INTERVIEW: What's the WEC's next move with Hypercar?

Image by JEP/LAT

INTERVIEW: What's the WEC's next move with Hypercar?

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INTERVIEW: What's the WEC's next move with Hypercar?

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The FIA World Endurance Championship’s intriguing new Hypercar formula was dealt a heavy blow last week with Aston Martin’s decision to abandon its plans to enter the class, which sparks to life in September.

Since the Aston Martin news broke, Toyota has, to the great relief of WEC CEO Gerard Neveu, reaffirmed that it’s business as usual for its Hypercar program, but the series only has one manufacturer committed to the class for its September unveiling.

A number of questions facing the Frenchman were posed in a conversation with RACER, starting with the most pressing subject: Where does the series go from here?

“It’s too early to answer this,” Neveu replies. “We learned a few days ago about the decision from Aston Martin. We know that there are a few projects that are a work in progress like Glickenhaus and ByKolles, but it’s too early to say, frankly. What we’re trying to do now is go step by step, on priorities.

“The first priority is to achieve the convergence process between the ACO and IMSA. We have an appointment with everyone at Super Sebring in one month where we will introduce the technical regulations. We have no other options than to produce the best quality possible, for the manufacturers and the partners and the people involved in sportscars.

“Then we will see where we are regarding the future and the short-, mid- and long-term.”

The WEC, like IMSA with its current DPi formula and the upcoming LMDhs, has a top prototype class that’s wholly dependent on manufacturer participation. Whether it’s a low-volume producer like Glickenhaus, or industry giants Toyota and General Motors, commitments from the automotive sector to build Hypercars or LMDhs can either make or derail the plans of each series.

As Neveu and his colleagues at the ACO were reminded last week, risks abound when manufacturers decommit at inopportune times. Aston Martin also serves as a wake-up call that any new manufacturer-based formula is only viable if enough brands sign on and stay around to usher in the formula.

The vulnerability being experienced by the WEC at the moment must leave the series feeling rather exposed to the whims of the manufacturers Hypercar needs to survive.

“This is a normal question regarding the current situation,” Neveu says. “We would like to say that there is an easy answer, if there was we would be happy to say something. We have to first stay calm, because if you overreact, it’s like if you are driving a car and brake suddenly – you will get a surprise. You have to manage your energy and control the situation.

Despite the setback of Aston Martin’s withdrawal from Hypercar, Neveu is calm. “If you overreact, it’s like if you are driving a car and brake suddenly – you will get a surprise. You have to manage your energy and control the situation.” Image by WEC

“With Aston Martin, in the short-term this is not good news. But at the same time, we have to work very hard and to put all the positive and constructive energy to work on long-term solutions. What we’re trying to do now is create the best solution. How can we guarantee the future? The future is convergence. We have believed in this direction for a long time. We have to get answers on convergence and secure the future. We hope it will be done sensibly; the next step will be how we manage the time between now and convergence, which will be September 2021. You have to be humble when you discuss this with partners and teams. With Toyota, they will be around the table. We have to think, and find the best compromise. It’s not the most comfortable situation, but it is not the worst situation. When you have the possibility to create the future you can survive to work on long-term solutions. What we’re trying to do now is create the best solution.”

The WEC has dealt with unexpected manufacturer decisions in the past, especially within LMP1, which makes the Aston Martin situation less of a panic-filled ordeal. Peugeot’s surprising exit from the class just prior to the commencement of the 2012 season was a learning experience for all involved, and in the wake of Volkswagen’s diesel road car emissions scandal halfway through the 2010s, the loss of Audi, the WEC’s LMP1 diesel standard bearers, struck another blow that continues to be felt today.

In Hypercar – a concept meant to not only replace LMP1, but give manufacturers an exciting new formula to embrace – the WEC could find itself with a need to tweak the regulations to entice a bigger response from car makers. What might those changes encompass? This, too, requires more time for the series to form solid answers.

“We need a long-term solution that’s sustainable for all the partners,” Neveu reiterates. “This is what we have to do. There is nothing emotional about this, the only emotion is that we love motorsport and want to create a great experience for the fans and people in the paddock. It has to be for the common interest, that creates something sustainable for the majority. We have to make the manufacturers and the private teams happy, which are both part of the story. It cannot be only with manufacturers or private teams, it has to be a mix. It cannot be only with Hypercar, or only LMDh, it has to be compromise.

“What we do have already, of course, is incredible events. If we are lucky with the weather in Sebring, it will be a huge event. For Le Mans this year, we have a lot more requests for entries than we have places. We are in the middle of a big roundabout; we have to make decisions in the coming weeks to find the right direction off this. The target now is to provide the best presentation in Super Sebring in a few weeks.

“When Dieselgate happened, it wasn’t our fault, we had to find navigate the situation and we did it, when we had to work out Hypercar regulations we did it. And it is normal that the media asks, ‘hey guys, this is in three years, what comes next year?’. The fact you have positive announcements one week and negative the next it can be frustrating or difficult. But this is life today, it is not easy. That’s why I believe that the big responsibility is to provide a very big convergence program which is interesting.”

Neveu sees comparisons between the current situation and Audi’s exit at the end of 2016. “When Dieselgate happened… we had to navigate the situation, and we did it.” Image by LAT

Neveu refutes the notion that the major questions looming over Hypercar, and convergence between the ACO and IMSA, has changed the tone or direction of the conversations being held with the American sports car sanctioning body.

“Absolutely not,” Neveu asserts. “We would say that there is a permanent link between people from the ACO and committed manufacturers in Hypercar. You can make the list – it’s clearly Toyota, Peugeot, Glickenhaus and ByKolles. At the same time, there is a technical working group led by [IMSA’s] Simon Hodgson and [the ACO’s] Thierry Bouvet who are under instruction from the steering committee. We had a first meeting a few days ago in Paris with all the manufacturers that have interest in this future category, and then also with the chassis manufacturers that we were already announced, who are doing LMP2.

“We will have a meeting in Daytona [this] week. We would say in [seven] days we should be close to finalizing everything. We’re confident on this point. We understand how much hope there was, and enthusiasm in the paddock, with fans and media with the announcement. Since a few months we’ve been looking in this direction, and we’ve found a good window to do it. Now the governing bodies’ job is to find the right answer in Super Sebring, this is what we are doing.

“We have to adapt and make sure that Hypercar and LMDh work well together, that it’s compatible.”

The pre-existing plan to introduce the Hypercar formula involves fortifying the top-tier class throughout the 2020-2021 season with grandfathered non-hybrid LMP1 cars that currently compete in the WEC.

If the WEC opts to push Hypercar’s debut back to the 2021 season, it would have a ready-made solution by extending the LMP1 hybrid/non-hybrid class for another year. But with the Rebellion team set to exit the series after Le Mans in June, the WEC might face a dwindling number of privateer LMP1s to draw from.

England’s Ginetta could continue in LMP1, and there are other models available for use, but in either scenario – sticking with the intended Hypercar timeline, or moving it out one year – the series would be hard-pressed to fill the class with more than a handful of cars. Neveu’s instincts say the time is wrong to back one plan over the other.

“This is difficult because we have to be realistic,” he says. “We know that Rebellion will retire, we won’t have a Rebellion LMP1. With Ginetta, we don’t know what their plans are, and regarding Toyota, they are in the process of delivering a new [Hypercar] so we have to be very careful.

Achieving convergence between Hypercar’s rules and those of the next generation of IMSA’s DPis a core part of Neveu’s plan. Image by Levitt/LAT

“It is like when you are a captain on a boat, you are crossing the ocean and you decide on a destination; if you change direction every five minutes you will go the wrong way. But you have to adapt to the weather conditions. This is exactly what we have to do now. It’s not the best weather now, but if we do things properly and maintain the right direction, the right destination or end target, we could have good weather in a few weeks or a few months. We will adapt.

“If we take an immediate decision because of Aston Martin, it would be too much of an overreaction. We have to deliver something clear and engaging in Super Sebring, then we have to see who will be involved in the mid-term, from September 2021. We will adapt the situation.”

Amid the waiting game with charting a course for Hypercar, Neveu prefers to focus his attention on completing the next stage of convergence, which arrives at Sebring with the announcement of the final technical regulations that will govern Hypercars and LMDhs.

“Two years ago in America they said they’d never go hybrid because it’s too expensive; who wants a program without hybrid now?” he asks. “The smart thing we can do in the future is provide a global platform involving North America and the rest of the world, hold races at the big events like Le Mans, Sebring, Daytona, with the right level of technology, the right level of budget and good marketing value.

“We have to stay very humble because the world is moving very quickly but we have to maintain the direction of the boat.”

“Behind all programs, we have people that work very hard. When we sit down with [ACO president] Pierre Fillon, [IMSA president] John Doonan, [IMSA founder and chairman] Jim France and [IMSA CEO] Ed Bennett, when we speak with [WEC race director] Eduardo Freitas and [IMSA race director] Beaux Barfield, [ACO technical delegate] Thierry Bouvet, [IMSA technical chief] Simon Hodgson, the team managers from IMSA or WEC, or journalists, we have people with a good knowledge of sportscars and motorsport.

“We have to use the same language and same direction. We have responsible people with honesty and passion for sportscars, we should be able to find a way. The situation will be critical when we all sit around the table.”

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