The Peugeot-Audi battle has headlined the
International Le Mans Series in recent years

I was fortunate enough to witness the 2010 Autosport 1000km endurance event at Silverstone, featuring the full International Le Mans Series line-up as the English round of the ILMS Championship. The feature field of this event is the Prototype-1, or LMP1, class, which has been dominated in recent times by the two diesel-powered factory teams, Peugeot and Audi.

It has seemed over the past year that LMP1, maligned of late thanks to a shortage of manufacturer interest, was on the path to revival with Toyota returning for the 2012 season, Honda back as an engine provider, a Porsche comeback pencilled in for 2014 and a possible BMW entry for the year or two after that.

But out of the blue, Peugeot declared last month that it is to discontinue its Le Mans programme with immediate effect, leaving a gaping hole in the 2012 entry list.

Peugeot’s departure follows the decision of Team ORECA, a distinguished French racing team who ran Peugeots last year, to provide operational support to the Toyota entries in 2012. (The 2012 entry list was released on Thursday and can be viewed in full here.)

FIA chief Jean Todt has criticised the French company, stating that “in tough times one should find ways of expressing full commitment [to sport], rather than pulling out”, but elsewhere the French marque’s decision has been respected among declining car sales and the poor health of the French economy.

Two of Audi’s entries, as well as the two Toyotas, will be the four hybrid-power machines in the top class of the inaugural World Endurance Championship, which sees the ILMS brought under FIA supervision. Without performance balancing by the FIA, therefore, Audi will likely walk the 2012 championship thanks to their currently unparalleled level of experience and technical development.

New entries have been submitted to join the top table by Strakka, formerly of the LMP2 class, and 2011 GT1 class champions JRM, who are one of the teams joining up with Honda’s programme. Other teams familiar to the LMP1 class – Rebellion, OAK, Dyson Racing and Pescarolo, all of whom use at least some customer technology – will also be in the field.

The timing of Peugeot’s decision could have difficult consequences for endurance racing’s premier competition. Entering a rebranding exercise as it transforms itself from the International Le Mans Series to the World Endurance Championships, the competition continues to battle the climate of economic recession and lower availability of sponsorship.

As a somewhat niche motorsport interest, with most of its events enjoying only nominal international coverage, the series has always leant on the world-renowned Le Mans 24 Hours to bring it prestige and significance, hence the old name. Now, the FIA are gambling that they can make this sport a success without relying on Le Mans and its ownership company, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO). It’s a big gamble – and one which has been made all the more risky thanks to Peugeot’s sudden departure.

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