In an era where its fandom has fallen off drastically, motorsport has benefited greatly from the battle at Le Mans between sister brands Porsche and Audi.
There’s little love lost between the two Volkswagen Group sub-brands during the best of times, and the famed 24-hour race through the French countryside is where both have been encouraged to let it show. For three consecutive years, the sibling rivalry was the type of clash that could pique the interest of even the most uninspired observer, the two duking it out in the most grueling test of human and mechanical endurance.
Alas, this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans has some somber undertones. For the first time 18 years, Audi isn’t taking part, the team that’s won the race 13 times since 2000 falling victim to the Dieselgate scandal that’s plagued its parent company.
“No question, we loved having the healthy rivalry with Audi,” former Porsche LMP1 driver and current brand ambassador Mark Webber said, reminiscing about the 2015 running of the race around Circuite de la Sarthe in which his car placed second ahead of a pair of entries from Audi Sport.
Out of the Ashes
As the last vestige of the Volkswagen Group at Le Mans, Porsche is well represented at this, the 85th running of the race. A pair of powerful hybrids are competing yet again in the top-flight LMP1 class, the battleground where Porsche and Audi fought alongside — though perhaps more importantly against — one another, while two 911s run in the GTE Pro class. The automaker also supplies a pair of the same 911 RSRs to a team co-owned by actor Patrick Dempsey.
Of course, those Porsche 919 Hybrids will be facing a tall task if either of them wants to land on the podium. Not only are they outnumbered — Toyota has brought three cars out to this year’s race — but they’re outdated, too. The 919 dates back to 2014, while the Toyota TS050 Hybrid it’s up against only debuted last year.
Without sister brand Audi to go head-to-head with, Porsche is faced with a Toyota team equally well-equipped to take home top honors at the ultimate sports car endurance race. However, this is a brand that’s won the last two runnings of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and there’s no reason it won’t add third before the weekend’s through.
“We’re not shy by saying we want to go for the hat trick,” Webber said. “We have won the race as favorites before; I would say this year we’re a little bit of an underdog, so we have to try to win it like that as well.”
Yet there will still be something missing when the cars take their positions on the starting grid on Saturday; a something that is as tangible as it is unthinkable.
“The Audi guys did an excellent job over many, many years of experience,” said Porsche Motorsport boss, Dr. Frank-Steffen Walliser. “It’s a bit of a pity, but we all know the circumstances surrounding it. We did not ask for this.”