Once upon a time, sportscar racing was the biggest thing in motorsport. Yes, single-seaters have always been there too, but did you know that even the Monte Carlo Grand Prix was a sportscar race for a couple of years? When Grand Prix went Formula 1 in the early 1950s.
It’s deeper than that though. Sports car racing per se has been around since the 1920s. Did you know that the Le Mans 24-hour is 100 years old this year? And that sportscar racing has its roots in circuit racing as much as it does in the great road races. The Mille Miglia, Targa Florio, Carrera Panamericana, and others?
The greatest races on earth
Anyway, sportscar racing evolved over the years and has been a championship of sorts since the early 1950s. The series has perennially included the greatest races. From the Le Mans 24 Hour to the Daytona 24 and Sebring 12 Hours, 1000 km races at the Nürburgring and Spa, Monza, and Fuji, all three of where the WEC still races today. Add races at Brands Hatch and Silverstone, Buenos Aires, the Watkins Glen 6 Hour, Kyalami 9 Hour and more. Legendary races one and all.
Back in the 1970s, World Sportscar Championship was just as important as Formula 1, to the grand prix drivers of the day. Superhero drivers from Mario Andretti to Jacky Ickx, Ronnie Peterson, JP Jarier, Henri Pescarolo and so many more dovetailed their F1 programs with endurance races.
Many preferred the long-distance races, and it stayed that way through to the 1990s. Sports Car racing has also been bigger to the likes of Ferrari, Porsche, Mercedes, Ford, Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Matra, Jaguar, Peugeot, Audi, Toyota, and many other manufacturers, than F1 was, depending on the era. Yes, of course, F1 has more recently stolen many of the headlines, while sportscar racing hit the doldrums in the early ‘90s.
It certainly bounced back towards the end of the last millennium and the World Endurance Championship has enjoyed relative strength ever since. But there’s been a certain shift of late. The World Endurance Championship is once again demanding the attention it so richly deserves among its premiere world motorsport series rivals. So much so, that the road to Le Mans in 2023 is more important today, than it has probably been in over half a century.
Smart new WEC rules paved the Road to Le Mans
New rules were implemented at the beginning of 2022. Carmakers and race teams now have the choice of two new top class endurance rule sets to race to, and win. Known as Hypercars, one option is to go from the ground-up and build a limited number of bespoke cars confirming to a strict set of rules, like Toyota and Ferrari.
The other option is known as LMDh. It uses one of four specific WEC specification chassis dressed in the carmaker, or team’s own bodywork. Its engine is coupled to a series specification hybrid electric motor and battery. A balance of performance system equalises performance across the Hypercar class field.
The response to the new rules was phenomenal. The World Endurance Championship, the jewel in its crown Le Mans 24 Hour, and its American IMSA cousin are back with a vengeance. And then some. Not only will Toyota continue on from a successful start to its World Endurance title defence at Sebring in March, but it’s after a sweet sixth Le Mans victory in a row in June. This time the Japanese super brand has more competition. Far more competition, to be precise.
Ferrari vs Porsche vs Toyota vs Cadillac
Not only is Porsche back following a five-season WEC hiatus, but so is Ferrari, a full fifty years on. If Sebring was anything to go by, neither of them is to be scoffed at. Ferrari shocked with pole position in its US debut earlier this year and ended third behind the Toyotas. Porsche impressed too. As did Cadillac and Peugeot, never mind specialist teams Glickenhaus and Vanwall. As Lamborghini, BMW, Acura-Honda and others wait in the wings.
There’s also a great field of top drivers in second division LMP2. And don’t ignore the GTs. Where racing versions of Ferrari and Porsche’s street supercars continue their eternal endurance battle with Corvette and Aston Martin too.
Such is the interest in the WEC and Le Mans, that this year’s 24 Hour race is completely sold out. All 300,000 spectator tickets are accounted for. So, reading between the lines, sportscar racing is back. With a bang.
As such, we will be taking a far closer interest in sportscar racing from here on in. And to celebrate, we will take you with on our Road to Le Mans. Starting this coming weekend, the WEC is off to Portugal for the Portimão 6 Hours. Then there’s just a fortnight between before another 6 Hour race at a classic sportscar circuit, Spa Francorchamps.
The World Endurance Championship than takes a month and a half off as it prepares for the big one. This year’s Le Mans 24 Hour really is big. Not only is it the centenary race, but it’s also 50 years since Ferrari last raced for overall glory as a factory team. Never mind the might of Toyota, with Cadillac and Porsche right in there too.
WEC Portimão next on Road to Le Mans, this weekend
Starting at Portimão, Gazoo Racing will be out to keep both its Toyota GR010 Hybrids ahead of the greatest racing teams on earth. Sebring winners, Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and José María López, and second place’s Sébastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley and Ryo Hirakawa are charged with doing just that. Judging by Sebring, their biggest trouble will come from brand new Ferrari 499P crews Miguel Molina, Antonio Fuoco and Nicklas Nielsen in the #50 car, and James Calado, Antonio Giovinazzi, and Alessandro Pier Guidi in the #51 car.
Cadillac also starred at home and Earl Bamber, Alex Lynn and Richard Westbrook will be keen to step up from fourth in their V Series R. Porsche won’t be happy with fifth and sixth for its 963s at Sebring. Dane Cameron, Michael Christensen, and Frédéric Makowiecki, and Kévin Estre, André Lotterer and Laurens Vanthoor may just be under pressure to score in Portugal. Not quite as much pressure as Peugeot’s two 9X8 crews, Vanwall, or Glickenhaus. They had races to forget in the ‘States. All of them have the added pressure of two more privateer Porsches at Portimão.
Behind the Hypercars, the LMP2 pack, which races slightly less powerful, non-hybrid racing prototypes. Driven by Robert Kubica, Daniil Kvyat, Pietro Fittipaldi, Mirko Bortolotti, and Filipe Albuquerque et al. Racing a gang of Oreca Gibson V8s and the like for teams Jota, United, Prema and Poland Inter Europol. And of course the GTs. Porsche, Ferrari, and Aston Martin will be out to make good. For their GTE Am 911 RSRs, 488 GTEs and Vantage AMR being humbled by a lone Corvette at Sebring.
So, starting at Portimão this weekend, join us on our Road to Le Mans. World Endurance racing is back on the up and up. And we will be following it every step of the way!