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2024 – Could this be Sportscar Racing’s greatest year?

For the last decade, and certainly since the high point of the FIA WEC’s LMP1 class with Toyota, Porsche and Audi competing for 24 Hours of Le Mans glory, commentators have been saying we are living in a ‘Golden Age’ for sportscar racing. Removing the considerable challenges of the COVID years, there is no doubt that motorsport has seen a huge uplift in interest with GT and prototype championships having benefited massively from a new fan base.

The rise in interest in largely internal combustion engine-powered sport would seem, at this stage in the early 21st century, to be counter-intuitive. We are told that a generation of sports enthusiasts below the age of 30 are largely uninterested in personal car ownership. There are exceptions of course but private vehicle ownership is now considerably more expensive than it was even ten years ago, restrictions on where and how vehicles can be driven are more onerous (ask any driver trying to drive within the UK’s M25 about 20 mph speed limits!) and costs are only going one way.

Governments around the world are now pursuing an ‘all-electric’ agenda with a view to removing internal combustion as a means of motive power. Dates for new ICE sales bans range from 2035 onwards and it was only recently that the UK government rolled back from a proposed ban beginning in 2030. However, regardless of what political changes are announced in 2024, some of the world’s major automotive manufacturers are already planning to stop selling ICE-only-powered cars in many countries from 2030.

The political decisions largely mirror what society is demanding in terms of sustainable and ecologically acceptable solutions to transportation.

Given all of these ‘anti-ICE’ discussions and decisions, why does motorsport continue to grow in popularity? How is Formula 1 regularly racing at new circuits and the 24 Hours of Le Mans a sell-out event? Let’s look at some of the factors that have influenced this

Photo: Paren Raval

‘Drive To Survive’ and Social Media

The past ten years has seen a seismic shift in how we communicate with each other. Long gone are the days when we, as a rule, relied on a daily newspaper and the evening news to advise us on current events. Social media now rules the communication landscape with recent research showing that nearly half of ‘Gen Z’ adults (aged 18 to 24) are now spending between two and more than four hours daily reviewing social media. Companies are now experts in engagement and the production of content. The social media ‘influencer’, once a figure of scorn, is now a key part of the marketing mix for organisations and sports series. In short, corporations now know what buttons to press to turn our attention and engagement into sales and views of streamed content.

‘Drive to Survive’ has been a phenomenon. The F1 reality show is largely attributed in re-igniting US interest in a racing series that was regarded as European and irrelevant to the average NASCAR and IndyCar enthusiast. The trickle-down effect of the popularity of ‘Drive to Survive’ cannot be underestimated, too, encouraging series organisers such as IMSA and the FIA WEC as well as national series and teams to overhaul their video content.

YouTubers such as Nürburgring-based Misha Charoudin have brought excellent sportscar and GT content to a new generation of GT fans who perhaps thought that the Nordschliefe was an historic relic.

To build on this, on-line communities such as ‘Sportscar Worldwide’ and ‘SPR Motorsport.com’ are bringing together fans on a global scale that was unthinkable in the pre-Facebook and Instagram era,

Sim Racing

On-line racing, which already had a huge fanbase globally, exploded in popularity through the pandemic. Race organisers such as the WEC and Stephane Ratel’s SRO Motorsports Group quickly embraced on-line motorsports and professional racecar teams around the world rapidly established their own sim racing teams. With the ability to live-stream on-line racing, a whole new generation of enthusiasts were introduced to Le Mans, the Nürburgring, Bathurst, Monza and many other circuits.

Once interested in, and maybe a participant of, on-line racing, it is not much of a leap to want to attend real-life events at circuits only seen previously on a computer screen.

Photo: Paren Raval

Series Organisers

Of course, a huge part of the explosion of interest in endurance and GT racing must be attributed to the series organisers who have skilfully worked to deliver championships that appeal to manufacturers, teams, drivers and spectators. The work of the FIA and ACO in developing the Hypercar class for World Endurance Championship competition was a stroke of genius, matched only by IMSA’s work on the LMDh (Le Mans Daytona Hybrid’ class for US-based racing.

But perhaps the greatest piece of work was the collaboration between the two organisations to allow Hypercars to compete against LMDh entries in both IMSA and WEC competition and vica versa. Finally manufacturers could compete not only on world stage but also in front of highly knowledgeable US fans. To balance performance in these two categories was not the work of a moment but it was that initiative, combined with intra-class performance balancing, that unlocked global sportscar racing at the highest level for, for example, Porsche, who can now produce customer cars for both IMSA and WEC competition safe in the knowledge that they are not going to be part of an ‘arms race’ of spending, the like of which partially destroyed the LMP1 class.

But perhaps the most significant development has been the universal adoption of GT3 regulations for the senior GT classes in both IMSA and WEC and for that the sportscar world owes a huge debt of gratitude to SRO Motorsports Group. It was Stéphane Ratel’s company that developed the GT3 class in the mid-2000s and although the death knell for the class was prematurely announced in the late 2010s, GT3 racing has grown in popularity to the point that there was little to be gained by attempting to continue, at huge cost to manufacturers and their teams, racing with GTE-spec machines.

2024 the greatest year in the history of sportscar racing?

So.. to answer the question set at the start; could this be sportscar racing’s greatest year? Most certainly it could be. Nine manufacturers are entered in the Hypercar class for the 2024 FIA World Endurance Championship. Five manufacturers are entered in the GTP class for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Manufacturers like Lamborghini and BMW are back in the senior class at the world’s greatest endurance race. GT grids are expected to be packed across the whole spectrum of national and continental competitions. The 24 Hours of Le Mans sold out within hours. Grandstands and the infield will be packed for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

In addition, a whole new generation of racing enthusiasts is engaging with sportscar racing in way that we haven’t seen since perhaps the 1960s when endurance racing was almost on a par with Formula 1.

All the factors mentioned above are part of the reason why we have seen this resurgence of interest. But there is something else. Something possibly unspoken, sensed only when enthusiasts meet to reminisce about races past. The sense that this could be the end-game or maybe the ‘beginning of the end’ as a famous UK Prime Minister once said. The sense that ICE-powered motorsport has a ‘use-by’ date that is now in sight. That the opportunity to witness hugely powerful racing machines thunder past the grandstands in the early hours of a Sunday morning may soon be a thing of the past.

It’s a sobering thought but it only takes one ‘green-leaning’ national government to outlaw the use internal combustion engines for sporting purposes for others to follow. Fingers crossed it never comes to that but we’ve experienced enough ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ events in the past decade to know that what seemed impossible has a horrible habit of coming to pass.

So let’s enjoy the 2024 season for everything that it represents – a glorious combination of excellent sporting governance, focused and intelligent marketing that has opened up endurance and GT racing to whole new generation of fans, the courage and financial acumen of manufacturers to embrace the opportunities of current era, drivers, both amateur and professional, who still want to take on the world’s most demanding sporting challenges and all the women and men of teams the world over to who work tirelessly to make sure that, come race-day, there is a grid of fast, beautiful and reliable sportscars for us, the enthusiasts, to marvel at and enjoy. Oh, and don’t forget the enthusiast groups bringing us all together in a community that covers the globe.

Bring on 2024! This is going to be good!