Car manufacturers make and break motor racing. When the giants commit to Formula 1, Le Mans or rallying, they develop faster racing cars, sign big-name drivers and create a buzz – until they drop a bombshell and quit.
It’s always been this way. In the space of a year following the credit crunch of 2008, Honda, Toyota and BMW all pulled the plug on their F1 teams. From Honda’s devastating withdrawal emerged Brawn GP, which won the 2009 world title with Jenson Button, and was then snapped up by Daimler to morph into the Mercedes-AMG F1 super-team we know today. Such are the family trees of race teams.
Motorsport is an easy budget line to cut in times of review, which rang a bell when Peugeot recently announced that it will return to the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2022 with a new hypercar. Back in 2012, it caused shock waves by quitting sports car racing without warning on the eve of the new World Endurance Championship, citing a need to focus on its falling road car sales. Luckily, as Peugeot left the building, Toyota came in and filled the void to take on Audi. Without it, the WEC would have been a one-horse race – much as it has been for Toyota, in the wake of Audi’s own withdrawal, followed a year later by Porsche’s. The big car makers can never be trusted to sustain motorsport. They race only when it suits them, and the moment it doesn’t they drop it.
But while they do grace the grids, the giants create gilt-edged eras. Toyota vs Audi vs Porsche in the WEC between 2014-16 was the best of times at Le Mans, equal in its way to Ford vs Ferrari in the mid-1960s and the 1980s Group C years.
That’s why Peugeot’s Le Mans return is such great news. Toyota vs Aston Martin when the hypercar era kicks off next summer is the bare minimum to justify the WEC’s world title status. But adding a third player for 2021/22, and one with Le Mans history, vindicates the new rulebook. It’s a game changer. Let’s hope others – Lamborghini and McLaren spring to mind – join them.