Leaders in Motorsport: WEC’s Gerard Neveu on taking Le Mans’ spirit global

Gerard Neveu, chief executive of the World Endurance Championship (WEC), opens up about the new 'Super Season' concept, and explains how that major calendar overhaul fits into the series' wider-reaching transformation.

Founded in 2012 as a joint venture between the FIA and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) brought a unified competition series and an easily identifiable yearly narrative to a previously disparate set of top-level sports car and endurance racing events. Now, with the 2018 season having begun in France in April, the series’ organisers are entering a new phase of development, part of a multi-stakeholder effort to take the global championship to the next level.

This year – the series’ seventh in existence – sees the introduction of a new ‘Super Season’ concept, with an expanded nine-race, six-country schedule shifted to ensure the championship builds over the course of 14 months towards its crown jewel event, the ACO-organised 24 Hours of Le Mans. But that major calendar overhaul is just one element of a far wider-reaching transformation. Through ongoing initiatives in other areas such as media, regulations and fan experience, the WEC organisers have their sights set squarely on delivering a more compelling on and off-track product to a growing roster of big-name OEMs and corporate partners, and to create a brand of racing that appeals to the widest possible audience of fans and TV viewers around the world.

Each of those initiatives has been implemented, as series chief executive Gerard Neveu explains, with one overarching goal in mind: “to keep evolving and innovating, to develop, to never stay still”. It is a mantra that has become a hallmark of the ever-changing, always innovating world of motorsport, and one which Neveu (right) believes will put endurance racing’s preeminent series in pole position in the years to come.

As well as marking the seventh year of the World Endurance Championship, 2018 will be a transitional season in many respects. What was the thinking behind your revised ‘Super Season’ format and rule changes, and how will those adjustments benefit the series commercially in future?

We had talked for many years about making the biggest race in the calendar, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the final round, but it wasn’t easy to find a suitable time in the technical development and regulatory cycle. That opportunity presented itself to us last year so we have ‘flipped’ the calendar, with the full support of our teams and manufacturer partners.

It wasn’t really an option to offer competitors just a two or three-race ‘season’ to end with Le Mans in June 2018, so we have created a unique ‘Super Season’ which will include two editions of Le Mans and six other races, concluding in June 2019. From then on, the WEC season will run from September to June starting in 2019/20, with probably eight races across those months.

Having Le Mans at the end of the season allows the drama, excitement and anticipation to build through the season, focusing everyone’s attention on every round as they move towards championship titles as well as the big race itself.  

Generally speaking, how has the series evolved since its creation in 2012?

The championship has grown very quickly and very successfully, establishing itself at the top of the FIA stable of motorsport series outside F1. This has been due to a number of factors – most importantly, the commitment and high level of engagement from our teams and partners, especially those from automotive giants around the world – plus the strong partnership between the FIA and the ACO and the stability of regulations, which allow competitors the chance to race on a relatively level playing field, at budgets which are carefully contained and sustainable.

Of course, there have been a few hiccups along the way, mainly led by market forces outside our control. But we have emerged from these stronger than ever. If we can add one further point, it would be that we have been reactive and we have listened to our competitors and our fans. 

How would you assess the worldwide popularity, profile and commercial health of the WEC and its teams today?

The jewel in the crown of the WEC is the 24 Hours of Le Mans, one of motorsport’s most famous and identifiable events – in fact, one of the most famous sporting events of all time.

Since we began the WEC in 2012, this race has been a part of the World Championship – the first time this has happened in many, many years – and we have taken the ‘spirit of Le Mans’ to other countries around the globe with the WEC. Ask any man or woman on the street to name a motor race and there is a strong chance that Le Mans will be one of three answers; the race has been held since 1923 so it’s one of the most historic and legendary.

In 2017, we had 600,000 live spectators at WEC events and the figures speak for themselves. In some cases, such as China, it is still very much a work in progress, and a question of educating a motorsport audience which has not been exposed to much outside F1 – and that is relatively recent compared to other markets. The involvement of someone like Jackie Chan with one of our teams, and a huge, state-supported company such as CEFC with another team, says a lot about how this is progressing. They have brought knowledge about Le Mans and endurance racing to many thousands of Chinese fans, as our increasing audiences year-on-year can confirm.

Ask any man or woman on the street to name a motor race and there is a strong chance that Le Mans will be one of three answers; the race has been held since 1923 so it’s one of the most historic and legendary.

We try and remain humble about our championship, but the fact that we are continuing to attract automotive giants to compete – BMW being the latest to join a roll call of immediately recognisable and aspirational names such as Aston Martin, Ferrari, Ford, Porsche and Toyota – is very rewarding. 

Added to that, Rolex, Total, Michelin and Motul are all multi-national, high-profile organisations which have made long or medium-term commitments to the WEC. Their involvement allows us to continue with our plan to reach new audiences who might not know about endurance racing, but who will be captivated by the action of multi-class racing, where there are hundreds of overtakes in a race instead of just a handful, the open and welcoming paddocks, free family entertainment off-track, and the chance to get up close to some incredible cars and amazing drivers. 

Neveu says the WEC aims to take the spirit of its prestigious Le Mans race around the world

How has your broadcast rights distribution partnership, signed with Infront Sports & Media in 2015, panned out? Have you seen the results you’d hoped for?

We are very happy with the partnership we have with Infront, and they have worked hand-in-hand with our TV department to develop both new and existing relationships with broadcasters, bringing the WEC to a far wider audience than before. Infront has the experience, contacts and expertise the WEC needs and it’s working well for both sides at the moment.

Broadcasts of WEC races took place in 123 countries in 2017, with an audience of more than 165 million TV viewers, an increase of 28 per cent from 2016 and a huge rise from the 70 million we had in 2012. Within that figure, there were 73.7 million unique race viewers across the world. 

In one season we put out 8,800 broadcast hours, of which 3,000 were live, and over 400,000 live sessions on our website and app. Significantly, the TV reach was also increased by 17 per cent last year and the figures we have received show we still have a long way to go to reach saturation point in terms of TV spectators.  

We have a very passionate and loyal audience which is very relevant to our partners with, for example, eight million spectators in the USA who really tune in to watch all our races. We are very strong in Europe – Denmark, France, Netherlands and Germany – but there is huge potential in China, Mexico, Russia and Brazil.

What is your overarching, long-term broadcast and new media strategy?

As with every championship, every sport, every industry, we have invested heavily in digital and social media over the last 18 months and that will continue for the Super Season and beyond.  

We contracted Dentsu last year to ‘introduce’ the WEC to new audiences and our social media figures have grown 120 per cent across the different platforms. Now we are working on more focused digital content across all platforms to continue that education and entertainment, while at the same time protecting existing broadcast deals and exclusivity. One of the beauties of the WEC is that we have top names, plenty of cars, and multi-driver line-ups so there’s always someone or something of interest to be seen, filmed, talked about or interviewed.  

There is a generational divide in consumption, where older viewers continue to watch television sets which, for the younger generation, are becoming obsolete. Second or even third-screen viewing is now commonplace, especially among younger fans – our app has proved to be a great success, offering OTT content and replays for a small fee.  

What is your approach to corporate sponsorships and how are you working with your commercial partners to elevate the WEC’s profile?

Our approach is, first of all, that we always provide a link for the manufacturers to the different models on track, transfer of technology and car sales. A perfect example of this is in our GTE classes with the Aston Martin Vantage, BMW M8, Ferrari 488, Ford GT and Porsche 911, which all have corresponding racing models. We have a Manufacturers’ World Championship which is very important for us and a great target for all these prestigious automotive brands.

At the same time, we develop a package for different partners such as Rolex, or suppliers such as Total and Michelin, in order to provide them with the best visibility and to optimise the partnerships. Every year, we have a debrief on the previous season and we analyse in detail with Nielsen – the ROI, QI and all the returns. We take these results into consideration to adapt and refine our marketing model each year to attract more commercial partners.

What we try to do is always find a new package in order to make sure we optimise the success of the ROI for the partners and sponsors. In marketing, every morning you ask yourself the question: ‘What can I do better or differently?’ And you have to reset all the time to make sure you are in the right position on the grid to offer satisfaction for the partners.  

Now, the WEC is strong enough to have a full marketing department to develop offers and also to guarantee a high level of activation and delivery. 

WEC events roped in 600,000 live spectators in 2017

In what ways have you sought to position the WEC brand and differentiate it from other leading global series in motor racing?

There is something for everyone in endurance racing; it’s pure motorsport. First of all, we offer fans great access – from open paddocks, autograph sessions, pit walks and competitions, at a cost which is affordable for the whole family. There is entertainment on and off-track: we don’t expect anyone but the most passionate of fans to follow every minute of a six-hour race, and the action on track offers all the noise, excitement, overtakes, strategy and drama you can expect from world class teams and drivers.

It has also been made clear to us by our automotive partners that the technological development and knowledge gained though participation in the WEC is vital to them. Endurance racing is categorically linked to longer distances, especially relevant in huge countries such as the USA, China and Russia. We don’t just want our cars to be reliable over a long period, but we want them to go further, perform better and more efficiently. This doesn’t just apply to the cars themselves but also the tyre and lubricant companies, of course.  

In what ways are you balancing the traditions of endurance racing with the need to innovate and ensure the WEC experience appeals to a younger generation of fans?

In 2017 we undertook the biggest survey of endurance racing fans there had ever been and the results were fascinating. It is the fans who inspire us to continue evolving and developing the WEC, and who support the different motor manufacturers and privateer teams, our competitors, in their participation at our events.  

From their deep desire to see continued close competition between world class brands, high technology and innovation which can be transferred to the road cars of tomorrow, to the length of races and the famous sporting arenas in which they are held, our fans spoke in their thousands.  

There is a generational divide in consumption, where older viewers continue to watch television sets which, for the younger generation, are becoming obsolete.

It was interesting to see a relatively young, digitally engaged demographic and the fact that endurance racing continues to attract new fans via social media platforms is enormously encouraging. How we watch and engage with endurance races must inherently differ slightly to how we follow shorter, sprint races, and we now have solid data to help us formulate our plans for the future. There are lot of options to consider, and we can’t ignore esports or e-gaming, which are such a big part of youth culture. 

The tech giants such as Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Twitter, Facebook and Google all have massive scale and are reshaping the media. They have customer bases that are hundreds of millions if not billions strong. The question is: how can we tap into that?

What impact will a star like Fernando Alonso have on the series and the profile of endurance racing in general this season?

A huge one, undoubtedly. How many times have you seen a current two-time F1 world champion competing in another world championship in the same season? Never! Grand Prix drivers of the quality of Graham Hill, Jacky Ickx, Derek Bell, Henri Pescarolo and other endurance greats have driven at Le Mans, and some have done other one-off races, but to do the two full championships simultaneously?  

It’s quite refreshing to see someone of his stature in the world of motorsport, with his talent and pedigree, wanting to take on something completely new. He is a true enthusiast of the sport as well as a champion, and we know very well that he doesn’t just want to win Le Mans, but he also wants to win the World Endurance Championship, which means he’s committed to doing every round.

Fernando’s participation in the WEC, plus that of all the other champions we have – such as former World Touring Car Champions José Maria Lopez and Andy Priaulx – means we have a great deal to talk about and to show to general media, and most importantly to fans new to endurance racing.  

Formula One great Fernando Alonso emerged victorious at the 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans

What are your key priorities for 2018 and beyond?

Firstly, we want to continue to increase the value of the championship and grow our social media and TV media audiences to expand the visibility of the WEC.  

At the same time, we want to attract more and more fans, to maintain very strong grids – as we have currently – with a good balance between GTEs and prototypes, Pro and Am entries, manufacturers and privateers. We also want to provide very good technical regulations for 2020, which in the end, if this is the case, we should see a return of three or four manufacturers to the LMP categories.

We also must make a success of the Super Season – the name we have given to the 14-month transitional season which will see us ‘flip’ our calendar to race more in the winter months and finish the year at the 24 Hours of Le Mans instead of having it in the first half of the year. We aim to demonstrate to our fans and the media that the reverse calendar is the right way to go.

We have made a big effort since we started in 2012 to keep evolving and innovating, to develop, to never stay still. At the same time, we work hard to continue to guarantee we are the right place to promote motorsport with all the values we consider crucial.