In 2012, the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, a joint race with the American Le Mans Series, served as the kick0ff event for the FIA World Endurance Championship, although under dark clouds and with an uncertain future.
A total of 30 WEC-entered cars took the green flag, although with only a single LMP1 factory team in Audi, following Peugeot’s sudden withdrawal from the championship just two months prior.
Newcomers Toyota had only committed to a partial season with a single TS030, while the GTE-Pro class featured a four-car field for majority of the first year.
For WEC boss Gerard Neveu, who took the reigns of the new FIA-ACO joint venture, he wasn’t too optimistic about the future.
“We were very much in trouble at [the start],” Neveu told Sportscar365. “It was one-half Toyota, no Peugeot. Honestly, when I started, I was convinced that we maybe might not do a second year. It was so fragile. We lost [Peugeot] and it was a big [setback].
“The ACO took a lot of risks in 2012. After that, since three years, we can say that we have a good level of visibility.”
Four years and 32 races later, the WEC has grown into one of the most promising emerging championships, and arguably now only second to Formula One worldwide in terms of global exposure and manufacturer support.
Sunday’s Six Hours of Silverstone, which kicks off the fifth season of the globe-trotting series, will see the continuation of the three-way factory fight between Porsche, Audi and Toyota in LMP1, the debut of Ford in GTE-Pro alongside works or factory supported efforts from Ferrari, Aston Martin and Porsche, as well as a strong contingent of privateers in the LMP2 and GTE-Am categories.
While the success hasn’t come overnight, the rise of WEC has seen a number of high-profile drivers, teams and manufacturers enter the fold in recent years.
F1 veteran Mark Webber made the switch in 2014, and alongside Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard look to defend their World Championship title from last year. Other ex-F1 drivers, and a team itself, in Manor, have jumped ship to the sports car ranks for 2016.
“We can say we’re very proud about the paddock,” Neveu said. “It’s a big honor to have this kind of trust from the competitors and the job they’ve all achieved during the last four years. It’s something very impressive.
“When you have a team like Manor leaving Formula One and they have money and a choice of where to go… They decide to join the WEC. When you have new drivers like [Kamui] Kobayshi and Will Stevens…
“Three years ago [when racing in GTE-Pro], Kobayshi was saying, ‘I want Formula One.’ I met him [at the Prologue] and said, ‘Welcome back. It’s a pleasure to have you here and I hope you will be happy, sincerely.’ And he said, ‘You have no idea how happy I am to be with Toyota LMP1.’
“That’s the most important things. We have to make the drivers happy because they are the best ambassadors.”
Neveu also credits the partnership between the FIA and ACO, headed up by President Pierre Fillon, as well as the FIA Endurance Commission, led by Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones, for listening to the competitors, which has largely influenced the evolution of the championship.
“There’s some surprises, good and bad, and we’ve established a permanent dialogue with the teams to help us [predict] what can happen very quickly,” he said.
While currently enjoying a healthy grid, with 32 full-season entires — what Neveu says is their self-imposed maximum for logistical reasons — there’s still an active push to attract new manufacturers, particularly in LMP1.
Nissan, which had planned a two-year program with its radical front-engined, front-wheel drive Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3, pulled the plug on the ill-fated program late last year, and there hasn’t been any other manufacturer since that’s committed to the class.
Rumors of Peugeot potentially re-entering in 2018, when the LMP1 hybrid regulations receive an overhaul, continue, and speculation of BMW looking at an alternative-fueled concept persists, but perhaps not any earlier than 2021 for the following rules cycle.
However, questions remain over the long-term future of both Audi and Toyota, which haven’t officially committed beyond 2017.
“We spend a lot of time, and Pierre [Fillon] has a lot of meetings, to listen to the manufacturers and see how the market is for the future,” Neveu said.
“What we’re asking is for all of the teams: technical, sporting, etc, to work and propose to the Endurance Commission a regulation corresponding to the hope of the manufacturers. If it works like this, it means that we will naturally attract more manufacturers.
“You don’t go knocking on the door [of manufacturers]. You can do it for privateers but it doesn’t work like this [for manufacturers]. You have to propose something that the manufacturers will pay attention for.
“This is not only the regulations but the financial conditions, the business model, the value of Le Mans and the fact that the championship is growing up very quickly.”
Neveu has not only stressed the importance of further cost-cutting measures for LMP1, but also an overhaul of the LMP1 Privateer subclass, which currently struggles for entires and have been unable to match the performance targets.
New regulations, considered controversial by some, are due to arrive in LMP2 beginning in 2017, while a new wave of GTE cars are debuting this year, ensuring at least a healthy short-term future for the production-based ranks.
As for where the championship will look like in five years from now, Neveu admitted there’s no definitive answer, but said if the past four seasons were anything to judge from, it has a strong future ahead.
“What can we do to make sure we can maintain a long story?” he said. “Who had the capacity in Sebring in 2012 to say where we stand today? Honestly nobody.
“In Sebring [four] years ago, everybody was under pressure. It was a huge challenge. This time, we’ve all learned a lot together. How it works is something we can be very proud of.
“When we see what’s happened in this paddock, it’s good motivation.”