The financial and motoring communities of Germany, and indeed the whole world, are fascinated by the ongoing struggle as Porsche tries first to take over Volkswagen and then to survive the Wolfsburg giant's own attempts at control. Wiedeking versus Piech-it's one of those sorts of contests where you would like both sides to lose. But this situation is so fast moving that it's difficult to keep up.
But it isn't just in the boardroom or stock exchange (and in this case, the Family Schloss) where VW/Audi are locked in combat with Porsche. In late May the venue was the Nordschleife and the 2009 Nurburgring 24 Hours. This has been Porsche's stomping ground over the past few years with the thinly disguised "werks" outfit of Manthey Racing dominating proceedings. This year things would be different, however.
As on the road, Audi is making advances into areas that Porsche would normally consider its own exclusive territory. The V8-powered Audi R8 is a direct competitor to the 911, and the supercar V10 is looking at GT2 customers. This is getting serious. On the track too, Porsche has a new opponent in the GT3 class, the Audi R8 LMS, and just to make sure that the boys from Weissach get the message, Audi entered four examples in the German Endurance Classic.
Of course, a quick glance at the entry list would make you think that the Audis and Porsches were privateer entries-Manthey, Phoenix, Abt-but just look at the driver lineups.
For Porsche it was Timo Bernhard, Marc Lieb, Romain Dumas and Marcel Tiemann in Car 1 and Emmanuel Collard, Wolf Henzler, Richard Lietz and Dirk Werner in Car 2.
If anything, Audi was even more blatant with DTM superstars Timo Scheider and Matthias Ekstrom leading the pack of Le Mans winners, Marco Werner, Emanuele Pirro, Frank Biela and Hans-Joachim Stuck, together with other sports car stars Lucas Luhr, Mike Rockenfeller and Marcel Fassler.
If further confirmation were needed, motorsport top brass in the form of Dr. Ullrich was much in evidence and the final confirmation came when I saw my colleague at Audi SportPresse, Bodo Kraling, climbing up a ladder trying to make an Audi team picture under the direction of Eva-Maria Vieth. Getting serious, indeed.
The Nurburgring 24 Hours is one of the best-kept secrets in motorsport. The event is run round a 25km combination of new and old parts of the Ring. It attracts a huge crowd of 200,000-plus, which becomes well refreshed during the four-day festival. The throng was entertained this year by a field of more than 170 cars and 500 drivers-a bit down numbers-wise compared to recent years, but if anything the quality was higher.
Although it was clear that the battle for outright victory was going to be between the two German cousins, there were also factory efforts from Lexus, Nissan, Subaru, Mitsubishi, Aston Martin, Volkswagen, BMW and Alpina. All these brands scrapping over the various class prizes and adding to the increasingly cosmopolitan flavor of the event.
From the moment the cars took to the track it was clear that the pre-race favorites, the Porsches, would have to be at the top of their game to stay in front of the relentless Audi pack.
There was a late change to the script, instead of one of our two boys being on pole there was a charge from a GT3 version of the Ford GT. This interloper also snatched the lead at the start of the race and held Marc Lieb at bay all the way till the first pit stops. Then, as quickly as it arrived, it disappeared and eventually retired.
This cleared the way for the Manthey #1 to lead, as Audi became the first to blink. The "DTM" car of Scheider, Ekstrom and Werner, of which much was expected, never really figured in the event. It was hit in the rear on the first lap and then suffered an electrical failure caused by a defective spark plug. This took forever to diagnose and fix. So their race effectively started from 166th place, and despite a few other issues with the rear suspension and the fuel system, they soldiered on to finish 23rd.
Leading the charge for Audi, and at the top of the field for several hours, was the #99 Phoenix Racing R8 LMS. This was in the hands of Marc Basseng, Frank Stippler, Mike Rockenfeller and Marcel Fassler. They were able to run for a lap more on a tank of fuel than the Porsche, and this compensated for being slightly slower. The lead stayed with the R8 but it was unable to break away from the two chasing Porsches. This fight was going to go all the way.
Perhaps the crucial moment of the race came at around 2 a.m., when the leader, at this time the Manthey #1 911, was given a three-minute stop-and-go penalty for ignoring yellow flags in a dangerous situation. The marshals had reported the car for speeding but did not have any radar to back up their claims. Manthey Racing was able to present its data logs as part of an appeal against the penalty, and when the officials ran the data through their system they found that the Porsche had been going at "an acceptable pace" so the time lost, assessed at 3 minutes, 26 seconds, was reversed. This was the point at which most of us thought that karma had swung back Manthey's way.
The fight continued through the remaining hours of darkness and into the early morning. The race was effectively decided at around 11:20 on Sunday morning as the #99 Audi suddenly stopped at the Hohe Acht with a transmission problem. The team sent out a squad of mechanics who set to work and replaced the right rear suspension and a driveshaft while trackside, but this cost six laps and any chance of victory. Fifth place was the best that could be achieved.
The Manthey 1-2 was rudely interrupted when some 20 minutes later the second-place car broke a driveshaft. Replacing this took 20 minutes. No one seemed safe from the problems this flat-out race round the Nordschleife was producing.
Audi's hopes rested on the #97 Team Abt Sportsline R8 of Christian Abt, Jean-Francois Hemroulle, Pierre Kaffer and Lucas Luhr. They could not quite get on terms with the lead Manthey 911, but were comfortably in front of the next Porsche. They ended second, just one lap down on the winner. Getting all four Audis to the finish and pushing Porsche all the way was a great achievement. The win could easily have gone their way, and Manthey and Porsche knew it.
In terms of the development for the R8 LMS customer program, considerable progress was made. According to Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, head of Audi motorsport: "We'll analyze the problems that occurred on the three other vehicles and feed the findings into the final version of the R8 LMS, which will be delivered to customers starting this fall. We now know that we've got a very good base."
Audi got all its cars to the finish; potential customers will have taken note.
In the end, it was the fourth consecutive win for Manthey Racing. It was a hat trick of wins for the driver lineup of Marc Lieb, Marcel Tiemann, Roman Dumas and Timo Bernhard. A new distance record was set, the weather was great all race long; an almost perfect weekend.
It was also a personal landmark for Marcel Tiemann, whose outright wins tally now stands at a record five times. A former winner of the Monaco Formula Three race and works driver for both Mercedes-Benz and Opel in DTM and sports cars, he has become a star on the VLN endurance racing scene. Who's to say that win number six won't happen in 2010?
As an event, the Nurburgring 24 Hours stands comparison with the other great festivals of endurance. A key element in the DNA of any endurance event is the fans, and the Nurburgring 24 Hours attracts a very special breed of follower. They have to be tough, as the elements are frequently harsh; they enjoy the racing, drink beer in prodigious quantities, and generally party hard. Since the weather gods were benign this year, beer flowed in plenty.
On my way to Schwalbenschwanz around dawn on Sunday I passed an unsteady figure on the dirt track. After parking I had to make the same trek to get access to the circuit and he passed me going the opposite way, still unsteady but now the proud possessor of two large beers, one presumably for another soul who was somehow less mobile. That's real friendship for you, walking half a mile at dawn to get your mate a beer. It is the spirit of endurance and would be instantly recognized by those who attend Le Mans or Sebring.
It's a pity that Porsche and Volkswagen cannot seem to find the same spirit of friendship. Maybe in the end Porsche ought to buy Audi a beer.
Random happenings in the world of Motorsport
Formula One: An interesting conversation is going on behind the scenes this season. It doesn't have anything to do with FIA uber-dictator Max Mosley and his "should I stay or should I go" routine, or how much more money King Bernie can take in. While the talk of the town is on the remarkable season that Jenson Button and teammate Rubens Barrichello are having aboard the Brawn GP, a more introspective look is going on regarding the designs of Ross Brawn.
Button, once a promising talent, was a perennial back marker until Brawn took over the former Honda outfit, changed powerplants, and debuted a new chassis. Teammate Ruebens Barelythereo lost his way after being with Ferrari for so many seasons. So now the former grid fillers are top of the pops, while former World Champ Lewis Hamilton plods along in 15th place. No one ever questioned Michael Schumacher's talent; he drove some fairly evil machinery. However, the bulk of the multiple world championships came in a Ross Brawn Maranello prancing horse. There you have it-was it man or machine? Technology has carried this conversation to the point of entrenchment of those who know how to spell Fangio and those who play with F1 simulators.
American Le Mans Series: Not the best of times for the ALMS and its supporters. Depleted in quantity and quality, the series is struggling to present a first-class show. The Acura effort has been brilliant and professional, but without Audi competing, it has a hollow ring. Corvette has taken its solo act out of GT1, thus officially closing the book on that class. The Pratt brats have a GT2 Vette to go battle the class with the Porsches and F-word cars. The officials have been forced to take in a few of the Patron GT3 Porsche Cup cars to bolster the field. While this is a great opportunity for the Cup drivers, it isn't what the show should be all about. The ALMS has fallen victim to the economics of being a manufacturer showcase. In the good times, all is well as the money is there to field the product; when it isn't, you get Grand Am.
Grand Am: The alternative to the ALMS has survived, and to some degree prospered in this no-money climate. Fat fields, close racing-but to the purist, cars of little merit. Porsche has enjoyed a great season in GT against Mazda and the soon-to-be collector's item, Pontiac. And Porsche P.R. can claim the biggest price of the GA with the win at the Daytona 24. The rest of the season hasn't been kind to either Porsche team of Brumos or Penske in the prototurtle clan. Roger's boys have really been a revelation, as the plebs all predicted, "Wait till Penske shows up." Well they have, and somewhere Alex Job is having a good laugh. GA is all about a clubhouse mentality for its members (i.e., competitors) and having a good time on the track regardless of how many or how few spectators take in the show. Fun? Yes... but so is my local go-kart track.
Le Mans: The aftermath of Le Classic has the Lords of the Rings in Ingolstadt wondering what went wrong. Audi, for the first time this decade, was woefully out of synch, and only the efforts of the senior squad of Tom Terrific, Dindo and Nishy kept the R15 relevant against the winning diesel lions of Peugeot. Audi is concentrating on its DTM efforts and fielded a serious effort with the R8 GT3 at the Ring 24, but politically it is mired in the battle between parent company VW and Porsche. Wait and see is the current watchword, and, hopefully for fans of prototype racing, Audi will be back. Leaving behind a decade of achievement would be nothing less than unintended acceleration.-Kerry Morse