Audi and Porsche at Le Mans 2014

Le Mans
Porsche-919.jpg

Will Porsche and Audi be allowed to fight to the finish at Le Mans this year?

It is a question I am asked quite a lot at the moment as Porsche prepares to return to Le Mans after 16 years away and Audi seeks to improve further upon its already unparalleled record of 12 wins in its last 14 attempts at La Sarthe. It’s a natural question to ask too, as both companies are owned by the Volkswagen Group.

The answer is I know no better than you but Le Mans is no stranger to team orders and carefully controlled finishes, particularly from car companies for whom one of the most important aspects of the race will be the photograph of the winner crossing the line, ideally flanked by its stable-mates.

But do I think there’ll be a carefully choreographed Porsche/Audi arrowhead at the end? Even if Toyota doesn’t manage to get among them and spoil the fun, I do not. Both teams, I am sure, will be able to fight freely and fairly from first to last.

Audi vs Bentley

There is some precedent here. At the start of the century Audi and Bentley were the two VW brands competing for overall honours, with Audi holding the trump card of having its engines in the back of the Bentley. And at first at least, there were some at Bentley who thought Audi might use this power to influence outcomes.

Indeed they felt their suspicions had been confirmed when during qualifying for Bentley’s race debut as a modern team in 2001, Martin Brundle was unable to get within 2sec of the time he’d set on what he’d described as a “crap lap” during the official test weekend some weeks previously.

In the race the Bentleys were unable to get near the Audi R8s that year or in 2002; but when the Audi works team took a year off in 2003 leaving the Bentleys with only a number of private R8s to beat, suddenly there was a Bentley on pole, almost 3sec a lap quickest than the fastest Audi.

It is true that at the time there was a sense of 2003 being ‘Bentley’s year’ and you might even argue one reason the works Audis were not there was to help facilitate this. But a conspiracy? I think not: the 2003 Bentley was an all-new car and a radical design compared the necessarily conservative machine of the previous two seasons. It won on merit, just as had Audi the two previous years.

Porsche’s Le Mans victories
1970: Richard Attwood/Hans Herrmann (917K)
1971: Helmut Marko/Gijs van Lennep (917K)
1976: Jacky Ickx/Gijs van Lennep (936)
1977: Jürgen Barth/Jacky Ickx/Hurley Haywood (936/77)
1979: Klaus Ludwig/Bill Whittington/Don Whittington (935 K3)
1981: Derek Bell/Jacky Ickx (936)
1982: Derek Bell/Jacky Ickx (956)
1983: Hurley Haywood/Al Holbert/Vern Schuppan (956)
1984: Klaus Ludwig/Henri Pescarolo (956)
1985: Paolo Barilla/Klaus Ludwig/John Winter (956)
1986: Derek Bell/Al Holbert/Hans Stuck (962C)
1987: Derek Bell/Al Holbert/Hans Stuck (962C)
1994: Mauro Baldi/Yannick Dalmas/Hurley Haywood (Dauer 962)
1996: Davy Jones/Manuel Reuter/Alex Wurz (WSC-95)
1997: Michele Alboreto/Stefan Johansson/Tom Kristensen (WSC-95)
1998: Laurent Aïello/Allan McNish/Stéphane Ortelli (911 GT1-98)

Besides, the situation that exists today between Audi and Porsche is rather different. When Bentley won 11 years ago it was not only with an Audi engine in the car but Audi’s long-term Joest race team in the pits. By contrast the Porsche is a Porsche from one end to the other and was designed, engineered and developed in a brand new facility at Weissach and will be raced by Porsche and Porsche alone.

What’s the difference?

Also the cars have nothing in common. The Audi is powered by a V6 diesel engine, the Porsche by a V4 petrol motor that I’m hoping sounds less inelegant than its specification suggests. The Audi uses a Williams flywheel system to store its hybrid power, the Porsche a battery. The cars will race independently and, I believe, autonomously.

What a contest it promises to be. On Audi’s side stands massive experience and recent success. It is the most professional team ever to go sports car racing and it will not have estimated the threat from down the road in Stuttgart to the smallest degree. Those hoping for a Porsche win must believe the company would never have undertaken the programme without absolutely believing from the outset it had found a way to beat Audi.

That’s the thing: if Jaguar went back to Le Mans there’d be no shame at all being cast in the role of plucky loser, best of the rest behind the Audis: indeed it worked a treat for Bentley in 2001 and 2002. But Porsche is different. Porsche is probably the only team that has to win on its return to Le Mans. It may not be fair, it may even not be realistic, but when there are cars like the 917 and 956 on your CV, being simply somewhere near the front is not nearly good enough.

What do I think will happen? I think the Porsche will be both fast and frugal but if I were to open a book on the outcome of the race, I’d have to make Audi favourite to be out in front 24 hours later. And certainly I feel Porsche has more to lose: if Audi doesn’t win it’ll be just one dip in form after over a decade at the top; for Porsche after so long away and with such a burden of unreasonable expectation on its shoulders, the road back to glory might just look longer than ever.

But so too does it have more to gain: if Audi wins again, hardly anyone will notice. If Porsche wins, for the first time in over a decade it’ll make Le Mans front page news on every enthusiast publication and website around the world.

More from Andrew Frankel
Ferrari 375 Plus to be sold at Goodwood
Will Ferrari return to Le Mans?
The latest on Michael Schumacher

You may also like