By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. In Karl E. Ludvigsen’s superb and timeless tome - Excellence Was Expected - the creation, history and legacy of Porsche is writ large in exhaustive detail and with comprehensive perspective. I am happily – and with reverence - borrowing Karl’s headline from that book for this week’s column because it perfectly captures the enduring passion that defines what Porsche was, is today and by all indications will continue to be for years to come.
Much consternation has surrounded Porsche for over a decade, as the German automobile company transitioned from being a maker of exclusive sports cars to one that pursued unorthodox vehicle niches that included SUVs (Cayenne and Macan) and luxury sedans (Panamera), while maintaining its grip on its formidable sports car portfolio, which now features the Boxster and Cayman, as well as the iconic 911 and all of its variants.
Observers, including me, were skeptical early on, wondering if the wheels had come off of Porsche. Would this legendary sports car maker somehow lose track of what it was in its pursuit of volume and revenue? Would this company, which built its reputation on countless victories in international sports car racing, now turn its back on all it had accomplished in the one arena that it had absolutely dominated, particularly the 24 Hours of Le Mans?
And for a while there, it didn’t look good. Although Porsche continued its myriad GT racing efforts with the 911, it stopped competing for the overall win at Le Mans seventeen years ago while it positioned itself for the future. The corporate argument from the powers that be at Porsche was clear, concise and never wavered: This strategy would ensure that Porsche would not only survive but thrive, and that the added revenue sure to come would properly fund its product development efforts – and racing – well into the future.
And those powers that be at Porsche did it with a dollop of classic Germanic auto executive arrogance thrown in for good measure, suggesting that not only would they succeed, but that they would succeed with the Porsche brand image intact and polished to a sheen for a new generation of buyers.
And damn if that’s not exactly what happened.
Though the first Cayenne was bloated and very un-Porsche-like, the current generation model is several hundred pounds lighter, while dripping with Porsche cues in dynamics and attitude. And now it’s one of the most desirable, if not the most desirable SUV in the market. The Panamera was criticized for its stilted design profile, but its driving characteristics trumped all concerns and fulfilled Porsche brand expectations to a “T.” And the Boxster and Cayman were honed into two of the most sought-after sports cars in the world, even pressing the vaunted 911 in some iterations. As for the 911 itself, though becoming larger in footprint to the point of turning off some of the hardcore Porsche faithful, it still retains its irresistible allure as one of the most desirable high-performance machines in the world.
That’s a full measure of achievement for what is now considered to be one of the most profitable car companies in the world.
But it was not all sweetness and light for the gnomes from Zuffenhausen. They had to sit by as another star in the VW Group – Audi – decided that playing second-tier fiddle to BMW and Mercedes-Benz in the luxury-performance segment had become unbearable, and that if they were ever going to change that the company would have to make an enduring technical statement that would alter consumer perceptions once and for all.
And the arena that Audi chose to demonstrate its invigorated technical prowess was the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the most prestigious sports car race in the world. Audi didn’t just compete for a few years, win and then slink away to resume old habits. No, they flat dominated the event, winning thirteen times in fifteen attempts, which became dangerously close to Porsche’s record of sixteen overall victories in the race.
As you can imagine, this didn’t sit well with the powers that be at Porsche, so once the heavy lifting of positioning Porsche for the future had come to fruition, Porsche management decided that it was time to go back to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and win.
As you can imagine, this effort became the focal point for the company. The best and the brightest of Porsche were assembled in 2012 and a new Le Mans racing program began to take shape. Porsche being Porsche of course, the 919 Hybrid was a technical moonshot from the very beginning, with an unconventional turbocharged V4 engine linked to a very aggressive electric assist power system that delivers bursts of 1,000 horsepower, combined.
But success wasn’t automatic by any means. Taking the fight to Audi at the Circuit de la Sarthe in 2014, Porsche faced the full might of the Audi Sport team, and though the new Porsche team delivered a superb effort, it came up short to the established Audi team.
That wasn’t the case this year, as the Porsche 919 Hybrids swept the first three positions in qualifying and Porsche went on to claim its seventeenth victory, exactly seventeen years after the last one. Nico Hülkenberg, Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy (No. 19 Porsche 919 Hybrid) finished first, and Mark Weber, Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard (No. 17 Porsche 919 Hybrid) finished second for a stirring Porsche 1-2. André Lotterer, Marcel Fässler and Benoît Tréluyer (No. 7 Audi R18 e-tron Quattro) came in third.
The Porsche victory at Le Mans wasn’t completely unexpected, but the Titanic battle with the vaunted Audi Sport racing machines resulted in the most spectacular racing ever seen at Le Mans, with the technical juggernauts from Germany squaring off in a flat-out duel for 24 hours, racing at qualifying speeds for the entire race while establishing new lap records left and right.
It was incredible. It was memorable. And this year’s running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans became an instant classic, an indelible touchstone in the history of the event.
But there was something else that was incredible about Le Mans this year, and it should not go unnoticed. These two German luxury-performance brands are part of the same global automotive empire – the VW Group – and the fact that they were allowed to square off against each other for the win is almost incomprehensible, within the context of our two domestic automakers. (To see how the Ford Motor Company is approaching Le Mans in 2016, read this week's "Fumes." And for more coverage from Le Mans, including the Corvette Racing victory in GTE Pro, please go to "The Line." -WG)
When the legendary former leader of the VW Group, Dr. Ferdinand Piech, was presented Porsche’s plan to run again at Le Mans, the assumption was that he would tell Audi to stand down from Le Mans and redirect its motorsport interests to something else, perhaps Formula 1 or perhaps even producing an engine for Indianapolis. The thought being that he wouldn’t possibly allow the two company brands to burn up boatloads of cash while beating on each other at the most famous sports car race in the world.
Well the assumptions were just that because Piech not only approved Porsche’s plan, he encouraged the VW Group’s technical stars to compete against each other in the most expensive and expansive “jump ball” the sport has ever seen. And it paid off handsomely, too, as the world witnessed advanced German technical automotive might on the sport’s greatest stage, in a display of ultimate automotive branding that can’t be equaled.
Are there lessons for other manufacturers to take away from this? Yes, of course, but I’m afraid this display won’t resonate nearly as much as it should. Why? Because most manufacturers struggle with fundamental branding. They either remain perpetually clueless about it, or they simply underestimate the power of it altogether. And it’s confounding and frustrating to watch.
Porsche and Audi not only understand the power of brands and branding, they understand where they sit in the luxury-performance automotive spectrum, and they share an unwavering belief in who they are and what their brands represent to the world. (Next week Peter will be doing the annual AE Brand Image Meter, so this discussion will continue. -WG)
In the case of Porsche in particular, the Porsche brain trust understands that the company’s continuous forays into new segments comes with a heavy price, that no matter how good the new products that deviate from its sports car core are, unless and until it reminds itself – and the world – who it is and what it believes in then there’s a chance it might drive the whole thing over the cliff of diminishing returns. In other words, losing itself in a swirling maelstrom of giddy profits would be devastating if it lost its way - and its soul - in the process.
Suffice to say Porsche needed this win at Le Mans, because it defines the company and burnishes its brand not only with the Porsche faithful, but with its burgeoning customer base, the people who – ahem - may not be all that familiar with the historical legacy behind what they’re driving. It galvanizes Porsche’s True Believers on the inside, too, reminding everyone associated with the brand that the company’s fundamental beliefs remain intact and true, no matter what.
Matthias Muller, the Porsche President and CEO, has been borderline belligerent and even prickly in interviews, insisting that no matter what segment Porsche pursues, the machines will retain the essence of Porsche throughout, and to think otherwise is unconscionable. And Porsche’s latest win at Le Mans provides an emphatic exclamation point to that statement.
Excellence Was Expected.
And excellence will be expected, now and in the future.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
(Images courtesy of Porsche/newspressUSA)
Nick Tandy, Earl Bamber and Nico Hülkenberg atop the all-conquering Porsche 919 Hybrid after the team's triumphant performance in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
This was Porsche's seventeenth win in the 24 Hours of Le mans - the most prestigious sports car race in the world - extending the company's record.
The winning No. 19 Porsche 919 Hybrid in for a pit stop overnight.
The speed at Le Mans is breathtaking as it is, but this year Porsche and Audi battled for supremacy at record speeds throughout the race, breaking lap records that had stood since 1971, when the course was devoid of the two chicanes on the Mulsanne Straight.
The No. 17 Porsche 919 Hybrid driven by Mark Weber, Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard finished second for a stirring Porsche 1-2.
Le Mans during the night (above and below) can be surreal.
This was Porsche's first overall win at Le Mans in seventeen long years.