As the 2018-2019 Asian Le Mans Series kicks off in Shanghai, its managing director Cyrille Taesch-Wahlen gives his appraisal of the series, which has carved a unique niche for itself in the endurance racing landscape.
The Asian Le Mans Series has taken the history and the appeal of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and come up with a new formula for the Asian motor racing scene, taking all its disparities into account.
Over the last five seasons, a number of broader international connections have been forged, as Asian Le Mans Series champions benefit from an automatic entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and more teams from around the globe are making the winter trip to Asia.
Could you tell us how the Asian Le Mans Series has evolved since you took over?
Cyrille Taesch-Wahlen: The ACO took the series over four years ago and we’ve certainly come a long way since then. The first and most important decision we made was to endorse the ‘off-peak’ calendar which sets us apart and gives teams who are busy in Asia or Europe in spring and summer the chance to take part in our series. There was virtually nothing else on the calendar at this time of year, so we were free to embark on our overhaul. We had to gain the teams’ and drivers’ trust quickly. The Le Mans brand is very strong and the ACO’s involvement gave us a lot of credibility. We built a very friendly, welcoming environment but applied our very strict regulations and organisation. We brought in some swift changes such as switching from three-hour to four-hour races, introducing live broadcasting and boosting the series role as a ‘springboard’ to the 24 Hours of Le Mans with four invitations, instead of three previously. In short, the series shifted up a gear and put itself firmly on the world motorsports map. It is broadcast wider and is a key driver in the growth of ‘Endurance by ACO’ on the Asian continent. But there is still a lot to do.
How does the Asian Le Mans Series promote the 24 Hours of Le Mans and its history as it continues to develop in Asia?
We do so in a number of different ways. For example, last year there was a screening of the film of the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans for our teams at Fuji. We’re planning to do the same thing this year. In China, we have a dedicated TV programme (Asian Le Mans Talk broadcast on Tencent), which talks about the series and its links with the 24 Hours. But a lot of people already know Le Mans and its legendary race. The crucial thing for us now is to reach out to a broader audience. In that respect, our best ambassadors are the Asian teams and drivers who have taken part in the 24 Hours, and the increasing number of guests (including circuit representatives) we invite to Le Mans each year. Their first visit is always an unforgettable experience as never expect it to be so grandiose and so emotional.
What impact has Jackie Chan DC Racing’s performance at the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans had on the Asian Le Mans Series?
It’s obviously been very positive because it has further raised the profile of the legendary race and of the ACO’s Asian venture. However, let’s not forget that without the Asian Le Mans Series, a team like David Cheng’s wouldn’t have been able to enter endurance racing in Asia and go on to be as successful as they have been in Asia, at the 24 Hours and in the World Endurance Championship. More generally, we heavily promote our brand and what we do on Chinese social media all year round and the streaming of the series (on 25 TV networks for the Shanghai race this weekend) also brings us exposure.
Recently, we have seen teams from the European Le Mans Series join the Asian Le Mans Series, for example United Autosports and Panis Barthez Compétition for the 2018-19 season. What do you think the appeal of the Asian Le Mans Series is for international endurance teams?
There have always been European teams in the Asian Le Mans Series, in both the prototype classes and in GT. However, a couple of positive factors can explain why there are more European teams signed up for the 2018-19 season. The calendar is even more attractive now [more convenient dates on four FIA Grade 1 circuits] and the teams can enjoy the benefits of a movement initiated by their predecessors in a high-standard championship with excellent media coverage. What makes the series so popular is that teams can race on international-standard circuits on the other side of the world, in a competitive, well-regarded championship in the winter season. They can remain thus active nearly all year round in events overseen by the ACO.
In your view, what influence can the Asian Le Mans Series have on the development of motorsport in Asia generally?
We shouldn’t take too much for granted in that respect. Apart from in Japan where motorsport has developed to a high level over the past few decades and where the 24 Hours is very popular, there are some big differences in motorsport development in the other countries in which we operate. However, they are all seeing growth in the sport. The national championships are gaining ground. In Thailand, for example, the grids are constantly expanding. There is a growing number of championships in China. With endurance, sprint, proto, GT, Touring car and various formula, new circuits are being built. In this very diverse landscape, where the market is highly volatile and far from mature, we have to chart our own course and, most importantly, stick to that course. Our series has some unique attributes, like the ‘Endurance by ACO’ label (combining Le Mans prototypes and GT), our place in the ACO endurance pyramid and the fact that we are a springboard to Le Mans. We are able to offer a unique, high-quality championship, unlike any other in the region. So if we can make our mark today, we will certainly continue to influence things in the near future.
Photos (copyright: Asian Le Mans Series) - Top, Thomas Laurent, Harrison Newey and Stéphane Richelmi (left to right), LMP2 title-holders in the 2017-18 Asian Le Mans Series, after the final race of the season at Sepang. In the gallery below (left to right), Cyrille Taesch-Wahlen, managing director of the Asian Le Mans Series, cars on the track at the Buriram circuit in Thailand, and Arj Kulasegaram, Team Manager of Clearwater Racing, a competitor in the World Endurance Championship after winning in the Asian Le Mans Series.