Was the 2016 Formula One calendar specifically set up to spite the World Endurance Championship, or do the different FIA championships totally neglect to talk to each other? Either way, it’ll be hard to see many F1 crossover drives next year in WEC, as six of its nine races conflict with F1 dates. Ugh. Why?
The most egregious conflict on that schedule is none other than the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which now has to share a weekend with a brand-new F1 Baku European Grand Prix. Where is Baku, you ask? It’s the capital of Azerbaijan, an oppressive dictatorship whose leadership keeps trying to gloss over their sketchy image by hosting sporting events. It’s a location perhaps best known in motorsport for dropping the ball on the Blancpain series ender this year and losing it to Zandvoort.
Even though Baku’s new Hermann Tilke-designed street course promises to be slightly less entertaining than watching paint dry, the fact that Baku is a new race for 2016 guarantees that fan and media interest will be split between the French endurance classic and F1’s newest circuit.
Worse yet, this issue isn’t just a problem with Baku and Le Mans. Four other WEC races run on the same day as an F1 grand prix, and one more runs on the same weekend. To the FIA’s credit, a note on the F1 schedule for next year states that the race in Baku will start after the conclusion of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but it’s the only one with such a caveat listed.
It’s hard not to suspect some element of favoritism in the decision to allow F1 to run on the same weekends as the WEC. Baku’s dong-like track layout literally draws a penis on top of Le Mans weekend, for Pete’s sake. It’s the ultimate snub.
Bernie Ecclestone isn’t a popular figure in endurance racing, going all the way back to when Group C was thriving in the WEC’s predecessor series, the World Sportscar Championship. Motor Sport Magazine’s report from the era recalls that as vice president of the FIA in 1991, Ecclestone convinced the FIA to introduce Formula One-style engines into the WSC. According to Sportsracers.co.uk, these engines were introduced under the guise of cost savings, but they were extremely expensive, which led to the demise of the WSC in 1993. Many manufacturers, now knowing that they could build for Formula One and get more exposure on roughly the same budget, simply went to F1 instead of staying in sportscar racing, per Motor Sport Retro.
F1 has always been Bernie’s and the FIA’s preferred “pinnacle of racing,” so the idea that they’d want to bump Le Mans and the rest of the WEC calendar down a notch seems plausible. F1 putting a regular series race on Le Mans weekend makes it look as if the FIA believes that the WEC’s biggest race of the season is no big deal.
Staggering the start times on Le Mans weekend is only a half-baked solution, anyway. Booking a garbage grand prix right on the same weekend as Le Mans doesn’t just scatter fans’ attention, but it effectively prevents drivers, crew and teams from F1 from dabbling in the WEC.
This is a prime example of the FIA shooting itself in the foot so as not to risk the preeminence of F1. Winning Le Mans was a huge career boost for F1 driver Nico Hülkenberg last year, and he even seemed more confident after that win when he was back in an F1 car. He went from just another mid-fielder to a hot commodity overnight. Both series got a great PR bump from the move, so it was a win-win situation to let Hülkenberg drive for Porsche in Le Mans.
Unfortunately, he won’t be doing that this year because of the ridiculous weekend conflict with Baku. According to Crash.net, Hülkenberg had already indicated to Porsche and Force India that he’d like to return to Le Mans this year. Porsche LMP1 team principal Andreas Seidl also confirmed that they’d love to have him back in 2016 to Autosport ahead of F1’s schedule announcement.
However, after the F1 schedule was released, Hülkenberg confirmed that a return to Le Mans in 2016 isn’t likely unless the schedule changes again and frees up that weekend.
“I am committed to do F1,” Hülkenberg told Motorsport.com of the schedule conflict. “That is my main job, my main target here.”
It’s not hard to understand why Hülkenberg would stick with his primary duties in F1 instead of running Porsche’s third 919 LMP1 next year. F1, for all its drama and woe this year, is still the FIA’s most hyped top-level series. It has the best international television package and recognizability as a series, so of course that’s still where you want to be as a driver. He’s committed to succeeding there, and part of that involves making every race on the schedule. Over in WEC, Porsche’s third 919 only runs at Spa and Le Mans as a Le Mans special. It’s a part-time gig, but that still doesn’t mean Hülkenberg isn’t disappointed to lose the opportunity.
Of course, media, fans and others who attend these races in person also have the same conflict as the drivers and crew who’d like to hop onto a Le Mans team: when two top-level series share the same weekend, you have to pick and choose where you go.
For some members of the media, that choice for Le Mans weekend might be made for them. Articles like this one would probably earn me a ban from the quite un-free country, just for pointing out that most of their elections have been a sham and their human rights record blows. That’s exactly what happened when Baku hosted the European Games this year, and I fully expect a royal mess after some credentialed F1 media who haven’t been coddling Azerbaijan and the FIA about this grand prix are refused entry to the country.
Thing is, this wouldn’t be a difficult scheduling conflict to solve. Normally grands prix are about two weeks apart. The Baku European Grand Prix, however, is only one week after the Canadian Grand Prix. Neither the WEC Prologue or Le Mans test days conflict with F1. The traditional run-up to Le Mans where teams debut their expanded line-ups — the 6 Hours of Spa — isn’t a conflict with F1. Only the 24 Hours of Le Mans conflicts. Move the Baku date one week later, and there’s no longer an issue.
There’s no reason why F1 and the WEC can’t coexist as the top levels of their respective styles of road racing. They’re entirely different pursuits. Motorsports’ ability to grow and attract new fans should always be put ahead of a dictator’s short-term ability to give F1 cash, lest we all suffer as a result.
Photo credits: Getty Images
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