Excerpt from The Paddock Magazine
NICO HÜLKENBERG’S VICTORY AT LE MANS PAVES THE WAY FOR FORMULA 1 DRIVERS INTO THE WEC AND TRIGGERS A BOOM OF TOP LEVEL ENDURANCE RACING: DOES THE WEC SUPERSEDE FORMULA 1 AS THE NEW PINNACLE OF MOTORSPORT?
Sometimes, the most incredible tales are still written on tarmac. Stories of legendary bravery and heroic deeds that make us shiver from excitement and listen carefully, so that we’ll be able to tell our children’s children one day. Like that time back in 2015, when three rookie drivers went on to win one of the hardest and most acclaimed motorsport events of all time – the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
At first attempt, the newly formed crew of Nico Hülkenberg, Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy claimed Porsche’s 17th overall victory at the Sarthe and gave the Weissach squad their eagerly awaited first triumph since their return to the highest level of endurance racing in 2014 – exactly 45 years after their first overall victory in Le Mans. It was not only the first season for each one of the youngsters in a prototype sportscar, but also the first time for Nico Hülkenberg and Earl Bamber to ever drive a 24 Hours race, as well as their debut performance on this particular track. Despite their lack of experience, the three LMP class rookies drove a sensationally faultless race and rocked the prestigious classic event, stoically making their rounds day and night on the 13.629 km track.
It was an especially important victory for the 27-year-old German Nico Hülkenberg, who has been unable to demonstrate his true talent in Formula 1 for the past five seasons, having driven for teams that were incapable of providing him with a competitive car and finding himself in a rather uncertain situation at Force India, who are financially struggling and yearn for sponsorship support from well-funded drivers. Having yet to finish on the podium in Formula 1, Hülkenberg’s triumph in the famous endurance race was therefore hugely significant and demonstrated a number of things above and beyond his own driving capabilities: firstly, as the first active Formula 1 driver to win the event since Johnny Herbert in 1991, Nico set an example for the other pilots who may regard a second foot in the WEC as an opportunity to gain fame, recognition and sponsorship, but also to take part in a racing series that is more open and more fun to drive. This not only strengthens the reputation of the World Endurance Championship at a time when Formula 1 is struggling with tight regulations and improper advantages of big teams, but also opens up to a scenario where top racing drivers could enter multiple competitions, like they used to in the good old days of racing.
Secondly, Nico was able to improve his standing with Porsche and will have a strong position when negotiating his contracts for next year, both in Formula 1, but certainly also in the WEC. It is more than likely that Hülkenberg, being a winner of the hardest endurance race in the world on a mere two-race deal with Porsche, will now reconsider his options in Formula 1 and, if not offered anything at the front of the grid next year, may well decide to become a full-time driver in the WEC. This is a possibility that may suddenly become an attractive solution for other top pilots as well, especially after their teams loosened restrictions on the contractual side.
As a consequence, the success of an active Formula 1 driver at the Sarthe not only put a spotlight on Le Mans, but also on the World Endurance Championship as a whole. Since its inception in 2012, the series has grown with popularity amongst enthusiasts and has become an authentic alternative to the self-proclaimed pinnacle of motorsport. While Formula 1 is struggling with decreasing audience figures, empty grandstands and a complicated rule set that makes for a lot of criticism and an overly technical media coverage, the World Endurance Championship offers better value for money, not only for its fans, but also for the manufacturers and suppliers who can make greater use of the developments in their road car programmes. This has resulted in the return of Toyota, Porsche and, from next year onwards, Ford, while McLaren and BMW are said to consider entries in the GT and LMP categories as early as 2017.
Photo credit © Porsche AG