Yankees versus Red Sox. Duke against North Carolina. Fans love sports grudge matches, which can thrust the weight of destiny on the players. This weekend in France, a fresh rivalry will begin, ushering in a new era of international sports car racing.
Porsche, the German company whose iconography was built on a foundation of racing victories, will return to top class competition at the 24 Hours of Le Mans—the world’s most prestigious sports car race by far—for the first time since 1998. The team will take on another German firm, Audi, which has won Le Mans 12 out of the last 14 years. The matchup pits the most successful team in Le Mans history in Porsche, with 16 wins between 1970 and 1998, against the second most successful, Audi, with 12 wins, all since 2000.
Ironically, both are owned by Volkswagen, Europe’s biggest auto maker.
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of Japan will round out the field in the top class this weekend and, to complicate matters, Toyota has qualified fastest for the race. Still, the Audi versus Porsche sibling rivalry has captured the imagination of the fans. And it signifies a larger trend in motor sport. German car brands are currently in the midst of a hugely financed campaign to prove that their nation’s industrial calling card—bulletproof engineering—is no cliché, but a fact based in hard results on the track.
Not only will Audi and Porsche duel in this weekend’s 24-hour classic, Mercedes is currently dominating Formula One, campaigning to win its first world championship since 1955. Although that team is international with a home base in England, it is the result of an investment by the parent company, Daimler of Germany.
“German technology is looking pretty stout right now,” said Mario Andretti, a former F1 champion who’s raced at Le Mans many times. “Why do people buy these cars? Because they’re winners. That’s what these companies are selling, and that’s the reason they race.”
Le Mans is billed as the world’s most challenging test of engineering, and one of the more dangerous (a Danish driver was killed at last year’s event, and French driver Loic Duval was briefly hospitalized following a spectacular crash Wednesday). Machines resembling space ships throttle around an 8.5-mile twisting ribbon of cordoned-off public roads in the French countryside for 24 hours, traditionally at top speeds exceeding 200 mph, in front of crowds nearing 250,000, with innumerable others watching on TV. The car that travels the farthest wins.
This year’s race features new rules and newly imagined vehicles. The top-class cars are hybrids engineered to boost power despite new rules requiring greater fuel efficiency, forcing the teams to create radical strategies while trying to maintain all-out speed. Energy usage will decrease roughly 30% per lap from last year.
The new regulations for 2014, which first percolated three years ago, were precisely what lured Porsche back to this level of competition. The decision was made in the spring of 2011 “to return to the highest level of motor sport,” said Wolfgang Hatz, a member of Porsche’s Board of Management in charge of Research and Development. “Priority No. 1 was Le Mans. We knew that 2014 would present complete new regulations with a very, very high objective of road car relevance. So it fit perfectly with our plan.”
“We were part of Le Mans since the 1950s,” he added. “Le Mans is our second home.”
Porsche’s new racing car, the 919 Hybrid, has been in development for nearly three years. When asked if the 919 represents the most advanced technological experiment in Porsche’s storied history, Hatz answered: “Absolutely. That is a fact.”
Audi, meanwhile, was the first team to win Le Mans with a hybrid, in 2012. The team also defines its present Le Mans car—the R18 e-tron quattro—as its most technologically advanced machinery ever.
“There is no question [this year’s car] is the most futuristic car that we have,” said Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, head of the Audi team. “From year to year, we’ve been bringing more new and future-orientated technology to the car. And at present, this is the maximum out of what we have done.”
While the two German companies are both owned by Volkswagen, neither has shared trade secrets with the other. “Should we race hand in hand?” Dr. Ullrich asked rhetorically. “These two companies run completely different concepts, and each one wants to show that he has the better concept.”
Audi’s car is a 4.0-liter turbo-diesel V6 with a single energy-recovery system to provide hybrid boost, while Porsche is running a 2.0-liter turbo gasoline-powered V4 with two energy-recovery systems.
None of the executives interviewed would comment on the budget, but sources are quoting numbers with a lot of zeros. “The general consensus is that Porsche and Audi are spending around $200 million each on these programs,” said David Hobbs, an ex-champion racer who’s now a TV commentator.
According to Le Mans rules, three drivers are assigned to each car, with one in the car at a time. Audi will run three factory-entered cars in the top class, while Porsche and Toyota will run two. Leading up to Le Mans, Toyota has shown a surprise surge, winning the first two races of the FIA World Endurance Championship and capturing the Le Mans pole. In qualifying, Porsche has qualified second, faster than Audi.
“We have the respect of our competitors,” said Porsche’s Hatz. Audi and Toyota have “much more experience,” he added. “But if everything goes well, you never know.”
Coverage begins Saturday at 8:30 a.m. EDT on Fox Sports.