June 20, 2012
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 6/18, 11:00 a.m.) Detroit. To some, Audi's domination of the 24 Hours of Le Mans is getting tedious. Eleven wins in thirteen years - with the latest victory coming this past weekend - is a level of success that is difficult to contemplate at times. I've started to hear comments referencing the fact that there's little or no competition, that a creeping arrogance is developing (e.g., "The Truth in 24" movies), it's boring and bad for racing, etc., etc. But I look at it in the complete opposite way, because I believe we are witnessing a dimension of such consistent excellence that it's simply awe inspiring. Better still, to know what's behind Audi's commitment to winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans makes the achievement that much more impressive.
It must be hard to fathom for some now but fourteen years ago Audi was a perennial "second-tier" brand behind BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus in the U.S. market, struggling to break out of the continuing funk that was the direct result of the hatchet-job performed by "60 Minutes" twelve long years before that (November 1986). The totally erroneous report by the CBS news program, which accused Audi of building vehicles that suffered from unintended acceleration, nearly put the brand out of business in this country - even though it was proven to be completely false - and it lingered over the car company like a shroud of negativity.
Audi was making excellent cars at the time, which were getting better with each and every new model, but Audi executives knew that this wasn't going to be enough, that if they wanted to break out of their perennial second-tier market status both here and in Europe, drastic steps needed to be taken. Audi needed something more, and its executives wanted to make the Audi brand statement emphatically and in the most visible and public way possible, which is why they chose to compete in the arena of top level motorsport.
But that decision alone was fraught with much hand-wringing. Audi execs could have chosen to compete at Indianapolis with an engine program, but there wasn't enough of a connection to its car-building operation to justify the expense in their estimation. Formula 1 was ruled out because of its withering costs. NASCAR wasn't even remotely considered because it was a regional series and there was absolutely no connection to the production technology Audi was putting into its production cars. And even though Audi had competed successfully in championship rallying in the past, it needed and wanted a racing venue that would be more visible and more connected to a broader audience. Le Mans is the most prestigious sports car road racing event in the world by far, with a vast global viewing audience, which is why it seemed like the perfect fit.
To their credit, Audi management knew that saying they would compete at Le Mans and doing it were completely different things. Audi executives understood that if they put their stake in the ground and announced to the world that they would be competing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans that they would have to commit the resources to win. Because anything less would be completely unacceptable.
And to their credit, that's exactly what they did.
Commitment, a focused consistency and a relentless desire to be the best has marked the Audi Le Mans program from the very beginning. The commitment part of course meant allocating huge amounts of money to the program's budget (some estimates have pegged Audi's Le Mans budget at $125 million+ per year, if not more, since the program's inception), but it also meant seamlessly integrating the company's engineering resources into the program as well. It's no secret that Audi makes sure its "best and brightest" engineers and designers are rotated through its Le Mans program, from all of the key product development disciplines. The focused consistency part came in when the company, to its credit, could have walked away after a few wins satisfied that they had been there and done that, but instead stepped-up their commitment to the program with a renewed focus and energy each and every year.
On the race track Audi has performed at an extraordinarily high level and with such domination that it's simply awe inspiring. But its success hasn't been limited to the race track by any means. More important, Audi's success in establishing itself as a top-tier luxury brand is a direct result of the commitment and focused consistency demonstrated in its Le Mans program. Led by the technical advances showcased in its stunning racing machines such as Direct fuel-injection (TFSI), advanced turbo diesel technology (TDI) and the latest in hybrid technology (which they won with this past weekend), the transformation of Audi production cars over the last decade has been equally stunning.
Audi is now the forward thinking brand firmly ensconced at the head table of the luxury-performance segment. Boasting technically advanced and beautifully purposeful machines inside and out, Audi production cars bristle with brilliant, innovative ideas and are executed with a relentless precision. And they are beautiful to look at as well.
Oh, and that relentless desire part? Well, as I've often said, you can't put a number on a car's soul, that sometimes a machine can transcend the sum total of its parts to become something great, or even legendary.
Audi management seems never content to rest on the brand's laurels, and their relentless desire to be the best looks to be well and truly engaged and focused for the future. And that's a very good thing.
The hardest part for Audi execs from here on out?
Keeping Audi on an upward trajectory without allowing complacency to creep in, on the track, or in their production vehicles.
And that's the High-Octane Truth this week.
The four factory-entered Audi R18 cars from Audi Sport Team Joest cross the finish line after the 80th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. All four had the chance to win the world's most prestigious endurance race this past weekend but after 378 laps last year’s winners Marcel Fässler (CH), André Lotterer (D) and Benoît Tréluyer (F) were victorious at the wheel of the No. 1 Audi R18 e-tron quattro with hybrid drive. Dindo Capello (I), Tom Kristensen (DK) and Allan McNish (GB) finished second in their e-tron quattro, which features Audi's take on an advanced all-wheel drive system of the future. With e-tron technology the conventional drive system is intelligently combined with an electrically driven axle. Audi is already testing this technology in which the drive shaft is replaced by electric cables for use in production vehicles. Le Mans rookie Marco Bonanomi (I), Oliver Jarvis (GB) and Mike Rockenfeller (D) completed the fourth one-two-three victory for Audi at the Le Mans 24 Hours in their conventionally powered Audi R18 ultra. (Audi also accomplished the feat in 2000, 2002 and 2010.) Romain Dumas (F), Loïc Duval (F) and Marc Gené (E) finished in fifth place at the wheel of the second R18 ultra.
Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer share a celebratory moment together after winning the 80th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in their No. 1 Audi R18 e-tron quattro.
The winning No. 1 Audi R18 e-tron quattro. Porsche once ran a famous ad with a picture of a 911 that said, "It's everything we know so far." A brutal, purposeful, yet ghostly beautiful racing machine, the Audi R18 e-tron quattro represents everything Audi knows about the car building art at this very moment in time.
The triumphant - and dominant - Audi Motorsport team celebrates on the victory podium at Le Mans. “This is no doubt a historic victory for Audi. We were the first to win Le Mans with a direct-injection turbo gasoline engine and the first to be successful with a diesel engine. It’s a great result that Audi is now the first brand to have achieved victory with a hybrid vehicle – and right on the first run, as before with the two other technologies, and – what’s more – with both R18 e-tron quattro cars on the two top spots. That was an outstanding achievement by the entire squad, naturally with support from Audi’s Technical Development too, as we’re always working very closely together with the people who are developing our cars of tomorrow for the customers.” - Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, Head of Audi Motorsport.