By Peter M. De Lorenzo Autoextremist.com
To some, Audi’s domination of the 24 Hours of Le Mans is getting tedious. Eleven wins in thirteen years – with the latest victory coming this past weekend – is a level of success that is difficult to contemplate at times. I’ve started to hear comments referencing the fact that there’s little or no competition, that a creeping arrogance is developing (e.g., “The Truth in 24″ movies), it’s boring and bad for racing, etc., etc. But I look at it in the complete opposite way, because I believe we are witnessing a dimension of such consistent excellence that it’s simply awe inspiring. Better still, to know what’s behind Audi’s commitment to winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans makes the achievement that much more impressive.
It must be hard to fathom for some now but fourteen years ago Audi was a perennial “second-tier” brand behind BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus in the U.S. market, struggling to break out of the continuing funk that was the direct result of the hatchet-job performed by “60 Minutes” twelve long years before that (November 1986). The totally erroneous report by the CBS news program, which accused Audi of building vehicles that suffered from unintended acceleration, nearly put the brand out of business in this country – even though it was proven to be completely false – and it lingered over the car company like a shroud of negativity.
Audi was making excellent cars at the time, which were getting better with each and every new model, but Audi executives knew that this wasn’t going to be enough, that if they wanted to break out of their perennial second-tier market status both here and in Europe, drastic steps needed to be taken. Audi needed something more, and its executives wanted to make the Audi brand statement emphatically and in the most visible and public way possible, which is why they chose to compete in the arena of top level motorsport.
But that decision alone was fraught with much hand-wringing. Audi execs could have chosen to compete at Indianapolis with an engine program, but there wasn’t enough of a connection to its car-building operation to justify the expense in their estimation. Formula 1 was ruled out because of its withering costs. NASCAR wasn’t even remotely considered because it was a regional series and there was absolutely no connection to the production technology Audi was putting into its production cars. And even though Audi had competed successfully in championship rallying in the past, it needed and wanted a racing venue that would be more visible and more connected to a broader audience. Le Mans is the most prestigious sports car road racing event in the world by far, with a vast global viewing audience, which is why it seemed like the perfect fit.
To their credit, Audi management knew that saying they would compete at Le Mans and doing it were completely different things. Audi executives understood that if they put their stake in the ground and announced to the world that they would be competing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans that they would have to commit the resources to win. Because anything less would be completely unacceptable.
And to their credit, that’s exactly what they did.
Commitment, a focused consistency and a relentless desire to be the best has marked the Audi Le Mans program from the very beginning. The commitment part of course meant allocating huge amounts of money to the program’s budget (some estimates have pegged Audi’s Le Mans budget at $125 million+ per year, if not more, since the program’s inception), but it also meant seamlessly integrating the company’s engineering resources into the program as well. It’s no secret that Audi makes sure its “best and brightest” engineers and designers are rotated through its Le Mans program, from all of the key product development disciplines. The focused consistency part came in when the company, to its credit, could have walked away after a few wins satisfied that they had been there and done that, but instead stepped-up their commitment to the program with a renewed focus and energy each and every year.
On the race track Audi has performed at an extraordinarily high level and with such domination that it’s simply awe inspiring. But its success hasn’t been limited to the race track by any means. More important, Audi’s success in establishing itself as a top-tier luxury brand is a direct result of the commitment and focused consistency demonstrated in its Le Mans program. Led by the technical advances showcased in its stunning racing machines such as Direct fuel-injection (TFSI), advanced turbo diesel technology (TDI) and the latest in hybrid technology (which they won with this past weekend), the transformation of Audi production cars over the last decade has been equally stunning.
Audi is now the forward thinking brand firmly ensconced at the head table of the luxury-performance segment. Boasting technically advanced and beautifully purposeful machines inside and out, Audi production cars bristle with brilliant, innovative ideas and are executed with a relentless precision. And they are beautiful to look at as well.
Oh, and that relentless desire part? Well, as I’ve often said, you can’t put a number on a car’s soul, that sometimes a machine can transcend the sum total of its parts to become something great, or even legendary.
Audi management seems never content to rest on the brand’s laurels, and their relentless desire to be the best looks to be well and truly engaged and focused for the future. And that’s a very good thing.
The hardest part for Audi execs from here on out?
Keeping Audi on an upward trajectory without allowing complacency to creep in, on the track, or in their production vehicles.
After a 22-year career in automotive advertising and marketing, Peter M. De Lorenzo founded Autoextremist.com on June 1, 1999 as an Internet magazine devoted to news, commentary and analysis of the auto industry and the business of motorsports. Since then the site has become a weekly “must read” for leading professionals within and outside the auto and motorsports industries, and De Lorenzo is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.