PRUETT: With Aston out, what next for Hypercar?

Image by Aston Martin

PRUETT: With Aston out, what next for Hypercar?

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: With Aston out, what next for Hypercar?

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It’s hard to have a party when most of your guests decline the invites, tell you they won’t be able to show up until a year or two after the party begins, or accept the invitation and then cancel at a later date.

The party planners at the ACO and FIA World Endurance Championship were hit with the latter scenario this week when Aston Martin, one of the two manufacturers that was critical to the launch of its upcoming Hypercar formula, announced it will not be turning up to the festivities with its Valkyrie.

At present, only Toyota remains to represent Hypercar in September at the onset of the 2020-2021 WEC season, and based on an update from the brand following Aston Martin’s news, Toyota’s future participation in Hypercar has been called into question.

The British marque engaged in some fictional writing where it blamed the recent prototype rules convergence agreement, made between the ACO and IMSA, as the reason for ‘pausing’ the Valkyrie Hypercar program. Let’s be clear: There is no pause, and convergence had nothing to do with its withdrawal. Finances, and a lack thereof, is why Aston Martin binned its return to prototype racing. To suggest otherwise is nonsensical. A safety net for Aston Martin has since been provided by investors, but the costly Hypercar racing effort was immediately targeted as a priority to axe.

Blaming convergence drew the ire of the ACO and WEC, which led to a predictably passionate response from its leaders, who fired back at the brand – which competes in its GT categories – with a more accurate version of the unfortunate situation.

“For a few months now, we have all been aware of the economic difficulties of Aston Martin, and the subsequent questions raised about its future motorsport programs, namely endurance racing and F1, as well as its strategic path forward,” said ACO president Pierre Fillon, who runs the 24 Hours of Le Mans. “Contextual developments linked to economic and industrial parameters can always occur for a manufacturer during the implementation of projects.”

Put simply, when the Valkyrie Hypercar program was announced in January of 2019, Aston Martin wasn’t on the brink of collapse, then it was, then its Hypercar plans fell silent, then the Hypercar withdrawal that many anticipated was finally confirmed.

There’s a good reason for Aston Martin’s creative explanation for its Hypercar exit: in times of weakness, the last thing a business needs to do is highlight or confirm its troubles in print, and by casting aspersions at the newly-unified prototype convergence plans, the financial difficulties were ignored altogether.

The Aston Martin-inspired anger isn’t centered on the deletion of the Valkyrie program; it’s from the domino effect the decision has caused by destabilizing the Hypercar formula as a whole.

Reasonings aside, the end result is dire for the ACO and WEC, which are just seven months away from their intended start of the Hypercar era. Aston Martin and Toyota were expected to have as many as six total cars – four from Aston – on the grid at Silverstone.

In light of this week’s development, the ACO and WEC would be silly to ignore their unpleasant reality: You can’t start a new formula with one manufacturer and two cars. The WEC’s LMP1 class has limped along since Porsche left after winning Le Mans in 2017, and while a handful of privateer teams have bolstered the class with non-hybrid cars facing Toyota’s fearsome TS050 Hybrid, this has occurred on the downhill side of the once-popular class. Rebooting LMP1 with a brand-new Hypercar formula, with nothing more than a single carryover manufacturer, would make the French sanctioning bodies look weak and misguided.

Aston’s exit puts Toyota – and the ACO and WEC – into a difficult position ahead of the scheduled debut of the Hypercar formula. Image by Toyota

And depending on how the tea leaves are read, the ACO and WEC could have zero manufacturers to rely on at Silverstone.

Toyota, which has been steadfast in its support for Hypercar, and built a new model that’s been testing in preparation for September’s debut, blinked for the first time. After learning it would go solo and no longer have Valkyries to fight, what was once written in stone for Toyota’s Hypercar program has apparently changed from a guarantee to TBD.

“We are aware of Aston Martin’s announcement and we regret their decision,” a Toyota representative told RACER. “Aston Martin’s circumstances are very different from our own, so we will consider the situation and confirm our position in due course.”

Provided Toyota sticks with Hypercar, the ACO and WEC would have the option to plod forward and introduce the formula later this year. Included in their response to Aston Martin, WEC CEO Gerard Neveu said as much.

“This is not good news for the WEC in the short term, but it doesn’t change our mid- and long-term plans,” he offered. “We still have Toyota and Peugeot plus other entrants who have expressed an interest for Le Mans Hypercar and, with the arrival of LMDh, we will welcome many new manufacturers.  Of course, it would be better if Aston Martin was present as well, but it’s important that we have as wide a range of manufacturers as possible and that is the strategic plan we are working on for the future.”

Neveu’s mention of Peugeot, which confirmed plans to make its prototype return in 2022, is an interesting one to consider.

Going back to the early stages of the previous decade, Peugeot announced it would cancel its 908 HDi FAP LMP1 program ahead of new WEC series launch. Toyota signaled its intent to join the WEC, but one year later, and in reaction to Peugeot’s surprising news, the ACO and WEC implored Toyota to move up its start date to give the WEC two manufacturers – competition for Audi’s LMP1 effort – so it could save face.

Toyota, with its TS030 chassis already in development, obliged and rushed it into service a year early to help the ACO and WEC. Funnily enough, the timing is perfect for Peugeot to repay the favor and mash the throttle on getting a Hypercar onto the grid seven months from now to race with Toyota and save Hypercar. The only problem, however, is Peugeot does not have a Hypercar designed or built to expedite. And seven months would not be enough time to start the process, manufacture a prototype, go testing, and produce a few cars by September.

Peugeot is in no position to fast-track its own Hypercar program. Image by Peugeot

Toyota helped the sanctioning bodies almost a decade ago because it could. Peugeot has words and ambitions, but nothing tangible to offer that would keep the ACO and WEC, and Toyota, from highlighting Hypercar’s failure to properly launch.

Making matters worse in its combined response, the ACO and WEC did not mention Connecticut’s Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus, the one Hypercar manufacturer that is moving forward with a road car-based entry in the wake of Aston Martin cancelling its road-based Valkyrie factory effort. Jim Glickenhaus, whose is preparing to reveal a new engine supplier and renowned wind tunnel secured to develop the aerodynamics of its SCG 007 model, was omitted from the release. It didn’t please the New Yorker.

Like Peugeot and Aston Martin, SCG will not be at Silverstone, but Glickenhaus maintains the 007 is on course to turn its first laps of testing in September ahead of a February 2021 WEC Hypercar race debut at the South African Kyalami circuit.

With Aston Martin out, Toyota reevaluating its Hypercar plans, SCG planning to start testing at the same time Hypercar was meant to take its first green flag, and Peugeot still two years out, it’s hard to see how the ACO and WEC stick to their guns.

Pushing Hypercar back to September of 2021 seems like a more reasonable option that would give SCG time to be ready for a full-season campaign, Peugeot the time to bring its entry forward, and allow Toyota – and the LMP1 privateers – to continue using the cars they race in the WEC today. Grandfathered LMP1s were always going to be permitted during the 2020-2021 season, so there’s no real adjustment required on that front.

And if we read the tea leaves another way, maybe the ACO and WEC should assess the formula’s apparent collapse and take the hint that Hypercar isn’t the correct path to follow.

Although, as I wrote in January, it was clear the ACO/WEC and IMSA needed to pick DPi 2.0 (now known as LMDh) as the single formula to use when they converge, the formula I am—or was—most excited to see was Hypercar. And specifically, the voice-of-God Aston Martin V12 engine singing from inside its amazing space ship on wheels.

No disrespect to Toyota or SCG, but when I thought of Hypercar as a formula and all of the unique offerings it would bring to differentiate itself from DPis and LMP1s, the Valkyrie was that vision. Perfect looks, coupled with perfect sounds, ushering in a new era of endurance racing. And now that’s gone, along with most of my enthusiasm for Hypercar.

A month ago, we were doing happy dances with convergence being signed into existence by the French and American endurance racing organizations. And now, we’ve fallen back to that familiar place where sports car racing’s problems seem to outweigh the positives. Peugeot’s already rumored to be favoring IMSA’s cost-effective LMDh rules over Hypercar. All it takes is for Toyota to transform its plans into an LMDh campaign, and the door closes on Hypercar.

Just as you can’t start a new formula with one manufacturer and two cars, it’s especially challenging when the sums are zero and zero.

Will the ACO and WEC step up and make the tough call on their own, or let their manufacturers do it for them? I don’t envy Fillon and Neveu, or the hard decisions ahead that await France’s custodians of the sport.

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