Asian Le Mans Series managing director Cyrille Taesch Wahlen says the championship is “where it should be” heading into the new season.
A total of 27 cars, including eight LMP2s and four GT Cup guest entries from Porsche Carrera Cup Asia, make up the grid for this weekend’s opener in Shanghai.
The 2018-19 season carries four automatic invites to next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, and has attracted several European teams including United Autosports, Ecurie Ecosse/Nielsen and Panis-Barthez Competition.
“When the ACO took over [in 2015] we had a five-year plan ahead of us,” Taesch Wahlen told Sportscar365.
“The level is getting higher and higher, and starting this fourth season, Asian Le Mans is where it should be.
“The first three seasons would be taking over, giving people confidence again in the product in Asia and making sure we can grow and get to know people – to build something.
“The fourth and fifth should be the development seasons. I think this fourth is really a new chapter for Asian Le Mans, starting in Shanghai which is a first for us.”
Taesch Wahlen said he is pleased with the full-season grid assembled for 2018-19, with a prototype entry that has almost doubled in size since the previous campaign.
“It is very satisfying, after the massive drops we had last year,” he said.
“It’s been hard work, but very rewarding. I think it’s based on multiple factors. One of them is that we put together a very nice calendar, not only venue-wise but date-wise.
“The combination of four [FIA] grade one circuits and a calendar which perfectly fits between the WEC ‘Super Season’ break between Shanghai and Sebring, facilitated the approach.”
Taesch Wahlen believes the next step is to encourage more Asian teams to join the wave of interest from European squads attracted by the prospect of a Le Mans invitation.
The series is trying to spur the interest of regional teams by increasing its media presence, with Chinese-language race streams and a dedicated social media team in Beijing.
“You have a bunch of excellent gentlemen drivers in Hong Kong, China, and they all started together 15 years ago,” he said.
“Now you have a second generation of gentleman drivers in China coming in. They are more numerous.
“To make sure that they come and join us, at some point, you need to go to them and showcase the product that we have. It’s a long-term exercise and education is very important.
“By racing in the Asian Le Mans Series, teams and drivers are in contact with the people they will be in contact with at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, so it creates an environment which is known.
“The main task we have now is to make sure that we attract more Asian teams.”
Asian GT Landscape has “Changed a Lot”
Taesch Wahlen has attributed this season’s low GT car count to the large number of competitions now available to teams in Asia.
A total of five GT3 entries have been confirmed for 2018-19, with Red River by TF Sport, CarGuy Racing, Spirit of Race and a two-car effort from Tianshi Racing Team on the grid.
GTE machinery is also allowed in the Asian Le Mans Series, but no entries were taken up this season.
“We need to keep that combination of LMP and GT cars because this is what Le Mans is about,” he said.
“The GT offer in Asia has changed a lot. There are so many opportunities for gentlemen to compete in GT sprint races, in Blancpain GT, China GT and GT Masters Asia, that I totally appreciate it is not easy to put together a 16-car GT3 grid to do endurance in a winter season.
“That said, we know that we’ll get there again at some point because this [endurance racing] is what the market wants. There will be more Chinese teams joining, even if it’s in GT Cup, because it’s the first step [on the ACO ladder].”
The Four Hours of Shanghai gets underway on Sunday, Nov. 25 at 1 p.m local time (12 a.m EST).