Opinion: Is the WEC's hypercar dream already over?

Aston Martin's announcement that it is putting its hypercar programme on indefinite hiatus comes as a major blow to a formula that only got off the ground initially because of the British marque's support.

Opinion: Is the WEC's hypercar dream already over?

The Automobile Club de l'Ouest hit the nail on the head when it called Wednesday morning's announcement that the Valkyrie LM hypercar won't be on the grid for the 2020/21 FIA World Endurance Championship season "not entirely unexpected".

Speculation had been surrounding the project for some months, and Aston's silence on the state of its preparations ever since an update was provided by AMR President David King at Silverstone at the start of the 2019/20 season had become positively deafening.

Given that fundamental questions such as how many of the V12-powered cars would be on the grid, who would be running them and - most critically - who would be financing the operation went unanswered, it was clear that all was not well with Aston's preparations for a first shot at outright Le Mans 24 Hours honours since 2011.

As early as last November there was already considerable scepticism within the WEC paddock that the Valkyrie project would go ahead. Presumably this partly explains why the series decided to push for a rules convergence agreement with the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, which was signed last month during the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

WEC CEO Gerard Neveu had cryptically referred to a 'Plan B' last March during the inaugural 'Super Sebring' weekend, which was assumed to be some sort of accommodation for IMSA's next-generation DPi 2.0 rules, or what's now been officially christened as LMDh.

Back then, it was confirmed that the prototype hypercar rules as they were originally envisaged - and which had only been embraced by Toyota of the volume manufacturers - would be relaxed to allow road car-derived machinery to take part as well. It was this change that ensured Aston green-lit a project that essentially saved the hypercar formula from collapse.

At Spa in May, Toyota vented its frustration at the delays in finalising the rules, which had prevented it from starting work on its own design as soon as it would have liked. 

Following the news of Aston's plans being put on hold, one can only imagine the reaction at Cologne. Essentially, Toyota has had to significantly compress the timeline of the design and build of its GR Super Sport hypercar, with all the extra costs that entailed, for nothing.

Once again, the Japanese auto giant faces the prospect of another season racing largely against itself. That's not to denigrate the efforts of Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus or ByKolles, but it was Toyota team director Rob Leupen himself who said at Spa that the two aforementioned marques are "not a match" for his squad, a simple statement of fact.

Back then, before it was clear that the Aston Martin project would get off the ground, Motorsport.com asked Leupen whether Toyota would accept having no manufacturer competition in 2020/21. He replied: "We would do this maybe for a season, but with the expectation that the season after next that we are not the only manufacturer."

The arrival of the LMDh rules for 2021/22 should mean that it's only one more season that Toyota has to endure before it can enjoy what might be termed "proper" competition again.

But that still means that its first chance to show it can win the Le Mans 24 Hours against a team of at least vaguely comparable stature is two-and-a-half years away. In the volatile environment that is today's automobile industry, that's a long time.

Based on past pronouncements, the assumption for the moment has to be that Toyota will continue with its hypercar project and just hope fan interest in the WEC doesn't wane more than it already has since Porsche's LMP1 exit left it as the last manufacturer standing.

Switching to LMDh now isn't a viable option given that development of its hypercar is so far advanced, so Toyota's choices are to either soldier on with the current project or quit entirely.

The only other manufacturer that has committed to building a hypercar is Peugeot, which is set to join the WEC at some point in 2022 with a new hybrid-powered challenger.

However, details about the exact shape the French marque's project will take have so far been relatively scarce, and PSA Motorsport boss Jean-Marc Finot has recently stated that building a car to LMDh rules - and not a hypercar - is now an option.

Given its tie-up with Ligier, which is one of the four approved LMDh chassis constructors, and the fact that costs of running in what will be a spec hybrid-class are significantly lower than those associated with building an entirely new car, the smart money would appear to be on Peugeot following that path.

We won't know for sure until details of the LMDh rules are revealed next month at Sebring, but assuming the Aston project never sees the light of day, it's conceivable that Toyota could be the only major manufacturer that ever builds a car to hypercar rules.

After all, if an LMDh costs much less, has the same chance to win thanks to Balance of Performance and can race in America as well in Europe (at the moment there's no guarantee hypercars will be able to compete in IMSA), why would any other marque want to do so?

That means, in all likelihood, the future of hypercar hinges on Toyota. While it has been one of the ACO's biggest backers in recent years, it isn't racing in WEC out of charity. It's because it still believes that the platform the series offers is a valuable marketing tool. But its effectiveness continues to dwindle as long as there is no real competition at the top.

The question is two-fold: is Toyota still prepared, as Leupen suggested last year, to race alone for another season in the expectation of increased competition thereafter; and is it prepared for the prospect that when that competition (hopefully) arrives, it may not be vying for overall honours against any other cars that are built to the same set of rules?

Hopefully we'll start getting some answers this weekend when the WEC reconvenes after an extended winter break at Austin, where just three LMP1s - an all-time low - are set to take part following the unexpected withdrawal of the Ginettas.

For those hoping the days of thin top-class grids in the WEC were almost at an end, the wait for a revival unfortunately is going to drag on a little while longer.

#7 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota TS050: Mike Conway, Jose Maria Lopez, Kamui Kobayashi

#7 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota TS050: Mike Conway, Jose Maria Lopez, Kamui Kobayashi

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

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