The FIA World Endurance Cham­pi­onship is per­haps one of the most excit­ing world cham­pi­onships in the world right now. In its cur­rent incar­na­tion, it began in 2012. To any new fans, the FIA WEC may seem like a fledg­ling series. But in real­i­ty, organ­ised, world sports­car rac­ing can trace its roots back more than a cen­tu­ry.

Motorsport’s Beginnings

The inven­tion and ear­ly devel­op­ment of the motor car in the late 19th cen­tu­ry soon brought with it a desire for com­pe­ti­tion. One of the best ways for auto­mo­tive inven­tors to prove the worth of their con­struc­tions was to put them under scruti­ny on the open road. The ear­ly 1900s saw a series of long-dis­tance, ral­ly-like races between major cities in Europe, usu­al­ly spon­sored by nation­al news­pa­pers in France. Paris to Bor­deaux, Paris to Vien­na, Paris to Berlin, even Bei­jing to Paris – all were part of the ear­ly days of motor­sport. Strict­ly speak­ing, they were tri­als or ral­lies, not races, but the com­pet­i­tive edge was cer­tain­ly present.

These epic races were held along set routes, with jour­nal­ists rid­ing along with com­peti­tors to report on events back to the news desk. Even in those ear­ly days, some of most well-estab­lished names in the mod­ern-day auto­mo­tive indus­try were already mak­ing a name for them­selves: Renault, Peu­geot and Fiat were all per­ma­nent fix­tures in the ear­ly city-to-city races. How­ev­er, the prim­i­tive roads, lack of any basic in-car safe­ty equip­ment and dif­fi­cul­ties in polic­ing spec­ta­tors along the route meant that this type of rac­ing was extreme­ly dan­ger­ous.

The 1903 Paris – Madrid race proved to be a water­shed moment in the devel­op­ment of motor­sport. A total of 224 cars lined up on the Champs-Elysées, but only half would fin­ish. Twelve peo­ple were killed, includ­ing one of the Renault broth­ers, Mar­cel. It would be the last of the epic point-to-point races.

Creation of the World Sportscar Championship

The desire to race remained. In 1906, the Auto­mo­bile Club de France held the first-ever grand prix on closed pub­lic roads around the city of Le Mans. Mod­ern motor rac­ing was born. This sparked an explo­sion of inter­est in track-based rac­ing, with cir­cuits such as Brook­lands, Indi­anapo­lis and Mon­za built before the start of the first world war. On-track bat­tles in those ear­ly days of cir­cuit rac­ing weren’t much dif­fer­ent to the mod­ern-day equiv­a­lent. Mer­cedes-Benz, Fer­rari, Alfa Romeo and Bent­ley all built their brands by putting their auto­mo­tive tech­nol­o­gy to the test and rac­ing their peers.

The break­through in terms of organ­ised endurance rac­ing came in 1923, with the inau­gur­al 24 Heures du Mans, or Le Mans 24 Hours. It would mark the start of almost 100 years of endurance rac­ing his­to­ry around the Cir­cuit de la Sarthe, and the first run­ning of the race that is, of course, today part of the FIA World Endurance Cham­pi­onship.

Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday

The com­mon pat­tern at Le Mans is for one man­u­fac­tur­er to bring its lat­est auto­mo­tive devel­op­ment to the race and dom­i­nate for a num­ber of years, before anoth­er man­u­fac­tur­er takes up the man­tle and cements its place in endurance rac­ing his­to­ry. The 1920s undoubt­ed­ly belonged to Bent­ley, with four suc­ces­sive wins from 1927 to 1930, with Alfa Romeo then mak­ing its mark on the twice-round-the-clock clas­sic with its own four wins in suc­ces­sion in the 1930s.

After the war, the Le Mans 24 Hours cement­ed its place as one of the most pres­ti­gious prizes in motor­sport. The advent of the World Sports­car Cham­pi­onship in 1953, which com­bined the most pop­u­lar sports­car events of the era, the Le Mans 24 Hours, the Mille Miglia, the 12 Hours of Sebring, the 24 Hours of Spa and the 1000km of the Nür­bur­gring, only accel­er­at­ed the process.

These races not only pro­vid­ed the ulti­mate test bed for auto­mo­tive con­struc­tors, they also offered a plat­form to adver­tise their prod­ucts. The mot­to “win on Sun­day, sell on Mon­day” still holds to this day. Dri­ver aids that most of us now take for grant­ed, such as head­lamps, wind­screen wipers and disc brakes, were all first tri­alled in sports­car rac­ing.

Porsche Domination

Con­tin­u­ing the theme of dom­i­na­tion, the 1950s undoubt­ed­ly belonged to Jaguar and Mer­cedes-Benz, each of which record­ed cham­pi­onship vic­to­ries. In fact, the lev­el of pres­tige on offer for win­ning the World Sports­car Cham­pi­onship even attract­ed new man­u­fac­tur­ers to the fold in a bid to prove their supe­ri­or­i­ty over rival man­u­fac­tur­ers. After years of Fer­rari dom­i­na­tion at Le Mans and in the WSC in the ear­ly 1960s, Hen­ry Ford was said to be sick of “those bloody red cars” and so sent an army of spe­cial­ly engi­neered GT40s to take endurance racing’s rich­est prize to the Unit­ed States for the first time in 1966.

The 1970s marked the arrival of a man­u­fac­tur­er that turned win­ning in sports­car rac­ing into an absolute art form: Porsche. The Ger­man man­u­fac­tur­er won a record-break­ing six­teen times at Le Mans and has fif­teen World Sports­car Cham­pi­onship titles to its name. Porsche 917s, 935s and 936s went down in his­to­ry as some of the most suc­cess­ful sports­cars ever, play­ing a major part in estab­lish­ing the Porsche brand.

Group C: The Golden Era

Despite resur­gence from French man­u­fac­tur­er Matra in the mid-1970s, bring­ing France its first ever World Sports­car Cham­pi­onship title and the first vic­to­ries at Le Mans since 1950, Porsche’s dom­i­na­tion con­tin­ued into the 1980s. The intro­duc­tion of the FIA Group C reg­u­la­tions in 1982 her­ald­ed the start of what would lat­er be described as sports­car racing’s gold­en era. At the peak of Group C rac­ing, its pop­u­lar­i­ty was arguably on a par with For­mu­la 1. Porsche con­tin­ued to dom­i­nate the series, with its 956 and 962 mod­els sweep­ing up vic­to­ry after vic­to­ry in the hands of pri­va­teers such as Brun Motor­sport and Joest Rac­ing. It took until 1987 for anoth­er man­u­fac­tur­er to break Porsche’s stran­gle­hold on world sports­car rac­ing: Jaguar.

By the late-1980s, the World Sports­car Cham­pi­onship was a tru­ly glob­al affair with races in Japan, Mex­i­co and Aus­tralia along­side more famil­iar events at Spa, Le Mans and Brands Hatch. The com­peti­tors came from all four cor­ners of the world, too, with the likes of Nis­san, Toy­ota, Peu­geot and Sauber-Mer­cedes join­ing Porsche and Jaguar in the top tier of sports­car rac­ing.

The End of an Championship

In the mid-1990s, the FIA intro­duced a com­mon 3.5-litre engine for­mu­la to For­mu­la 1 and the World Sports­car Cham­pi­onship. The move proved deeply unpop­u­lar among man­u­fac­tur­ers and the engines were too expen­sive for pri­va­teers, ulti­mate­ly lead­ing to the down­fall of Group C rac­ing and the end of the World Sports­car Cham­pi­onship.

The absence of a tru­ly glob­al endurance rac­ing series last­ed almost two decades, with man­u­fac­tur­ers forced to seek alter­na­tives such as the Amer­i­can Le Mans Series (formed in 1999; Audi com­pet­ed through­out the 2000s) and the Le Mans Series (a Euro­pean-based series that trans­formed into the Euro­pean Le Mans Series with the advent of the FIA WEC) in which to race.

Filling the Void

With arch-rivals Audi and Peu­geot bat­tling tooth and nail at Le Mans from 2007 to 2011, inter­est in a glob­al sports­car cham­pi­onship returned. Launched in 2010, the Inter­con­ti­nen­tal Le Mans Cup was a “toe in the water” for the Auto­mo­bile Club d’Ouest and the FIA and rep­re­sent­ed a suc­cess­ful attempt to bring togeth­er LMP1’s top two man­u­fac­tur­ers, Audi and Peu­geot, in a full-year sports­car series rather than just once a year at Le Mans. The result was a slight­ly con­vo­lut­ed three-round cham­pi­onship com­bin­ing the ALMS race Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta with new des­ti­na­tions of Zhuhai in Chi­na and Sil­ver­stone.

The sec­ond sea­son of the ILMC saw a much beefed-up cal­en­dar with sev­en rounds across the world, from the 12-hour race at Sebring in March (in con­junc­tion with the ALMS) to a 6-hour finale at Zhuhai in Novem­ber. Cru­cial­ly, the 24 Hours of Le Mans became a cham­pi­onship race for the first time since 1992, with dou­ble cham­pi­onship points on offer for the vic­tors.

The FIA WEC is Born

The inau­gur­al FIA World Endurance Cham­pi­onship was held in 2012, fea­tur­ing eight rounds across the globe with the 24 Hours of Le Mans form­ing the cen­tre­piece. The tim­ing was per­fect, with Audi and Peu­geot set to com­pete for a gen­uine man­u­fac­tur­ers’ world cham­pi­onship and Toy­ota return­ing to the fold for the first time since the ear­ly 1990s. How­ev­er, short­ly before the sea­son was due to kick off at Sebring, Peu­geot dropped a major bomb­shell by with­draw­ing all of its motor­sport pro­grams (despite the new-for-2012 908 HY designed, built and ready for test­ing). It seemed as if the FIA WEC could be doomed to fail­ure before it had even start­ed, but, build­ing on the suc­cess of the ILMC, the FIA WEC has gone from strength to strength since that tough first sea­son.

Now almost three years old, the FIA and the ACO have attempt­ed to estab­lish the World Endurance Cham­pi­onship as an inde­pen­dent series rather than join­ing forces with the (now defunct) ALMS. The cal­en­dars have remained large­ly sta­ble, with the tra­di­tion­al 6-hour races at the likes of Spa, Fuji and Sao Paulo com­bined with the his­toric 24 hours around the Cir­cuit de la Sarthe.

Since its revival, the FIA WEC has tempt­ed the likes of Porsche and Nis­san to return to top-lev­el pro­to­type rac­ing, while the new series’ LMP2 and GT cat­e­gories have also thrived. Sports­car rac­ing hasn’t always had the eas­i­est of rides, but, in the FIA World Endurance Cham­pi­onship, the foun­da­tions have per­haps been laid for anoth­er gold­en era of mul­ti-class rac­ing.