The FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) is the official world championship for sports cars. As a newcomer, the more than 30 cars and the long races may seem a little unfamiliar. To give you an easy introduction, we clarify the most important questions in our guide “WEC Beginner’s Guide: About the FIA WEC”. How to be best prepared to actively follow your first WEC race.
Endurance across four classes
The FIA WEC is a fully-fledged FIA World Championship that holds races around the globe. The starting line-ups can often include more than thirty cars in four different categories. At Le Mans, there are even up to sixty cars. Factory entries from Toyota and Glickenhaus in LMH and Ferrari and Porsche in LMGTE-Pro compete with private teams from all four classes.
The key to the WEC is in the name – endurance. The races this season range from six hours at circuits such as Spa-Francorchamps and Monza to eight hours at Portimão and 24 hours at the season highlight at Le Mans. This makes it possible to develop a real strategy and demands a lot from the teams. Cars that are on pole or fast in the early stages of the race do not always have to be at the front in the later stages of the race. This is not least due to the fact that the time period offers a lot of room for weather changes and temperature fluctuations. Another factor is leaving the driver’s seat and handing over to a teammate. The key to success lies in the race strategy.
Freedom in design
Another important feature of the WEC is the set of rules. Sports car racing has always allowed more freedom in its regulations than other series – and that also applies to the FIA WEC. In the top prototype category, many factory teams combine their combustion engines with a hybrid system. Private teams, on the other hand, rely on simpler, normally aspirated engines to keep costs as low as possible. In LMP2, restrictions apply in terms of chassis and engine choice to keep overall costs down. In GTE Pro and GTE Am cars, a Balance of Performance system is used to ensure that the different GTE cars are well matched on track.
This level of freedom in the top class allows a wide performance window, from smaller engines putting out 460 hp to experimental hybrid power units generating in excess of 1,000 hp. Manufacturers are free to try out their latest innovations, almost always with a focus on their road-going models. Racing has long since been considered the ultimate test environment, with components taken to their absolute limits before trickling down into the kind of cars seen on the road. Road-relevance has become one of the key tenets of the FIA WEC concept, particularly in the top-level LMP1 category, and is a permanent fixture of the rulebook.
LMH and LMP2
Endurance racing has always followed a “multi-class concept“, which means that different categories of cars race on the same track at the same time. With a total of four classes, the WEC is no exception. These can essentially be divided into two main classes, the prototypes and the GTE cars . The prototype class is primarily aimed at car, engine and vehicle manufacturers looking for an environment in which they can put their latest developments and innovations through their paces. The characteristic shape of these prototype race cars dates back to the 1970s, when the focus was on technological innovations rather than resemblance to the road car.
The prototype category is divided into two classes: LMH (in which factory teams are allowed) and LMP2 (exclusively for privateers). LMH is the top class of prototypes and has factory cars from the Japanese manufacturer Toyota and the American sports car manufacturer Glickenhaus. Peugeot and Ferrari will join them in the coming years. LMP2 is the second prototype category in which private teams can compete with a mix of professional and semi-professional drivers. Privateer teams can purchase one of four spec chassis from Oreca, Onroak Automotive (Ligier), Dallara and Riley/Multimatic and combine them with the spec 4.2-litre V8 engine from Gibson.
(LM)GTE Pro and (LM)GTE Am
The second major category is known as the GTE category. It is the home of racing cars that are very similar to the look of sports cars and could be driven on the road. Similar to the prototypes, there are two classes for “professionals” and “privateers”. In the first class, the GTE Pro, Ferrari and Porsche fight for the world championship. The cars are driven by professional drivers. This class is the true home of the mission statement “win on Sunday, sell on Monday”. Technical ability and the prestige of victory are the focus of all factory teams.
The GTE Am class is the smallest of the four classes and hosts private teams with so-called “gentleman drivers”. The cooperation between amateur drivers and professional racing drivers has a long tradition in endurance racing. In the GTE Am class, theoretically anyone with the necessary financial means and the appropriate racing licence can participate. GTE Am teams are generally only allowed to drive GTE cars that are at least one year old. Therefore, the factory teams’ cars from the previous season are usually used.
As GTE cars are usually between 15 and 45 seconds slower than the LMH cars at the front of the grid, the multi-class concept means that overtaking by the prototypes is almost constant. The general rule of thumb is that slower cars hold their line while the faster cars are responsible for overtaking safely. However, the constant vigilance and intuition required increases the pressure on the drivers and adds an extra polish to the race.
Innovation from track to road
The FIA World Endurance Championship is the true home of motorsport innovation – because endurance racing has been around practically since its beginnings some 100 years ago. The sole aim in those early days was to test brand new technologies under the toughest conditions, and to do so in racing. Windscreen wipers, disc brakes and headlights, components we take for granted today, were all put through their paces at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and other endurance races in the 20th century.
Modern endurance racing is no different. Although the prototypes bear few visual resemblances to our own cars, the top class of the WEC has been the home of cutting-edge technology for road cars. In the past, Audi, Peugeot, Porsche and Nissan, among others, have viewed the LMP1 class as an extension of their research and development departments. Each manufacturer pursues its own specific overall concept. Porsche’s road car technologies, such as the hybrid system in the 918 Spyder, were put through their paces in the 919 Hybrid, while Toyota continues to successfully use its hybrid technology in both racing and road cars. This combined approach is experiencing a new upswing with the successor class LMH (Le Mans Hypercar). Manufacturers such as Ferrari, Glickenhaus, Peugeot and Toyota test their innovations here and then adopt them in production vehicles.
Efficiency alongside optimum performance
Efficiency is one of the key factors in our society and this is also an area where the World Endurance Championship excels. LMH cars are given a fuel quantity for each race that they are not allowed to exceed. Although this amount is reduced slightly each year, LMH cars still achieve the same level of performance as the previous year. The focus is on innovation and development, without compromising on performance. This also has a positive effect on the cars we drive on the road.
The variety is not just limited to the top class of prototypes, it also permeates the entire WEC field. From the screech of the Toyota GR010 Hybrid, to the deep scream of the Porsche 911 RSR, there is something for everyone. Unlike most other racing series, it is actually possible to close your eyes in the grandstands and recognise each individual car by the sound of its engine.
Racing in stints
Endurance racing, especially the FIA WEC, is a unique form of motorsport. In it, a group of drivers form a team that races with just one car. In the WEC’s six- to eight-hour races, the cars are usually split between three drivers, or sometimes two drivers, who complete so-called “stints”. A stint is the time the car spends on the track between pit stops. In most cases, the stint lasts until the car has used a full tank of fuel. Stint lengths vary from class to class, but are usually between 45 minutes and 1 hour.
Stint lengths and driver changes add another strategic element to WEC races, as teams do not necessarily have to change drivers and tyres at every pit stop. In fact, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, it is common for the top drivers to complete four or even five stints in a row, which equates to around 3 hours in the car.
All drivers are graded from Platinum to Bronze, depending on a variety of factors such as experience, age and performance. In the LMP2 and GTE-Am classes, where gentleman drivers are combined with professional drivers in the same team, this grading aims to level the playing field and prevent teams from simply putting together a purely professional driver team.
The best drivers in the world
Sports car and endurance racing has always been a second chance for Formula One drivers who may not have been given the opportunities they deserved. The 2013 WEC World Champions and multiple Le Mans winners Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish are proof of this. However, due to the lack of entry points into the current Formula One paddock, or the funding required, many young, talented drivers are making their way into endurance racing.
Talent is promoted through a specially established tier system: in sister hearts such as the ELMS, drivers can already gain experience with prototypes in the LMP3 class before moving to the WEC in the LMP2 or even LMH categories. The current Toyota drivers Mike Conway and Brendon Hartley, for example, attracted the attention of the factory teams with their performances in LMP2.
Unlike other motorsports, the FIA WEC is a series where consistent and focused drivers are richly rewarded. The focus in the race is not only on top speed – even though it is sometimes quite possible. Rather, it is about maintaining an optimum average over several hours. Drivers who find a balance between tyre wear, fuel consumption and speed will truly excel.