The starting gun for today’s announcement came with the withdrawal of first Audi at the end of the 2016 FIA WEC season, and then Porsche at the end of the following year.
That left the ACO needing a rapid reaction to a numbers crisis in their top LMP1 class. A set of changes designed to encourage privately funded non-hybrid LMP1s to take on the mighty Toyotas were introduced, first a much-criticised Equivalence of Technology, and latterly a system of ‘Success handicap’ adjustments intended to inject better racing and competition.
All of this came during a period where the automotive industry was in turmoil. Scandal, economic woes and crises of confidence on the technological way forward saw little enthusiasm for traditional big-budget motorsport programmes.
Formula E’s brand of “look how eco-friendly we are!” city centre events attracted the attention of multiple major manufacturers as much of the rest of motorsport tried to anticipate the next direction that their traditional OEM partners would take.
Through that period the ACO were developing their new ‘big thing’: Hypercar. Designed to reintroduce visual and road relevance for the big spenders and high gloss glamour for the watching audience. There were some successes, Toyota was quick to commit, and at Le Mans last year Aston Martin declared their support too with racing versions of the forthcoming Valkyrie, an altogether different level of ‘road-going’ hypercar.
Relative minnows Glickenhaus and ByKolles were also quick to declare an interest and then came Peugeot’s shock announcement that they would join from 2022.
So far so adequate, but the cost of racing in the Le Mans Hypercar class was still putting off some very big names, and public pronouncements of support for a more global solution from some of the industry’s heaviest hitters were beginning to come more regularly.
Public pronouncements from Ford and McLaren, and more private declarations from others including Porsche and Ferrari were making it very clear that no number of pretty Hypercar ‘renders’ posted on social media were going to lead to them joining the party.
Instead, heads had been turned by the potential of IMSA’s parallel ‘big idea’, DPi.
Their new cars, based on the existing, cost-capped, ACO-licensed LMP2 chassis from ORECA, Ligier, Dallara and Multimatic were aiming for a similar outcome to the ACO plan, visual relevance as IMSA too sought to roll with the industry punches.
The initial success of the formula – with take-up from Cadillac (Dallara), Mazda (Multimatic) and later Acura (ORECA) plus a privately funded effort with a Ligier-based Nissan powered car turned heads.
Thereafter though the potential stalled to some degree, in no small part as the second generation DPi negotiations reached their detailed stages and debate and argument about technology, and very specifically hybrid technology, rumbled on.
For some, it was an irrelevance, for others an essential.
Throughout though healthy numbers of manufacturers have remained ‘in the room’. However, some have been equally clear that their interest in the formula was predicated by whether or not ‘their’ cars could be raced not just in North America, but, in general globally, and very specifically at the Le Mans 24 Hours.
There was history on that front with an initial meeting of minds falling victim to internal rancour over the final form of the initial DPis, a potential deal to run the cars, with or without their base LMP2 bodywork at Le Mans, died early on, a low point in the near-past relationship between the ACO/ WEC and IMSA.
Thereafter though, the realities of the industry situation have eventually brought the greater good to the fore, and some individuals who have had to suffer public vilification for a lack of action, have actually been working very hard in the background to actively help to bring us to today’s announcement.
All in all, today’s announcement is the result of real pragmatism from all parties, but the net effect could be something truly extraordinary.
The tipping point for any agreement is not just a pure, overall, numbers game. This is also an equation that sees both bodies’ full-season products with sufficient full-season top quality, top-class efforts, and, into the bargain, a potential combined field at some of the biggest events that have not been seen before, ever!
The outline announced today, and the more detailed version we should see by Sebring is set to find welcoming comments from a potentially unprecedented number of manufacturers in the top class.
There may well be casualties along the way. The medium-term future of factory programmes in GTE Pro and GTLM certainly in some doubt (opening up a whole new potential ‘convergence’ debate in GT racing), and some disappointment too from aspirant additions to the LMP2 chassis market, the decision to apparently restrict the new marketplace to the existing four manufacturers.
For most though, if the agreement announced today sees multiple factory efforts emerge for the two championships, and sees major boosts too to the top classes at Daytona and Le Mans (and likely elsewhere too) this will be a moment that will be remembered very fondly indeed.
It could also see a further boost to LMP2 worldwide, with a likely increase in available top-class seats, the ladder system, in particular to emerging young talent, could well become a very important component.
Could this be the starting gun to a new Golden era? We might know the answer to that very quickly indeed!