If Audi quits the WEC, what happens next for top-line sports prototypes?
Audi has refused to comment, but the word on the street is that the 2017 season will be its last in the LMP1 class of the World Endurance Championship.
If this is true, Audi certainly couldn’t be accused of not having given it a fair go. Since the R8 made its debut back in 1999, the four rings have redefined excellence in sportscar racing, the Le Mans 24 Hours in particular.
Through a combination of fantastic engineering, sensational team-work and a solid base of great drivers, time and again Audi cleaned up in the biggest sportscar races in the world.
And it’s used its racing pedigree to promote its road cars too. The TDi technology that it developed in the R10 directly led to the engineering developments in its fleet of diesel road cars. And perhaps it’s the emissions scandal that’s rocked its parent company that’s behind what happens next. At the recent announcement that Audi was upping its involvement in the Abt Formula E programme, it stated that by 2020 it wants 25 per cent of its car sales to be electric.
Assuming that Audi does quit, that will leave just Porsche and Toyota in the top class, with little sign of anyone wishing to join them. The current breed of LMP1 cars are engineering marvels. Awesomely fast and astonishingly efficient. This also makes them eye-wateringly expensive.
Perhaps not at the level Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull spend on F1, but a damn sight more than anyone else is spending to compete at the top of any other form of motorsport.
The history of sportscar racing reads like a topographical map of the Tour de France, with unbelievable highs interspersed with depressing lows. And these maps accurately trace the level of manufacturer support.
The mid-80s bucked this trend, but only because Porsche was not only happy to sell scores of its all-conquering 956/962, but was seemingly quite happy for the factory team to be beaten by privateer runners. The cost and technical support required to run a contemporary LMP1 car, sadly makes this option unviable now.
Rumours of a Ferrari LMP1 entry have been doing the rounds for years, but all the while the Scuderia is struggling to even win a race in F1, the notion of diluting its resources on a top-flight sportscar programme is fanciful.
Peugeot still has unfinished business in WEC, Le Mans in particular, but it’s stated at the current budget levels there’s no hope of a return. Neither Nissan nor Aston Martin are keen to jump back in the fire after burning their fingers with recent expensive flops, while if Bentley returns it’s most likely to be as an engine supplier in LMP2.
Jaguar has decided to choose Formula E for its return to racing, while, COTA aside, the markets visited by the series are outside of where Cadillac sells cars. Mazda has dropped off the map as an international motorsport brand.
Perhaps one of the Chinese-owned brands could step up. But when was the last time you saw a new MG on the road? How much money is it worth spending on promoting cars no one seems to want?
Like Mercedes, BMW is gearing up to get more involved in Formula E. So, you have to wonder whether the era of super-fast, super-cool sports prototypes has reached its natural conclusion.
The slower, most cost-effective LMP2 class is blessed with a wide array of different chassis and engine suppliers, creating the sort of multiple chassis/engine combinations that the sportscar fans love.
But without the big-name manufacturers will the casual fan be attracted? Who will put in the marketing spend, will the teams be able to afford all-pro line-ups, or will gentlemen drivers be filling seats in the top class?
But maybe the answer is a further rung down. GT3 is in rude health. Alongside BMW’s Formula E announcement was confirmation that it was returning to Le Mans. But not with an LMP1 sportscar, but with a Z4 GT3 programme.
With Aston Martin, Corvette, Ferrari, Ford and Porsche already involved and the likes of Audi, Bentley, Lamborghini, Mercedes, McLaren and Nissan building cars to a slightly different spec, the opportunity for perhaps the greatest GT era of all-time exists.
Would a full grid of GT3 cars, driven by some of the best drivers in the world, almost all of them being in with a shout of victory, be anything less than amazing?
While the spectacle of the speed of a current LMP1 car at Maggotts or the Porsche Curves is sensational, often the racing can be less than the sum of its parts, especially since there are only six cars in with a chance of victory and over the course of six hours the odds of at least one of these hitting trouble is high.
If the end of LMP1 is nigh – and I hope it’s not – for me the best thing would be for the LMP2 cars to be shuffled aside to IMSA, the ELMS and the Asian series, leaving WEC to become the battleground for an epic encounter of the world’s best GT cars.
Photo: Audi AG
Andrew van de Burgt has been a motor racing journalist for over 15 years. He started working for the Jaguar Racing team on its website in 2000, before moving to AUTOSPORT in 2002. From 2005 to 2014 he was the Editor and then Editor-in-chief of the most prestigious motorsport weekly and online publication in the world. He has covered everything from NASCAR in the States to V8 Superscars in Australia and pretty much everything in between.