Earlier this week, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest made the announcement that the entire sportscar racing fraternity had been more or less expecting: that, for the first time since 1968, the Le Mans 24 Hours will not be run in June due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead, it has been shifted to September 19-20, which raises obvious questions about the 2020/21 WEC season – which had been due to begin two weeks before that at Silverstone.
With regards to the current season, the WEC’s sporting regulations make it clear that in order for championship results to be declared, at least six events including Le Mans need to have taken place. That means we’ll have to wait until at least the middle of September to know our 2019/20 champions, whatever happens.
Up to now, five races have taken place, the most recent at the Circuit of the Americas last month, so Le Mans alone would be enough to get to six. The Sebring 1000 Miles has been cancelled outright, but the WEC says it is also still aiming to reschedule the Spa round, almost certainly for a date before Le Mans.
Taking the date Spa was originally going to take place before it was shifted to avert a Formula E clash, May 2, it would imply a six-week gap to Le Mans. That would put the Spa fixture on August 8, with the Le Mans test day following on September 6 (the 24-hour bike race at the French track has been moved by a week to make space for this).
Of course, nobody can say at this stage whether Europe will be in a fit state to resume hosting motorsport by early August. But let’s assume for the sake of argument it will be.
And so, what about the 2020/21 campaign, which will usher in the new LM Hypercar era? Well, it’s clear for one thing that the Silverstone fixture on September 6 will have to move, given it’s almost certain that date is now being reserved for the test day. But where to?
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A useful precedent is the last ‘normal’ WEC season in 2017, which featured a four-week gap between Le Mans and the following race at the Nurburgring. That would put the 2020/21 opener on October 18, but given that a pre-season test had been scheduled for the week leading up to Silverstone, more realistic would be October 25.
This poses two problems for Silverstone. For one, by late October, the weather in the UK is less than ideal, with fewer daylight hours to play with – which is why the British track pushed to move to late August/early September from its traditional April date.
Secondly, the Fuji race is due to take place on November 1 and running Silverstone in mid-to-late October doesn’t give the series enough time to freight everything over to Japan, arguably a more important race for the WEC given Fuji is owned by Toyota.
The weather at Monza (currently scheduled to host round two on October 4) would no doubt be better, but for the same reason it’s hard to see how the Italian venue could realistically fit in before Fuji. And in some ways, having the hypercar era open at the home track for the only major manufacturer taking part would make sense.
And yet, there are still stumbling blocks in such a scenario. The first is that Fuji would not be in a very good position to hold a pre-season test, given how far it is from Europe and how congested its calendar is with SUPER GT, Super Formula and other domestic Japanese series, which will all likely be vying for dates for their postponed races to take place in the autumn.
The second is that the WEC may baulk at the prospect of opening the season outside of Europe, although that did happen back in the inaugural 2012 campaign at Sebring. But if Fuji can’t retain its current date, there’s a danger it may not happen at all in 2020.
Were that to be the case, it logically leads to the prospect of opening the campaign in Bahrain on December 5, which may not be a bad compromise solution. The weather in December in the Gulf state isn’t a problem, and holding a pre-season test there would fairly straightforward. In fact, the date is late enough that a proper Prologue test in Europe could be arranged beforehand if such a move had the support of teams.
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Arranging the calendar after that could get tricky, though, if we assume that four more races at the very least need to be squeezed in before Le Mans on June 12-13, 2021.
If Kyalami, Sebring, Spa and Le Mans all proceeded on their scheduled dates, that would give us five races, one shy of the minimum. Fuji being held in the spring can more or less be ruled out because of the havoc it would wreak on the carefully assembled sea-freight schedule, which leaves placing either Monza or Silverstone before Le Mans.
Perhaps one of those races could be scheduled for, say, two weeks after Spa, still leaving a gap of a few weeks to the Le Mans test day. But having only six races scheduled leaves the WEC with no breathing space should a race need to be cancelled unexpectedly.
What if then the WEC took the opportunity to move back to a traditional calendar, and kick off the season at Kyalami in February? Then Sebring would naturally follow in March, then Spa in April, Le Mans back in its regular date in June, Silverstone and Monza in the summer, Fuji in October and Bahrain in November.
Such a move would at the very least ensure that Toyota had a rival hypercar to race against, with Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus targeting a Kyalami debut for its SCG 007. Toyota would also no doubt welcome more chance to refine its GR Super Sport-based contender, given how tight the timeframe for building its new challenger has been and the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic on its preparations.
Ok, so Le Mans would no longer be the title-decider, but having the championships decided on the day of the biggest race does not seem to have yielded much benefit. The races that take place after Le Mans in the calendar year have not seen any meaningful boost in popularity, and in 2019 in three of the four classes the winners at La Sarthe also won the titles anyway – and there’s no prize for guessing which of those achievements attracted more column inches.
It was the withdrawal of Porsche from LMP1 that provided the catalyst for the superseason and the transition to a winter calendar – so why not make a virtue of necessity and use the coronavirus crisis to put the WEC back in line with the rest of the sportscar racing world?
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