For many people. the 24 hours of Le Mans endurance race is the pinnacle of motorsports. Any fool with 4 wheels and an engine can go fast for an hour or two, but 24 hours straight, with no breaks, no timeouts, and no half time shows? That’s what separates the winners from the also rans. For 13 of the last 18 years, endurance racing cars manufactured by Audi have won Le Mans. But that long tradition of excellence is coming to an end.
Audi announced this week that it is shutting down its endurance racing program to focus on Formula E, the racing series for open wheel electric cars. “We will conduct the race for the future electronically,” Rupert Stadler, Audi’s CEO, told workers at the company’s sports car division last Wednesday. “As our production cars are becoming increasingly electric, our motorsport cars, as Audi’s technological spearheads, have to even more so,” Stadler said.
Blame it on Volkswagen and its willingness to blatantly lie about the emissions coming out of the tailpipes of its diesel powered cars. Volkswagen is the corporate parent of Audi. Facing billions in fines and penalties as a result of years of cheating, it needs to cut down on how much money it spends. Germany’s Handelsblatt reports that Audi spends more than $300,000,000 a year on its endurance racing program. Audi scoffs that the number is nowhere near that. Not a pfenning over $100,000,000, it claims. Either way, it’s a lot of cashola, money that parent Volkswagen doesn’t have at the moment.
The big problem for Audi’s endurance racing program is that it is based upon a diesel electric hybrid powertrain. Spending money on diesel technology just doesn’t seem appropriate for a Volkswagen owned company at the moment, even though the company still believes there is a place for diesel engines in road cars. “If we are serious about achieving carbon dioxide emission targets, then there is no alternative to diesel because they are the most efficient engines,” an Audi spokesman says.
Porsche is also owned by Volkswagen. It has a long and illustrious history in Le Mans competition. After being away from the sport for a number of years, it jumped back in in 2014, lured by the very success with a hybrid powertrain enjoyed by its corporate cousin, Audi. Hybrid technology is seen as vital to future road cars as government regulators around the world ratchet up emissions rules. The difference is that the current Porsche endurance racer uses a gasoline engine, which allows it to avoid the taint of diesel engines that Volkswagen executives are so wary of. Porsche will continue its Le Mans program. Toyota will be the only other company still competing in the top class of endurance racing after Audi withdraws.
The mere mention of Le Mans conjures up memories of some of the best automobile racing ever. Henry Ford II mounted a personal vendetta against Enzo Ferrari, determined to shut the mouthy Italian up and humiliate his prancing horse badged race cars. The mighty Ford GT 40 — so named because it stood only 40 inches tall — eventually did win Le Mans. Having accomplished his mission of defeating Ferrari, Henry The Deuce withdrew his company from further Le Mans competition and went back to Detroit to gloat.
Audi has dominated Le Mans in the current era. Now it will be time for a different company to rule the iconic race track nestled in the French countryside. If you have a moment, stream the famed racing movie Le Mans starring Steve McQueen from NetFlix. It’s a great way to get a sense of what competing at Le Mans is all about. Guaranteed to give you goose bumps while you watch. Make popcorn and enjoy.