This weekend's 12 Hours of Sebring is a step into the uncharted territory of a new era of endurance racing. The 60th edition of the race around the Florida town's regional airport is the first race of the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC), the series that evolved out of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup (ILMC) that itself only began in 2010 as a three round mini-championship.
The WEC takes in eight races – continuing the expansion started by year two of the ILMC, spreading to Brazil, Bahrain and Japan as well as more familiar event – Sebring, six hour races at Spa and Silverstone and the centre piece of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The teams that will contest the championship will be largely familiar to endurance racing fans with Audi's works teams topping the entry lists after their victory at La Sarthe last year. However, their rivals in that race – and though the ILMC, Sebrings past and initially the Le Mans Series – Peugeot are absent after the shock move to end their own Le Mans Prototype program in January.
The decision – just as entries closed for the world championship the powers at Peugeot had lobbied for – left Audi without a rival, a potential disaster when you consider the domination Audi and Peugeot's turbodiesel prototypes have enjoyed since Audi pioneered the idea with the R10.
Luckily, into that void stepped Toyota. The Japanese manufacturer had already announced the new TS030 hybrid prototype before Peugeot's decision was made public, but after their entry for both Le Mans and the WEC was confirmed they added more races to their plans, only missing Sebring before debuting the new car at Spa in May.
Of course how Toyota's first year effort stacks up against the benchmark the experienced Audi squads will have a chance to put up at Sebring remains to be seen, and how the two works teams compare will almost certainly decide the destination of the LMP1WEC title.
Audi's competition at Sebring – in the WEC stakes, rather than overall as the race will double up as the first round for both the WEC and American Le Mans Series – will come in the shape of Rebellion Racing's two brand new Lolas, Pescarolos from OAK Racing and Pescarolo Team and HPD chassis from British teams Strakka Racing and JRM, the former moving up after being front runners in the LMP2 category in Europe, clinching the class title at Le Mans in 2012 from under the nose of the heavily fancied Highcroft Racing team before winning the Le Mans Series race at the Hungaroring outright against a field that included Rebellion and OAK LMP1 squads.
Audi's competition will also come from themselves.
This season Audi will debut not one, but two, cars – the R18 Ultra and the R18 e-tron quattro, both significant departures from the 2011 car. The Ultra will take its bow first, represented by all three of the Audi's entered this weekend it is the hybrid e-tron quattro that will make its race debut at Spa that will doubtless steal the limelight when it shares the race track with Toyota's own hybrid.
What effect breaking in two new cars, as well as the ACO's latest attempt to peg back the advantage of the diesels will have is another great unknown, and how the Audi compares against the petrol fuelled Lolas, Pescarolos and HPDs, will again decide who can call themselves world champions at the end of the year.
Outside of the premier class the LMP2 class is just as competitive. On paper the class honours are likely to be decided between two LMP2 champions from 2011, though driver line-ups for both are much changed. For Signatech Nissan, who won the class in the ILMC only Franck Maillieux returns for a second year while at likely rivals Greaves Motorsport – class champions in the Le Mans Series and at Le Man itself – an all-changed driver line-up led by German Christian Zugel.
As well as the experienced likes of Greaves, Signatech and the Morgan-badged OAK Racing entry there are the newcomers to WEC and ACO regulations competition. ADR–Delta, enter the endurance arena with the now tried and tested combination of Oreca 03 chassis and Nissan engine, and Starworks Motorsport – one of only two American based team on the WEC entry – GTE Am Krohn Racing the other.
If the largely subjective accolade of most competitive class at Sebring doesn't fall to LMP2, it will certainly go to the GTE class, though mainly because of the strong field of ALMS runners featuring BMW and Corvette – neither of which has works representation in the WEC, Corvette opting to concentrate on America, BMW shelving their international endurance racing plans in favour of the DTM for 2012.
The WEC brings representation of three more manufacturers. Team Felbermayr–Proton add their entry – driven by Porsche works men Patrick Pilet, Richard Lietz and Marc Lieb – to the strong ALMS Porsche of Flying Lizard, Falken Tire and Paul Miller Racing. As well as three strong Ferraris, two from AF Corse and a sole Luxury Racing car, Sebring will also host Aston Martin Racing's return to GT racing after their foray in the LMP1 class, first with the Lola-Aston Martin, then the ill-fated AMR-One (a car due to reappear later in the year as the base for a new Pescarolo design).
Where honours will fall – both at Sebring and amongst the WEC teams is too close to call. GT races have occasionally been decided by seconds and after hours of wheel-to-wheel exchanges and there is no reason to think that the invention of the WEC will change any of that.
The final class of the WEC is, like the ILMC before it, GTE Am, intended for team with gentlemen drivers. After a weak introduction last year the 2012 entry is somewhat stronger, buoyed partly by the eligibility of the new Ferrari 458 Italia after last year only the older F430 was the only Ferrari available for teams and like the Pro ranks the potential battle for class honours looks relatively even between the three manufacturers represented in the teams.
Champions last year Larbre Competition return to defend their crown – running a pair of Corvettes in 2012 where they mixed their season between Corvette and Porsche last year. Pedro Lamy – one of the drivers left without a job by Peugeot's withdrawal is almost without doubt the class of the field in the no.50 car he shares with 2011 Le Mans class winners Patrick Bornhauser and Julien Canal.
Despite the lack of Risi Competizione on the entry list for either ALMS or WEC their common partners Krohn Racing are likely to be strong challengers for the class championship and the Am class entries for the Luxury and Felbermayr–Proton stables.
UK and European viewers can watch the World Endurance Championship start at the 12 Hours of Sebring as part of Motors TV's year-long coverage of the American Le Mans Series. The race starts at 2:30pm UK time on Saturday March 17.