The World Endurance Championship: the F1 of the states

Four races down, four to go, and as the World Endurance Championship heads for North America, both manufacturer and driver titles are wide open. To date, Audi has won at Silverstone and Spa, and Porsche at Le Mans and the Nürburgring, all on Michelin tyres. Next stop, on 19 September, is the Circuit of the Americas in Texas.

Paul Newman Racing star
Paul Newman Racing star

If America has sometimes been ambivalent about grand prix racing and open-wheel cars, it has always unequivocally loved sports cars. Think of the great names such as Cunningham, Shelby, Ford and GM that attacked various versions of the World Sports Car Championship from the 1950s on.

After Le Mans itself, the 12 Hours of Sebring (in Florida) was always the second jewel in endurance racing’s crown, the race everybody used to prepare for Le Mans in June. Just one lap of the clock, but on a notoriously bumpy circuit that was once Hendricks Field air force base, where Memphis Belle was one of the thousands of bombers that landed during the Second World War.

 The Green X Challenge recognises cars with the optimum combination of speed, efficiency and fuel energy use

Famous names pepper the roll-call of American endurance racing: Stirling Moss won at Sebring in 1954, Mike Hawthorn in 1955, Juan Manuel Fangio in 1956 and 1957, Phil Hill in 1958, 1959 and 1961, John Surtees in 1963, and Bruce McLaren and Mario Andretti in 1967.

Ferrari won 18 times, Porsche 12 and Audi 11. Audi still never goes to Le Mans without testing at Sebring; and in 2008 Porsche started its climb back to this year’s Le Mans-winning pinnacle with a remarkable outright win with the LMP2-class RS Spyder, against all LMP1 competition – on Michelin tyres.

American endurance racing spectators were always a breed apart. The infield is a Spring-Break-type weekend of beer, barbecues and fancy dress.

In 1974, the race at Sebring was cancelled because of the energy crisis, but thousands of fans came anyway, just for the party. Legendary American newsman Walter Cronkite raced at Sebring in 1959, and Robert Redford filmed parts of The Great Waldo Pepper there.

Steve McQueen finished second at Sebring in 1970, with his leg in a cast – a year before releasing his iconic film, Le Mans. Paul Newman finished second there in 1977 and came agonisingly close to winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans for real, with second in 1979 – underlining the American love affair with sports car racing.

The very first race in the new World Endurance Championship was in America in 2012, won by Audi and Michelin. The winning R18 was Audi’s third-generation diesel, and the perfect example of endurance racing pushing efficiency to new levels. Thanks to racing in America, Michelin has played a massive part in that. In 2009 at the ALMS Petit Le Mans round at Road Atlanta, Michelin launched the Green X Challenge.

Backed by the US Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, the challenge has run at every world endurance race since, and at each race, and each season, it recognises the car with the optimum combination of speed, efficiency and fuel energy use – in turn encouraging the evolution through biofuels to diesel to hybrid.

Now the global championship heads for Austin, Texas, and the Circuit of the Americas, with Michelin supplying the whole LMP1 field and many of the LMP2 and GT teams just as on home ground in Europe.

Porsche, after the narrowest of double-points wins at Le Mans in June, leads the manufacturer standings; Audi’s Fassler, Lotterer and Treluyer head the drivers; Audi won both the previous Austin races; and Michelin looks forward to another win.

Source: The Telegraph UK