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Ingram: Racing Great’s Long Distance Planning

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, January 28 2010
The future of Porsche in racing is anything but settled as teams arrive in Daytona this week. (Photo courtesy of the Grand-Am Series)

The future of Porsche in racing is anything but settled as teams arrive in Daytona this week. (Photo courtesy of the Grand-Am Series)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

What happens when a car company known for its racing heritage gets acquired by another car company where one of the brands is also known for its racing heritage?

As the curtain is set to rise on the circuit racing season at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the question concerns the company which has become synonymous with this prestigious international event where it has 21 over-all victories and 63 class victories.

That company is Porsche. Interestingly the 907 driven by Vic Elford to victory in 1968, the first victory by the German marque at Daytona, will be on display during the race weekend and Elford will serve as the grand marshall. Last year’s winning Porsche-powered Riley, meanwhile, will be on display on the track in the hands of the Brumos Porsche Racing team.

But what’s up for Porsche now that the world’s most profitable car company has been merged into the VW Group, including its performance brand, Audi? It’s a pertinent question since Porsche has quietly pulled its technical support for the Grand-Am Series. Where last year there was a close working relationship between Brumos and the Porsche factory, this year the Florida team is more or less on its own. Also gone is the Riley-Porsche entry from Penske Racing.

What will happen to Porsche’s racing program under the new merger between the two German companies? How much will change on the production side?

The answers seem to range far and, in some cases, wide. There’s speculation that on the production side the Porsche brand will be leveraged into a workhorse where the usual single-platform, multiple-vehicle approach of major car companies will take over. Personally, I find it more likely that the VW Group recognizes the Porsche brand is most valuable in its role as an engineering company and that early comments from both sides about Porsche retaining its independence will turn out to be true.

That means more cutting edge, not cookie cutter, vehicles such as the Cayenne SUV and the four-seat, grand touring Panamera from Porsche. And it means the continued use of racing to promote and sustain the engineering heritage.

But even given these assumptions – nobody has yet to formally announce specifics on just how the sudden-turn-of-events acquisition of Porsche will be handled in terms of market strategy – there’s the lingering question of what happens on the race track when it comes to Porsche and Audi?

When it comes to racing, most people believe it’s one or the other: Audi or Porsche will race for over-all victories in major endurance events. The past seems to be prologue, although I’m not sure I buy the collusion story. Instead, I would suggest separate paths were chosen for separate reasons in 1999. Porsche began emphasizing its GT class racers once former CEO Wendelin Wiedeking began his quest to make Porsche uber-profitable. Audi, on the other hand, began to emphasize its prototype program at the same time to raise its racing and technical profile once again. Formula 1, it seems, was too expensive. So Audi focused on Le Mans.

The recent comments of Porsche’s new CEO Michael Macht that the company is tempted to return to vying for over-all victory at Le Mans has been taken as a death knell for Audi, dominant at Le Mans since 2000. The two brands, it is assumed, will not ever compete against each other.

But if Porsche remains independent, wouldn’t the same be true for Audi’s brand?Consider that Ferdinand Piechs, grandson of Porsche’s founder and the architect of VW’s huge worldwide footprint, has made Audi a technological darling in the car business and in racing. Why would he want to give up that mantle?

In a blue sky world, it seems to me both companies would want to use racing to demonstrate that green cars, racing and performance can all go hand-in-hand. So far the best technical showcase for that script remains the world’s major sports car endurance races.

So what happened to Porsche, the Grand-Am Series and the 24-hour race at Daytona?

Last year, Porsche Motorsport North America elected to put most of its racing budget into the GT-class battle with Ferrari, BMW, Corvette and Jaguar in the American Le Mans Series starting in 2010. This decision took place in late summer about the same time as the merger/acquisition between VW and Porsche was getting finalized in Europe.

The decision by Porsche to quietly withdraw major factory support from the Grand-Am sustains the practical approach of trying to beat on the track the same brands the 911 competes with in the marketplace in an ALMS series where the cars on the track are actually based on road-going cars and are not tube-frame specials such as used in the Grand-Am by Mazda and GM. The ALMS is also linked to the Le Mans 24-hour, which is just down the road from Stuttgart.

Nobody has said as much, but it also looks like Porsche got tired of getting kicked in the teeth by the rule makers at the Grand-Am, where the regulations changed regularly in 2009 in the Daytona Prototype category and where Porsche did not return to victory lane until the final race of the season.

Porsche will gladly continue to build and sell the 911 GT3 Cup cars raced in the Grand-Am and supply the parts and pieces needed for Brumos to maintain its Daytona Prototypes. (It may have even supplied the team with special flat six engines for the 24-hour in an effort to go out winning at Daytona.) But in the coming year, the technical development by Porsche for its teams in the Grand-Am will remain minimal and will likely be a by-product of other activities.

For the first time since 2005 and the introduction of the Porsche Spyder that ran in the ALMS LMP-2 category, Porsche is not scheduled to have a factory-backed prototype competing in endurance races in the U.S. this year. Nor does Penske Racing, the erstwhile Porsche factory team, have a prototype entry in sports car racing.

It’s just a hunch, but all this could change dramatically by this time next year once the lines of power are clarified at VW Group.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, January 28 2010