Le Mans can make a manufacturer's reputation -- or break it

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BMW came, saw, conquered and left. Others weren't so lucky.

What’s the most important motorsports event of the year?

If you’re a fan, that’s an entirely subjective question – it could be a neighborhood kart race your kid is in, or it could be the Monaco Grand Prix, or anything in between.

If you’re an automobile manufacturer, though, there’s only one answer: The 24 Hours of Le Mans. Certainly, auto companies participate in countless events round the world, but none carry the weight, or the pressure, of doing well at Le Mans. Sure, Corvette Racing competes in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, but anyone with that program will tell you that if the 24 Hours of Le Mans didn’t exist, it’s likely Corvette Racing wouldn’t either.

Look at Corvette’s GTE Pro category alone – Corvette was racing against factory-backed Ferraris, Aston Martins and Porsches, all ultra-premium brands. The Dodge SRT Vipers should have been there too if budgeting issues hadn’t sunken the trip, and it’s likely several more manufacturers will join that class in the next few years.

But Le Mans can be a brutal partner, and competing at Le Mans is no guarantee that it will enhance your brand. Despite all the pre-race hoopla, the vaunted Nissan ZEOD RC barely made it past the race broadcast's first commercial break, coming up 23 hours and 37 minutes short of 24 Hours.

Flash back to 1999: I was at Le Mans as a guest of Mercedes-Benz, which was eager to show the motorsports world its super-sophisticated CLR. Which, as you will recall, flipped over when air was caught beneath the nose, turning the cars into not-at-all-sophisticated airplanes, most notably with Mark Webber aboard during practice, then Peter Dumbreck in the race. The remaining CLR was retired, and Mercedes literally disappeared from the track, leaving those of us there with the company to essentially fend for ourselves.

This was early in the Mercedes-Chrysler marriage, and when I wandered over to the ORECA Viper pits, it was clear that there was no communication between Mercedes and its new “partner.” Which, incidentally, pretty much explained the ultimate failure of that venture.

When I mention the CLR at Le Mans in 1999, that isn’t even the example I wanted to share about how brutal Le Mans can be. Recall that Cadillac was there, pumping up its own participation in the Prototype war next year. I was very familiar with the genesis of that program, and had told friends at Cadillac that I was afraid they were in over their heads.

As Mercedes was packing up to go home, I managed to sneak a Cadillac executive into the Mercedes garage. I showed him the staggering amount of equipment Mercedes brought, the tools, the trucks, the computers, the engineers, but what may have impressed, and frightened, him the most was the fact that Mercedes had installed expensive wall-to-wall carpeting on the concrete floor of their garages.

As we stood and marveled, I told him: “Do you really think Cadillac is prepared to make an investment like this to come here? If you don’t, Cadillac will be embarrassed. I mean, look at what Mercedes spent, and their cars flipped over!”

I took no satisfaction in being right – Cadillac showed up, raced half-heartedly, and soon they were gone.

But 1999 was, of course, the year that Audi showed up with both open- and closed-cockpit cars, and learned mostly how they needed to make transaxles easier to change. No one needs to point out what Audi has done at Le Mans since then.

But after 1999, everything changed. Mercedes still hasn’t come back. BMW won the race – several of us commandeered the empty General Motors suite directly above the BMW pits, and we so close we could have tossed driver Tom Kristensen some peanut M&Ms, which a bewildered waiter kept delivering to the GM suite for the whole race. But BMW didn’t come back.

The Toyotas were so fast, and even set the quickest lap of the race with Japanese driver Ukyo Katayama at the wheel. But they didn’t come back. Nissan was there with a P1 effort, and they didn't come back.

For me, that Le Mans 15 years ago was magic – all the manufacturers, even Panoz with the annoying NASCAR-based Ford V-8, with the fat, flatulent exhaust note echoing over the Mulsanne Straight, where we were eating crepes at 3 a.m. with Chris Economaki and nursing a splitting headache that those Fords added to with each lap.

Arguably there is nothing like Le Mans for a fan, and inarguably, there’s nothing like it for manufacturers. Yes, Audi won again 15 years after its Prototype debut, but they had to work for it, and with another year of development Toyota, Porsche and newcomer Nissan will make it that much harder on them in 2015.

We haven’t had a Le Mans that topped 1999 since then. But next year – just maybe.

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About this article
Series LEMANS
Event 24 Hours of Le Mans
Article type Commentary
Tags 24 hours, bmw, le mans, mercedes clr, nissan zeod