Can Porsche win at Le Mans?

With 16 overall victories, Porsche is the winningest marque in the 81-year history of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s most famous automotive endurance race. In 1999, at the top of its game, the German carmaker turned its back on the race – a move widely read as a means of freeing funds to develop its first SUV, the Cayenne. Sixteen years later, to the resounding cheers of the faithful, Porsche is coming back.

When the brand took its long sabbatical from top-level racing, it passed the baton to its Volkswagen Group stablemate, Audi. And Audi did not merely carry that baton. Competing in the premier LMP1 prototype class, the company conducted symphonies with it, becoming the second-winningest marque at Le Mans by 2013, claiming 12 victories in 14 years. Many observers assumed Porsche's long-awaited return to Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship (WEC) would mean an end to Audi's participation. But that isn’t the case.

Crowd-sourced hypercar

How Porsche paid for the 918 Spyder

During Porsche's 16-year absence from top-level endurance racing, some of the company's best performances have happened not at the track, but at the bank. Porsche took an advance from its wealthiest customers to develop the new 918 Spyder, a roadgoing, 887hp shadow of the Le Mans-racing 919 Hybrid. These depositors relinquished $200,000 per vehicle, one payment that accompanied the initial purchase agreement and the second that was due 12 months before delivery. In this crowd-sourcing among global one-percenters, Porsche netted more than $367m to develop and produce its $845,000 hybrid hypercar. Total revenue for a planned production run of 918 cars? Close to $800m.

Within the Volkswagen family of brands (which also includes Bugatti, Bentley, Lamborghini, SEAT and Skoda, plus Ducati motorcycles), each marque finances its own racing efforts, and both Audi and Porsche have the resources to compete in the 2014 WEC, including Le Mans. So it is that in 2014, the brothers will face each other for the first time.

The first step for Porsche's return to Le Mans was to present a business case to its board of directors. The company’s own profits would fund the effort; Porsche sees $23,000 of upside per vehicle, averaged over its whole product line. Exactly how much has it allotted to the Le Mans effort? Specifics are unknown, but reliable estimates put the cost of racing a prototype in the WEC at between $100m and $200m for the first year and well beyond $50m for each subsequent year. That's what Audi spent, give or take, starting in 2000. As a comparison, Formula 1 is widely estimated to cost about $400m per year, not including engine-development and maintenance budgets. 

Building the car came next. Because the goal of Le Mans is to cover the most laps in 24 hours, and because pit stops take time away from that pursuit, prototype engine rules place great emphasis on efficiency rather than on outright power. The most successful approach has been Audi's fuel-sipping diesel-engine strategy, first fielded in 2006. Porsche is taking a rather different tack, and serious technology watchers and motorsports fans will be transfixed by the companies’ diverging approaches to the rules and the racing. 

Over the past 15 years, Audi has elevated the testing of its endurance racers to an art form. For the Audi team, preparation for a 24-hour race now includes running its own test race for 48 hours. Porsche currently does not have the same luxury. Even for a company that built its reputation on heroic engineering through motorsport, kick-starting a proper Le Mans operation after well more than a decade of dormancy is no small feat. During a feverish two years spent developing the car that would become the 919 Hybrid, Porsche tested several engines, including the 3.4-litre V8 engine from the older, LMP2-class RS Spyder, but none performed adequately. So the engineering team returned to the drawing board time and again before settling on a new 2-litre V4 engine in November 2013. In just five months, the engine was born, grew up, learned manners, graduated military school and went to war. It’s a process that normally takes a bare minimum of 18 months. 

In addition to the turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline engine driving the rear wheels, the 919 Hybrid uses two energy recovery systems: a generator driven by exhaust gases and a brake-energy recuperation system to convert kinetic energy into electricity, which is stored in a water-cooled lithium-ion battery pack. The batteries feed an electric motor that sends power to the front wheels under certain conditions.  

Audi will continue its diesel plan. Compared with the turbocharged V6 diesel engine last year's Audi R18, the engine in the 2014 R18 E-tron Hybrid is larger (4 litres, up from 3.7), an increase that offsets turbo-boost restrictions for cars that feature electric-motor assistance, as defined by the new LMP1-H class.

With air management a primary focus of all modern race cars, few of them would be called pretty. Both the Porsche 919 and Audi R18 E-tron carry through on that trend with upright, blunt front wheel housings, multiple air inlets to cool mechanical unmentionables and a markedly sunken cockpit when viewed in profile. The large stabilisation fin on the engine cover is obligatory.

There's intrigue beyond pistons, turbos, flywheels and fuel. As the first race where Porsche and Audi will battle it out, how will their corporate parent lay down the law at Le Mans? There seems little question that Audi and Porsche will be able and encouraged to bring their best game and win on merit with no corporate orders, aside from one, the biggest order in auto racing: never eliminate your stablemate with a crash.

In March, during a pair of official four-hour test sessions at Circuit Paul Ricard, near Marseille, France, a Porsche logged the quickest overall lap times. But Audi was in arrears by just eight-tenths of a second. And so it begins.

The 81st running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans is scheduled for 14-15 June.