What is the future for WEC after the coronavirus pandemic?
In the latest in our #thinkingforward interview series, Automobile Club de l'Ouest President Pierre Fillon and WEC CEO Gerard Neveu discuss how endurance racing will emerge from the coronavirus pandemic
What is going to change after coronavirus?
Gerard Neveu: "For sure it will impact to the comportment [behaviour] of the people because we learn a lot and we will have to change to a different attitude. Maybe the travel frequency can be one of these attitudes but also the way we organise an event, the way we manage the spectators, the way we work with the team on site, the way we organise all the different efforts inside will be a little bit different."
Pierre Fillon: "You know, our generation we've not known the war, but we are faced with this crazy crisis. I think for sure during six months, maybe one year, where we would be different in terms of travels, of organisation of events and so on. But I'm sure in one of two years, I think we will come back as before."
Do you think, like several leaders we have spoken to for this #thinkingforward series that the sport needs to use this moment to be really bold? And what steps would you advocate to best shape it for the future?
PF: "Yes, I think in every crisis there is an opportunity. I think motorsport was in a way to change before the crisis with the vision of the young generation about motorsport, the issue of our environment and I think we can use this crisis to accelerate the new vision of motorsport."
GN: "The first thing you learn when you are facing a situation like this - we need to be very humble, because at the end we are nothing in front of this sort of situation.
"What this crisis reminds us is that we were very spoiled. And we didn't pay attention. We can ask the question: 'Are we sure that we don't duplicate too much competition at the same time?' Because now we are totally in the trouble regarding how to restart the championship. Do we have enough competitors to get satisfaction for the different markets and the different championships?
"This crisis asked us to have a global view; there is no championship which is not in the very fragile position so quickly in two months. Maybe if there is too much offer on the market it's provided a fragile position for all of us. So maybe between the different organisers, promoters of the different platforms, we should have to reconsider how we manage this global market together to make sure that this is not too much.
"I said always to Pierre: 'Okay but Le Mans is different'. This is a big event, like Indianapolis or maybe Daytona or Sebring, or a few Formula 1 grands prix for example. The true reality is Le Mans is an exception. So you cannot take Le Mans like an average. Le Mans is Le Mans, which is like Mount Everest.
"For sure in the near future, the market will be not bigger, it can be only smaller. We cannot imagine that tomorrow you will have more and more competitors because first the people will have to recover. You have an industry, which is a live event industry with the professional teams, but look the situation of the manufacturers. They will have to first face the first job, which is to sell cars. They will have to recover from a situation that they never knew before. I think that in Europe, the market is going down by something like 55% during the last two months, which is amazing."
"So motorsport will stay for sure because motorsport is a real industry and this is the part of the job."
PF: "I think motorsport will continue for sure after the crisis, but for the manufacturers, the main issue will not be motorsport in the next months. They need to survive, they need to restart the activities. And we saw at this time that it's not very easy.
"For example Toyota tried to restart in France and the unions are not really helpful. I spoke with Peugeot yesterday and they need to keep their cash to be able to face this situation for the next months. They spend money but they have no[income].
"So it's very difficult but I think motorsport will continue. Okay, Le Mans is a mythical race but Le Mans needs ELMS. Le Mans needs all the continental series to have 60 cars on the grid.
"And what's important for me, if we want to keep the manufacturers we need to accelerate the development of the new zero emission technology. And for me, you know that for the ACO hydrogen is very important and for us it's an opportunity to accelerate the development because I think in every board this aspect will be very important in their decision to continue in motorsport.
"But this is not enough. In motorsport we have manufacturers, but we have gentleman drivers and privateers and so on. I think it's very important that we really need to reduce the cost."
"We began to do that before because in LMP1 it's 100 million euro a year for Toyota maybe, and with LMH - Le Mans Hypercar - you know that the budget will be 25 million and we will launch LMDh, a platform able to race in WEC, 24 hours of Le Mans and IMSA, for less than 20 million.
"So we need a big step. We need to continue to do that, we need to think about how to reduce the cost of logistics of the number of people on the track and so on. If we don't do that, I think motorsport is really in danger. So we have to be innovative."
Le Mans is so much more than a motor race, as you say; a great festival for like-minded fans coming together to enjoy a fabled event. But if it had to take place behind closed doors, is that an option?
PF: "Yes, it's an option. At this time, nobody knows what will happen in September! We have a lot of big events in France before then, like the Tour de France and Roland Garros [tennis]. Are we able to organise an event with more than 100,000 people? I don't know the answer to that. If you listen to our President, maybe after the middle of July something is possible, but if you listen to Germany, it's nothing before the end of August. I just read that a big event in Munich [Oktoberfest 19 Sept-4 Oct] is cancelled, so nobody knows.
"We have three options: Option 1 is that we're allowed to run our event with fans, maybe with some constraints like masks and so on. The second option is we have no more than 5,000 people, or something like that - so that's a good option for the TV but not good for the fans who want to attend.
"And, for sure, this is not a true Le Mans - it's not just about the race, it's an experience for the spectators. And option 3 is that it's impossible to organise the 24 Hours of Le Mans event at all. For sure, we hope that is not the option! But, at this moment, we cannot exclude that."
GN: "We [WEC] are more prepared to hold behind-closed-door events. We have respect for all our events, but our target, our priority, for the championship is for the manufacturers and all our teams to make sure they can honour the contracts they have to complete the season. And that's with drivers and sponsors - all the people involved; these are all professional teams. And, also, that they can prepare correctly for Le Mans.
"We are also speaking with other championships, like Formula 1 and Formula E, so we ensure we avoid serious clashes in Europe - we will have many races in the same area at the same time, we have to be careful about that. I would say, by the middle of June, that's a good period to make a decision on the exact situation at that point. Let's go step by step; we will decide when we have the good knowledge."
And is September a "last chance" date for 2020, or is there some flexibility to move backwards?
PF: "For sure, if at the end of July the authorities will tell us 'impossible in September but 100% possible we can do it in October or November, of course, we would do that. It will not be the same 24 Hours that we are used to, but we are professional and we have great drivers. We ran in Spa in the snow last year!"
GN: "If you think of the walls of our house, Le Mans is clearly the central pillar of all sportscar programmes. So you must protect the pillar if you want to maintain your house. If you have some damages, you must first protect this part. This is the guarantee that there is a future."
How is the relationship with IMSA?
GN: "We maintain our partnership with IMSA - I have a call with Jon Doonan [IMSA president] every two or three days. Pierre and myself have a steering committee more or less once per week including IMSA, which is more than before. We are on the final approach for the LMDh.
"They are facing exactly the same situation. Jon is having to revise his calendar every two weeks, so we're in touch to make sure that when he moves, it doesn't impact the WEC and ELMS. We have to be careful with race dates and protect this relationship. Doing something wrong with IMSA would be as bad as doing something wrong to ourselves."
What is the status of LMdH rules?
PF: "We can say that we on schedule, of course, we should have announced the regulations in Sebring. The work has continued since. First of all, the relationship with IMSA is excellent. I think we have a technical regulation today, and we're just finalising small details, and following the crisis we have no choice, we have to succeed with this project. It's very important for the future of sportscars. For me, it's vital. It's almost done, and I think we will be able to announce the frame of the regulations in two weeks."
GN: "ACO and IMSA are probably the two best associations to manage sportscar racing in the world. We have to be humble again. So, to speak about LMDh as we speak now, if you look at one year ago, nobody was ready to take a bet on that. We have to go step by step. First, if we are able to deliver very well LMDh, it will help us to do something better in the future. Pierre is right - motorsport will be back; you cannot destroy such a big industry. But we'll have to remember that, to stay humble and to provide only for the best interest of the sportscar racing community."
PF: "We have to go step-by-step. One year ago, you can't imagine that the big manufacturers will agree to use another chassis, not its own chassis. It was something impossible for them, and today it's possible. Everything changed. We work step-by-step, so we have to achieve the LMDh, and I think we are on a good way. After that we will try to see what we can share and what we can do together with IMSA. I think there are a lot of possibilities."
What has been your impression of how Esports has risen to the occasion during pandemic?
GN: "For me there is a real space for esports, I don't think it will replace the real motorsport on track, but it's a mandatory complementary activity if you want to link to the next generation of fans, with a new generation of people. Not only the fans, also the drivers for example. So to be very efficient it helps to stay connected with the new generation of people, globally - media, fans, drivers and so on. This is like a language you use to share the passion of motorsports. The feeling is we must be in this space.
"That's the reason we launched two years ago the Le Mans esports championship in partnership with Motorsport Games. We were feeling it was very important to be on this stage. The real target is to deliver your own e-games, because your own e-games is the part of the showcase of what you are producing.
"You can model the content you have on the real races. So you have to do it. This is like a dedicated product that you make accessible to all fans and partners. The thing is this crisis like a throttle for esports, it accelerates the visibility and the interest in this now. But in the future when the activities restart on the racetrack, you will still have esports but it will be complementary.
PF: "I just want to add that I think esports is a fantastic tool. It's a bridge between the new generation and old generation. It's a fantastic way to interest young people in motorsports. For sure we have to develop this esports, it's a real sport now. I followed the Chinese Grand Prix this weekend on esports and it was interesting to follow Charles Leclerc and the other drivers. It was maybe something almost real. We have to use this platform to grow the interest in motorsport among young people for sure."
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