The risks and benefits of 24 Hours of Le Mans

Harald Hamprecht is Editor-in-Chief at Automotive News EuropeHarald Hamprecht is Editor-in-Chief at Automotive News Europe
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About 250,000 spectators watched the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France last weekend. The event, held annually since 1923, is the world's oldest sports car endurance race and is still one of the most important of its kind, along with the Indianapolis 500 and the Monte Carlo Rally. And Le Mans is fast -- with an average speed of 225kph, including about 30 pit stops in 24 hours.

At the 79th Le Mans, 55 cars competed against each other in four segments. But ultimately, it was a race between two factory teams: Audi and Peugeot, which each fielded three cars.

Even diehard motor sport fans would agree that this year's race was unsurpassed in its drama. During the first third of the race, two of Audi's three R18 TDI cars were lost in horrific crashes at speeds of about 300kph. But the third R18 clinched victory for the brand after 16 hours racing on its own in a thrilling battle against three Peugeot 908 race cars and a fourth privately held one.

The win was Audi's 10th at Le Mans in 13 years, giving the German premium brand second place in the race's all-time ranking after Porsche, which has 16 victories.

A great achievement for Audi, but was it worth it for the brand to take part in the race at a time when budgets are tight? Or might Formula One be a better investment? Let's have a closer look.

The costs

Companies do not talk officially about the costs of taking part in racing but insiders estimate that a season of F1 costs about 400 million euros and an endurance race like Le Mans about a tenth of that, so 40 million euros, although the costs decrease because you don't have to develop a car each season from the scratch. Audi employs about 250 people in its motor sports department, not just for Le Mans, but also for other endurance races such as Belgium's Spa endurance race or Germany's DTM touring car series.

Media coverage

Le Mans takes place over a single weekend, attracting not just 250,000 spectators at the track but also millions of TV and Internet viewers, according to Audi. Formula One's 19 races attract a huge global audience, especially in emerging markets that are growing in importance for automakers. Last year, an average of more than 96 million spectators globally watched every F1 race, according to internal data of a F1 team. The last F1 race attracted almost 7 million TV viewers in Germany alone. A DTM race is seen by about 2.2 million German TV viewers on average. Le Mans has smaller viewing figures, with an average of 200,000 viewers in Audi's home market of Germany.

Technology showcase

Audi r&d boss Michael Dick said Audi's Le Mans win this year was the toughest to achieve, which perhaps also made it the most valuable one. "At the same time, albeit involuntarily, we proved that our engineers design very safe cars." He said Le Mans has always been a perfect testing ground for Audi's innovative technology, for example in aerodynamics, engine performance or LED lighting. "It was a fantastic triumph of Audi's ultra-lightweight technology in extreme conditions," said CEO Rupert Stadler, who watched the thrilling race from the pits with other Audi board members and VW Group CEO Martin Winterkorn.

Other benefits

Audi invited 1,200 guests from 25 countries including key customers and top-performing dealers. And Le Mans could gain in importance and other factory teams that once took part but quit, such as Porsche and Toyota. Audi will have the advantage of having gained lots of experience.

An Audi manager defended the brand's participation in Le Mans, saying the race covered 5,400 km in one weekend, "more than a Formula One car in a year." And only the winner enjoys the spotlight in Formula One, which is currently dominated not by an automaker, but by the energy drinks company Red Bull. Mercedes last won the F1 title in 2008. BMW quit the race in 2009 and concentrates on DTM.

The risks

In this year's Le Mans race Audi was on the brink of disaster when two of its cars crashed, although both drivers survived. The first accident almost killed some photographers. If someone had died or the third car had also crashed instead of winning, the negative media coverage would have been disastrous for Audi. Everyone knows motor sports is not pony trekking, but the risks at Le Mans are especially high. And there is only one race, not 19 like in F1, so there is little room for error.

In a nutshell: Le Mans is definitely a very expensive and risky race for a brand like Audi, but it is also very prestigious. And sometimes you have to invest in areas where your fiercest rivals are absent to boost your brand's profile. In Le Mans, Audi might have reached fewer people than Formula One does, but those who followed the race will stay deeply impressed for a long time.

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