As a rule, motorsport never seems to be discussed when it comes to comparing ‘major sporting events’, never mind GT racing alone. Generally speaking, when people are asked what they’d class as a major sporting event, the obvious ones are the FIFA World Cup, the European Championships, Wimbledon, maybe a bit of the horse racing (can’t say I pay enough attention to be able to list the big meetings right now) and The Ashes.
I was having a chat at work recently about what a ‘major sporting event’ actually is. In short, a policy has come in regarding the TVs in the workplace and it sparked discussion. Is it not subjective anyway? What counts as a major event to one person is total nonsense in another person’s mind.
Is any motorsport event ever mentioned? Very, very rarely.
Therefore, in an attempt to make this relevant to the blog, I’m going to weigh up three of the finest and arguably biggest sportscar events around, in order to establish whether or not they ought to make the esteemed list of major sporting events. First up: Le Mans
24 HOURS OF LE MANS
Le Mans is the absolute peak. It’s the zenith in the endurance racing stakes. Whilst there are other 24 hour races which are extremely popular, none of them have the same amount of history attached to them as Le Mans does. It is the oldest active sports car race in endurance racing and has been held annually since 1923.
In 2015, 263,500 people packed into the Circuit de la Sarthe during race week. Making it more popular than the vast majority of Formula 1 weekends around the world. It’s also comfortably the biggest sportscar event in the world.
No problem here. People flock to Le Mans every year from all over the globe. There’s also the opportunity to follow the race live from the comfort of your own home, either via the FIA WEC website (paid subscription – you can buy a Le Mans package or the whole WEC season) and on the fantastic Radio Le Mans. Nissan’s NISMO TV also provide footage.
Advertising is done very well, but much like with other forms of motorsport, you’d most likely have to be a motorsport fanatic or have an interest in sportscars to come across all the details. The odds are though, if you’ve got even a remote interest in motorsport, you will know all about Le Mans.
With the World Endurance Championship growing year on year, the number of big name drivers is growing all the time. Whilst there are also plenty of amateur drivers on the entry list, there are also relatively well-known names such as Mark Webber, Giancarlo Fisichella, Andy Priaulx, Nick Heidfeld, Chris Hoy, Patrick Dempsey, Vitaly Petrov, Giedo van der Garde, Will Stevens, and Bernd Schneider. Nico Hülkenberg also drove for Porsche last year too.
It’s debatable whether André Lotterer could be classed as a big name in the mainstream media, but in the racing world, he’s a bit of a living legend. He also made a solitary appearance in Formula 1, replacing Kamui Kobayashi at the 2014 Belgian Grand Prix.
In terms of cars, the grid is very impressive. Audi, Porsche, Toyota, Ferrari, Ford, Aston Martin, Nissan and Corvette all with entries.
Magnitude of winning
Funny one, this. It’s hard to tell whether or not the 2015 Le Mans 24 hours got so much attention due to Hülkenberg and Webber’s involvement or whether it was just a realisation that endurance racing is becoming bigger and bigger. Webber has, of course, raced at Le Mans many times in the past.
The magnitude of winning the flagship 24 hour race and especially one steeped in such deep history is naturally huge. The thing with events like Le Mans is that people who wouldn’t normally pay any attention to endurance racing suddenly open their eyes to it. It attracts an audience that normally wouldn’t bother and that’s a sign of something going well.
For those within endurance racing, it is the ultimate. It’s a career-defining race and as such, it’s a huge, huge race to win that elevates the winners to legendary status.
Importance to sportscar racing
Thanks to Le Mans, the WEC continues to grow and gather momentum. In a time when F1 viewing figures are in decline, a lot of people are looking elsewhere for great racing and WEC delivers in that department. We’re in an internet age now and the ease of accessibility and quality of coverage of both the 24 hours of Le Mans and the WEC in general is refreshing.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is pivotal. It is the centrepiece of the endurance racing calendar, not just the WEC calendar. As such, it hits top marks here.
Average score: 8.6/10
24 HOURS OF NÜRBURGRING
With crowds between 200,000 and 250,000, the 24 Hours of Nürburgring is only slightly behind Le Mans in terms of popularity. Its cause is helped by the fact spectators are allowed to pitch tents, plonk caravans in viewing areas and create their own fanzones.
There is very much still an amateur feel to the whole event and less restrictions, meaning fans are able to enjoy themselves however they see fit… within very fair limits, of course.
Whilst coverage of the entire race week is utterly fantastic, we have to be realistic here. The race is all about GT cars and the vast majority of fans are from Germany, Belgium, Holland and England. But mainly Germany.
If you’re loopy, like me, and want to watch the entire 24 hours of racing, you can. For free. The entire event is streamed live on YouTube and due to links with Radio Le Mans, you get bloody good commentary and well-informed analysis too. You won’t find it on TV around the world (since Motors TV has gone off Freeview I’ve no idea if they provide any coverage?), but if you want people to watch it, hosting it on the world’s biggest video site is a good way to go!
Social Media advertising for the event is also very strong.
I’m not going to delude myself. Whilst I’m a huge GT racing fan, not many other people are in the grand scheme of things. So they won’t have heard of the vast majority of drivers in this.
Your biggest names are the current and former DTM drivers that take part, such as Nico Müller, Timo Scheider, Mike Rockenfeller, Augusto Farfus, Maximilian Götz, Christian Vietoris, Uwe Alzen and Bernd Schneider.
All the big names in GT racing go along too.
In terms of cars, Audi, Porsche, Mercedes, BMW, Nissan, Bentley and Aston Martin all have entries. Arguably a better lineup, on paper, than Le Mans…
Then there’s amateur entries too.
Magnitude of winning
In terms of worldwide recognition, you’re probably not going to hit mainstream news for winning and unless you have friends who follow endurance or GT racing, you’ll probably never hear about who’s won the race.
However, within GT racing, winning the 24 Hours of Nürburgring is probably on a par, if not more important, than winning at Le Mans. The Nordschleife is the toughest, most gruelling race circuit in the world. Drivers plunge deep into the Eifel forest, dealing with elevation changes, temperamental weather conditions, constantly changing track conditions, day and night driving and even driving for more than one team across 24 hours.
So whilst the race isn’t held in huge regard internationally, within GT racing it is probably the ultimate challenge. It says something when Ferrari refuse to take part as the circuit is too aggressive.
Importance to sportscar racing
The 24 hours of Nürburgring is part of the VLN calendar and with that being such a relatively small racing series, this race is absolutely everything to it. Few people outside of Germany would probably have heard of the VLN if it weren’t for this race.
In terms of GT racing, I’m going to say – perhaps controversially – that this is bigger than Le Mans. It’s a far, far bigger test on a better, longer, more challenging circuit and with a far more varied grid of cars. There was even an SUV entered during the 2016 race.
The quality of racing is also incomprehensibly good. You only need to watch this year’s final 3 lap shoot-out between Maro Engel and Christian Hohenadel to back that up.
Average Score: 8/10
THE 24 HOURS OF SPA
Compared to the other two, Spa struggles to pull even a quarter of the number of fans. In 2015, approximately 54,000 people turned out at the legendary Belgian circuit. This could be down to a few things, really. Le Mans is a legendary circuit for endurance racing and the glamour attached to the 24 hours of Le Mans – as well as just the ‘I’ve been there’ factor – is a big draw to that event. Spa has none of that.
Attendances also aren’t helped by the fact you cannot camp at the circuit during the race, like you can at the Nürburgring.
The 24 Hours of Spa is generally quite similar to the Nürburgring event in the sense that it is broadcasted online. As part of the Blancpain GT Series, it is shown live on GT World’s YouTube account. NISMO TV also provide streams and onboards. Presumably, Audi and other manufacturers will do too.
In theory, there is a worldwide audience and I’m sure people across many nations tune in. The reality, though, is that it’s not as prestigious an event as the previous two and as such does not pull off huge viewing figures.
Again though, social media is utilised very well to advertise the event. Blancpain GT have made a habit of using Twitter in particular very well!
Much like the Nürburgring 24 hours, quite a few DTM drivers throw their name into the hat for this. Last year we even saw Audi Team Joest drivers André Lotterer, Marcel Fässler paired with Mike Rockenfeller in a star-studded Team Phoenix lineup. Bruno Senna, Alex Zanardi, Timo Glock and Bruno Spengler also raced last year.
Essentially, the stars of global GT racing and touring cars rock up, but if you’re looking for household names, you’re going to be disappointed.
In terms of manufacturers, the usual suspects showcased within the Blancpain series are on show: Audi, Mercedes, BMW, Ferrari, Bentley, Nissan, Aston Martin, Porsche, McLaren and Jaguar.
Magnitude of winning
Whilst perhaps not as prestigious as the Nürburgring or Le Mans, it’s still held in high regard among the drivers and staunch GT3 fans. Connor De Phillippi – who looks set to miss out on entering the event this year – stated in our recent interview with him ‘It is an absolute dream event that I want to compete in’, so make no mistake, it’s a properly serious race much like every other 24 hour race around the world.
This event is seemingly a bit more of a hardcore fan’s race. Spa, whilst legendary, has arguably slightly less mystique about it too. Le Mans is so attractive because it’s… well, Le Mans. The Nürburgring reels people in because the Nordschleife is easily the most difficult, changeable, vast and interesting race circuit in the world. No single lap is the same. Your casual motorsport fan knows of the Nordschleife but due to them quite possibly only really following F1, they probably haven’t seen much action on it. A 24 hour race provides the opportunity for them.
Spa has Eau Rouge and is a notoriously fast circuit. Yes, the weather is also changeable, but is that enough to persuade people to travel there ahead of Le Mans and the Nürburgring? You’d have to say probably not. The number of run-off areas has increased over the years too, which is a real put-off for some fans. But we mustn’t forget, within the Blancpain Series calendar, Spa is big. Very big. The fact that the amount of points you would usually get for finishing in a points-scoring position is doubled also helps to increase the importance of having a good race.
Importance to sportscar racing
I suppose we’ve kind of covered this. The 24 hours of Spa is hugely important to sportscar racing. The grid is varied – though not as much as the Nürburgring 24 hours – and it’s very important that sportscars (specifically GT cars) are showcased at the most illustrious of venues. Spa is right up there with the most legendary race circuits and with it being a 24 hour race, it provokes interest and curiosity. It’s a vitally important part of the GT calendar and attracts drivers from other series too. The more prospective drivers there are, the better it is for the sport.
Average score: 6.2/10
Can we class Le Mans as a major sporting event? Absolutely. We didn’t even really need to discuss it. The 24 Hours of Nürburgring is also bigger than you think too. It isn’t hyped about as much as Le Mans, but the crowds are in the same ball park. There’s a much larger grid of cars, a more varied selection of cars, a great selection of drivers too. Whilst you won’t see Mark Webber or Nico Hülkenberg racing around the Nordschleife for this one, if you have any interest in touring cars or are a fan of motorsport in general, there are still a lot of relatively big names there. It’s a massive race and even though it’s part of the relatively unknown VLN series – as far as the casual motorsport fan is concerned – it’s actually quite easy to argue that this is most certainly a major event. The pitfall here though, is that not enough people know about it outside of Germany, meaning there’s more of an argument to be had about it.
Sadly, there has to be a loser in the debate and Spa has to meet its fate.
Don’t get me wrong on this, if you’re off to the 24 Hours of Spa this year or even sometime in the distant future, don’t let this put you off. It’s still a fantastic race, hugely entertaining and no doubt an incredible experience. I’m going to this prior to attempting Le Mans and the Nürburgring. But there’s no comparison to be had between Le Mans and Spa. The Nürburgring is a fairer comparison but as soon as you bear the Nordschleife in mind, the size of the grid, range of different cars and drivers, AND the size of its audience, Spa is swamped.
GT Observer Verdict
24 Hours of Le Mans: Yes
24 Hours of Nürburgring: Yes
24 Hours of Spa: No