The midweek news that Peugeot will withdraw with immediate effect from sportscar racing sent shockwaves reverberating throughout the motorsport community. The French manufacturer cited falling sales of its cars in Europe as their reason for the withdrawal and a desire to focus on providing cars more suitable for today’s markets as being more important that racing at the highest level.
While in theory that sounds like a reasonable decision it does little to console the sportscar community which had been looking forward to a bright future with the inaugural World Endurance Championship due to start in March. The battle between Audi and Peugeot at the front of the field was the centre piece of this championship.
Over the course of the last four seasons Peugeot is the only manufacturer to have challenged Audi and their 2009 Le Mans 24 Hours success was the pinnacle of their achievements. With an all new car, the diesel powered 908, racing last year the Intercontinental Le Mans series saw incredibly close racing between the pair with the highlight undoubtedly being Audi’s victory, by a 30s margin at Le Mans.
With world championship status being given to an endurance championship for the first time since the nineties this season promised to be one of the most compelling in year’s for a discipline that had been on its knees just ten years ago.
This announcement could once more plunge sportscar racing into a trough. With Toyota only racing in selected races this year and other manufacturers such as Porsche still at least two years from competing the trophy for the inaugural World Endurance Championship can already be guaranteed to feature Audi as the manufacturer.
Series where only a single car can realistically win races are destined to offer little excitement to the paying public and while the battles in the lower classes will be intense this year it is only the LMP1 class that garners column inches.
It is ironic that the main reason that the WEC will struggle for attention in 2012 is because Peugeot withdrew from the series at the last minute. The manufacturer had been instrumental in forcing the FIA, the sport’s governing body, to provide the status of a fully fledged world championship for endurance racing if they were to continue racing at this level.
With world championship status bestowed on endurance racing it seemed that a return to the golden era would occur. As it is now though there is little hope of that until next season at the earliest and it is still hard to imagine circumstances where the white hot battle Audi and Peugeot is replicated anytime soon.
Both companies pushed each other to every increasing heights over the last years with their diesel powered coupes and while Peugeot held the upper hand in pure performance in recent years the Audi was generally the more flexible and reliable. This turned when Audi revealed a new car in 2010 that was more aggressive and pushed the boundaries much closer to the edge.
The Ingolstadt based squad finally had a foe worthy of competition after dominating the sportscar domain for the better part of a decade. It had been thought that the proud Peugeot factory would have hit back this year after missing out on the biggest prize of all but alas only the memories of those successes now remain.
It will be interesting to see how the WEC handles this pullout. The contrast in statements released by the WEC heavy hitters and the American Le Mans Series were stark. The ALMS has benefitted from the spectacle of the Audi, Peugeot battle and with the WEC now making the American series less relevant there was little to be gain from being critical of the manufacturer.
“While the announcement of Peugeot ending its factory participation in endurance racing comes as a real disappointment,” said ALMS CEO Scott Anderson. “It should not diminish the remarkable achievements that it accomplished in its return to factory prototype competition.”
“Its clashes with Audi at Le Mans and in the American Le Mans Series provided fantastic competition and drama on sportscar racing’s largest stages.”
Le Mans organisers, the ACO, and the FIA however were much more open with their thoughts. The ACO has longed for a world championship and was keen to show the teams committed to the series that there is still strength in the WEC and in a bullish statement they did not even name Peugeot as they give little credence to the withdrawal will have a negative effect on the future of the championship:
“The Automobile Club de l’Ouest deeply regrets the departure of the French manufacturer,” it said in an official statement. “Nevertheless with the creation of the new FIA World Endurance Championship, the future of the discipline promises [to be] more prestigious than ever. The grids of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the FIA World Endurance Championship 2012 promise to be well filled. Many entries have been registered, some from major manufacturers, proof that automobile endurance racing is healthy and dynamic.”
The FIA statement from President Jean Todt, the former Peugeot team boss, revealed little of their thoughts but once more showed steely determination from the Frenchman:
“To lose such a strong player like Peugeot is bad news, indicating what a tough period the automotive industry is going through, and this group in particular,” Todt conceded. “I believe that it is especially true that in tough times one should find ways of expressing full commitment, rather than pulling out. But we can only respect their choice and hope that they can come back soon at the highest level of motorsport.”
It remains to be seen just when they will return to the highest level of the sport but one thing is for certain, until a worthy successor appears the challenge presented from Audi will simply be to finish races.