparts, and this is especially true with the World Endurance Championship. But some demands must be met, both structurally and financially, and they are perhaps impediments to the growth and popularity of sports-car racing. And it seems that the financial aspect is becoming an increasing larger part of the equation.
In order to host a WEC event, the FIA requires a racetrack to be a “Grade 1” facility. A lot of these requirements are built on safety grounds: proper catch fencing, longer runoff areas, and so forth. However, several requirements have more to do with creature comforts and less to do with promoting the sport.
The United States only has two Grade 1 facilities, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Circuit of the Americas (COTA) near Austin, Texas. Both circuits meet FIA safety requirements and both have one thing in common that separates them from every other track in this country: enough garages for every car on a WEC grid.
And what sit atop all of those garages? Why hospitality suites, of course. The FIA will claim both garages and suites are necessary. The garages improve the working conditions for the crews, while hospitality suites generate income for the tracks and provide the FIA and corporate partners areas to wine and dine guests.
COTA is a great circuit in a great American city. It each fall hosts two FIA events, the WEC and Formula 1 races. Both are during college football season, and if the University of Texas has a home game on race weekends, two facts stand out: Hotels will be expensive and hard to find, and racetrack attendance will not be good.
The FIA is clueless on how to market its races in the United States. Luckily when it comes to F1, the folks at COTA have more than answered the call. Tickets sales for this year’s United States Grand Prix were strong in the months leading up to the race and they spiked after the track announced that Taylor Swift would perform a concert at the track during the race weekend.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the WEC race held a few weeks before the F1 event. Attendance has been awful for the COTA WEC race over the last two years. The FIA folks see hospitality suites full of people, but are seemingly blind to the fewer than 10,000 spectators who dot the grandstands or hillsides at the circuit.
The biggest difference between COTA and several other great U.S. racing circuits is that one has garages and suites and the others do not. And because Indy apparently has no desire to host a WEC race, COTA is the only option.
Imagine the WEC title being decided at Road America, an area with 180,000 hotel rooms within 90 minutes of the circuit. There are enough hotel rooms, restaurants, and good highways to handle the Ryder Cup and PGA Championships.
Road America features an enormous paved paddock, and massive improvements during the last two years including larger run-off areas, new catch fencing, new buildings in the paddock, a new podium, and a new fan walkway along the entire backstretch. It’s a classic European style racetrack, located just a couple of hours north of Chicago. Just imagine the corporate marketing opportunities for the WEC and the race teams in Windy City. Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin in the fall means brats and beers — and 50,000 true race fans lining the hillsides and filling the grandstands.
However, the WEC folks will immediately tell you Road America does not have garages, so it is a Grade 2 circuit, and the FIA will not permit their series to race there. But guess what? There is indeed a single Grade 2 circuit on the WEC schedule: Le Mans. Yes, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the WEC’s golden goose, runs on the Circuit de la Sarthe, a Grade 2 circuit.
It seems some of the public roads that make up the French track lack enough runoff area to be awarded the top classification. Danish GT ace Allan Simonsen died at Le Mans during the 2013 race, on lap three at Tertre Rouge. And while the organizers built safer barriers at this corner the following year, the runoff area is the same. But hey, Le Mans does have 56 garages and more hospitality suites than any other circuit in the world, and those suites generate an enormous amount of revenue.
The WEC series races at some great circuits including Silverstone, Spa, and Fuji. It also races in markets it says are important to the WEC’s corporate partners, places like the United States, Mexico, China, and Bahrain. Still, shouldn’t the FIA grading system include factors other than runoff areas, garage space, and well-appointed hospitality suites? Why isn’t more weight given to circuits that historically draw large race-day crowds, instead of racing were crowds are virtually non-existent?
And then there’s this: What, if any, responsibility does the FIA (and FIFA and the IOC) have when it allows events to be hosted in countries whose poor human rights records are abysmal, as cited by various international organizations including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International? Does the exploitation of migrant workers, torture, restrictions of free speech, state-controlled journalism, fewer rights for women, and intolerance for the LGBT community even concern the leadership of these organizations? How can a circuit be given a score of Grade 1 when these injustices are commonplace in the host country?
According to one source at the WEC, Bahrain pays a larger sanctioning fee than any other circuit on the schedule. So opposition to free speech, torture, and empty grandstands be damned: the 2017 season finale will once again race in Bahrain.
On race day last weekend in Bahrain, the WEC announced it will freeze the LMP1 technical regulations through the 2019 season. New regs and new LMP1 cars were scheduled for introduction for 2018, but the enormous costs of developing a new LMP1 car — with proposed rules that would allow an additional hybrid system — are unsustainable at this time. Both Porsche and Toyota approved the decision to stick to today’s regulations. And there is no manufacturer on the horizon to fill the gap left by Audi’s departure, in terms of an LMP1 program and the massive financial commitment the German car manufacturer brought to the sport.
Audi’s LMP1 budget exceeded $200 million annually. Tens of millions of these dollars were spent with the WEC and Le Mans for partner fees, marketing budgets, and of course hospitality expenses. At this year’s Le Mans 24, Audi had hospitality suites above its pit boxes and three separate buildings for its guests. The largest of those buildings, located just outside of the Ford chicane, took three months to construct.
The FIA and WEC have discouraged car manufacturers from supporting LMP2-class programs. So, while the 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship will see new prototypes from Mazda and Cadillac and three to five additional manufacturers coming in 2018, WEC will have zero new car companies racing in either of the prototype classes next year.
Compare fan attendance at the top nine IMSA races with the nine WEC races, and the U.S. series comes out ahead. The North American series tends to race where the fans are and manufacturers seem to have little problem entertaining guests at tracks that don’t have garages or hospitality suites.
Audi’s withdrawal from the LMP1 ranks could mark the beginning of the end of LMP1 competition as we know it. Its decision to spend a fraction of an LMP1 budget to race in Formula E is a message from the highest corporate levels that sustainable racing is the way to promote the coming generations of sustainable production cars. But that decision to commit to Formula E means one thing to the French racing organizations: the financial pipeline from Audi to the FIA’s and ACO’s coffers in Paris and Le Mans has dried up.
But there is water in the desert — and I’m not talking about Bahrain.