Ready for the big dance

September 30, 2011

Ready for the big dance

September 30, 2011

They meet at racing circuits halfway around the world, a pair of ultra-sophisticates wrapped in multicolored corporate finery. Their carbon fiber robes conceal the latest improvements, meant to get the most out of every lap devised by scores of engineers, aerodynamicists, and computer programmers.

They are partners in a stirring, stunning, gut-wrenching yet civilized duet: Audi and Peugeot, Peugeot and Audi. The rivalry is fierce, sometimes nationalistic–a corporate war fought with weapons of speed. The two combined have won the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans and Petit Le Mans 22 times in the past 23 races.

Their race craft is sharp and aggressive. Each move produces a counter-move and, sometimes, a surprising response. For those who prefer their race cars carbureted and with fourspeed shifters on the floor, the Audi and Peugeot creations can be mysterious, but any race fan can recognize the dance of top-level competition.

It is the dance of the scorpions, set to turbocharged diesel music, and the next stage is here at Road Atlanta for the Petit Le Mans.

Yet, for all the rivalry, each knows they need the other. For victory to be sweet, the foe must be worthy. A race with just one is a parade. For Peugeot, victory at Sebring this spring came with the 908 HDi FAP – a year-old car in the hands of a sure handed independent.

The Peugeot factory blue has seen glory since, winning at Spa, at Imola and most recently at Silverstone. They now stand poised to collect the Intercontinental Le Mans Challenge championship.

For Audi, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is life. Ten times in the past 12 years, the silver, red and black have prevailed, sometimes without the benefit of being the faster cars.

This summer’s Audi win at Le Mans showed the depth, character and focus of a unified team. After the team’s two champion-laden cars were destroyed in horrifying crashes, the single remaining Audi R18, driven by relative unknowns, was left to fend off the repeated charges of a Peugeot squadron for 15 hours – and emerged with a 12-second margin of victory. In Apollo 13 fashion, it may have been Audi’s finest hour.

The Peugeot-Audi dance has developed its own manners. There is respect, and sometimes grudging admiration. Where new cars traditionally appeared every three years, they now appear nearly every year, each time with the next-generation designs already in the wings. Both teams know that success requires nearperfect races.

Having worked together to take the sport to new levels and conjured the rules to their diesel satisfaction, Audi and Peugeot lead the move to create a world championship of endurance racing.

A new chapter will soon begin with the arrival of other tribes, as Toyota, Nissan, Aston Martin, Honda, and Porsche appear with fresh weapons systems.

New teams and rivals may well emerge. Until then, when the flags fall, the podiums are complete, and the fans begin their retreat, it is Audi and Peugeot who will likely exchange handshakes and nods before they begin the process of preparing for the next race and the dance begins anew.

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