Allan McNish believes Audi’s withdrawal from prototype competition at the end of the year will not result in the eventual demise of the FIA World Endurance Championship, even if LMP1 is reduced to a two-manufacturer battle for the foreseeable future.
The three-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner and former World Champion, who has enjoyed the majority of his sports car racing success with the German manufacturer, has taken a pragmatic approach to the championship’s future amid growing concerns.
“Right now, it’s not as if Audi pulling out has meant that sports car racing in the WEC is going to collapse; I don’t believe that,” McNish told Sportscar365. “I don’t think so at all.
“Obviously it’s a blow because, just as the American Le Mans Series learned, it’s not just the cars off the grid, it’s also all the other marketing and promotions and support around it.
“But I think [WEC CEO] Gerard Neveu said, ‘That’s the life of a championship. Manufacturers will come and go.'”
McNish instead feels the sport as a whole is currently in a good position although admitted the FIA and ACO may need to take a revised approach at LMP1 to ensure long-term growth.
Costs, in general, have skyrocketed in the top prototype class since the launch of the World Championship in 2012, particularly during the arrival of new hybrid regulations in 2014.
“I think sports car racing is healthy because it’s got a strong depth of grid, it’s got a good number of manufacturers,” McNish said.
“We just had the announcement of BMW coming into GTE and there’s others out there that are looking at it. I’m sure they’ll come in at some point.
“In terms of LMP1, that always has been a difficult nut to crack. Ultimately it’s appealing to a certain type of manufacturer. Therefore it’s like the Formula One of sports car racing, in terms of regulations are structured.
“Therefore it is always going to be quite restrictive. They are looking at things like cost reductions and that’s something that’s been ongoing.
“But I think the new regulations will have to be thought about very, very closely to ensure that anybody that does come in, can come in, even if their technology is a bit different… They’ve got the capability to do that.”
Having raced through the 2000s, when the top prototype class faced varying levels of competition, the Scot believes that you don’t necessarily need three LMP1 manufacturers to produce a high level of excitement.
“If you’ve got quality, then I would always go for quality over pure quantity,” McNish said. “Pure quantity, yes it does have its own excitement but if I think back to my racing career in sports cars, some of the best races were the one-on-ones.
“And that could have even been internally within Audi when it was just us and the sister car that would go at it, or with us in the States with us and Penske, or whether it was us and Peugeot.
“So I don’t think Porsche and Toyota is anything but a mouthwatering battle. Yes it would have been more so with Audi in there, but I think it’s still strong.”
McNish has also paid tribute to Audi’s 18-year-run in top-level prototype competition.
“I’ve lived through it as a racing driver where it’s affected me directly in the same way it’s affecting the guys on the WEC program, on three occasions,” he said.
“I’ve lived through it looking after Mr. Tincknell last year with Nissan’s pull out. I’m not totally naive to the fact that it could happen.
“Audi were involved in Le Mans sports car racing longer than most racing drivers’ careers in sports car racing. It’s not just as they’ve been in and out. They’ve been for a long, long period of time.
“I’ve raced for Porsche in 1998, and I lived through that twice, when they pulled out in 1998 and again in 1999. They returned to [prototype] racing just a few years ago and there was that big gap in between.
“At the same time, Toyota, which was the other one that pulled out at the end of 1999, they just came back in again and they had a whole Formula One period in between while Audi has been there.
“Audi has basically been the rock of sports car racing.”