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Notes from the Cellar

Across the Border

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Postcards from the edge



Bill Oursler looks at Old Friends and the Wall of Division

What seems clear even at the early stage of the 2008 sports car season is that in any head-to-head confrontation, the Peugeot diesel is going to be faster than its Audi opposition. Does that mean the Peugeot 908 is going consistently sit atop the victory podium, while the T10 suffers from inferiority complex in second place? Maybe, and then again, perhaps not. After all, speed is one thing, going the distance, particularly without problems, is another.

Ever since the turn of the century, Audi has been the class of the prototype universe, maintaining a perfect overall record at Le Mans, first with the R8, and now with the R10, doing the virtually the same thing in the American Le Mans Series, where its has yet to be defeated for the LMP1 points honors. Of course, the Audi camp took an unofficial back seat to the folks, who own it and its parent Volkswagen, the nice ladies and gentleman from Porsche. Their supposedly inferior LMP2 RS Spyders, which cleaned house in that division, won outright eight times to Audi’s four overall victories – not quite the outcome the Ingolstadt racing community had hoped for.

Moreover, the Audi R10s, didn’t race in Europe, except for Le Mans where Peugeot suffered from “first year” troubles at the Sarthe, allowing yet another Audi triumph. Instead, the Germans left the European based Le Mans Series to the French, the 908s predictably walking over the opposition. This year, though, it’s going to be a little different, at least on the Eastern shores of the Atlantic because Audi will take on Peugeot in what promises to be a fascinating duel not just for race track superiority, but more importantly, sales in the lucrative European diesel street market.

Almost certainly, unless Audi does something to beef up the R10’s performance package, the Peugeots should emerge the winners – if they last. And, that’s a real question mark, for while the 908s were fairly solid everywhere except Le Mans, they were everywhere relatively unchallenged by the less than strong privateer competition they faced. Now Audi is around, and Audi, even if they are somewhat off Peugeot’s pace, will push hard. The results may turn out to be more unpredictable than fans of the 908 might want, or like.

Even so, Audi is faced with a decision to build and develop, or not build and develop a new car to replace the current R10. On the one hand the choice seems simple: assuming the R10 is a commercially inspired and driven program to increase diesel market share, then constructing a successor that can take on the Peugeots should be what the Americans call “a no brainer.” Yet, life is never quite that simple.  The L’Automobile Club du L’Ouest, the ACO, has announced it intends to institute new rules starting in 2010. The only thing that so far seems certain about them is that they will call for enclosed, rather than open prototypes. The rest remains unclear.

Keeping in mind that when VW AG decided it would give its Bentley brand the lead several years ago in winning Le Mans, it spent what was reported to be in excess of $50 million U.S. on the project. And, this was a vehicle, which in most respects to many observers was a “warmed over” Audi R8 spyder with a roof thrown over it. While that may be an exaggeration, doing a new car to overtake the Peugeot is by no means “cheap,” with many believing the price tag to be in the range of a couple of hundred million dollars. Perhaps even more significant is the fact that without firm regulations yet published for 2010, there are no assurances that the cash will be well spent in light of the fact that once its done for 2009, it might not be eligible without major modification (read even more money) for 2010.

In essence then the issue comes down to one thing: will Audi be willing to invest in what may well turn out to be “a one year wonder,” or will it simply decide to gather up its marbles, claim superiority, and go home. In 1951 when Ferrari beat Alfa Romeo in Formula One using as its tool a large displacement non supercharged V12 against the boost 1.5-liter straight of its cross town opposition, Alfa took a hike, throwing F-1 into chaos for two years.

On the other hand Ferdinand Piech had no problem putting aside the three- liter Porsche 908 prototype at the end of the 1960’s when he was given the opportunity to run a five-liter sports racer in the World Championship of Makes even if it meant building 25 of them to comply with what the FIA determined was “a production” sports car. That machine was the famed 917 which turned the Makes tour upside down and forever changed Porsche’s place on the motorsport stage.”

Today Porsche has bought a controlling interest in VW, thereby is in charge of Audi’s fate when it comes to racing, and while there are those who say Piech’s influence as part of the Porsche clan, can be felt in Zuffenhausen, the truth is that it is far less than one might imagine. Indeed, there are indications that Piech and Porsche AG president Wendelin Weideking are on the “outs.” Given the latter’s concerns about spending money on racing, unless there’s a guarantee of “near certain” success, and given the fact that if Audi ups the ante, most likely Peugeot will as well, it would be a poor bet to think that he would give his blessing to any new car that didn’t have a multi-year life span at the very least.

So, just because Audi may be taking a non-front row seat, it will most likely have to make do with what it has now with a few “upgrades.” Whether that will be enough is unknown. Still, if Audi does manage to beat Peugeot at Le Mans again this June, then it probably won’t matter much because the one thing in the sports car side of the sport is that the Sarthe is “The Holy Grail” for all those that choose to participate in it. And, that you can take to the bank.

                                                                  Bill Oursler
                                                                  April 2008

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