Dieselgate and the Death of Innovation
Friday, September 18, 2015. The US EPA issues a notice of violation of the Clear Air Act to the Volkswagen Group. This was the beginning of ‘Dieselgate’. Volkswagen was found to have intentionally cheated emissions testing to meet the US standards. The auto giant was eventually fined $2.8 billion by the US government. Skip forward to late 2016 and Audi announces it is withdrawing from the World Endurance Championship (WEC), which includes the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Dieselgate had blown a massive hole in the VW Group’s budget and Audi’s Le Mans stake, no longer being profitable, was axed.
Audi competed at Le Mans for 18 years between 1999 and 2016 and was on the podium for every single one of those races, including 13 victories. Not in all my memory has a sporting team been so devastatingly dominant for so many consecutive years. Porsche, the winningest team at Le Mans, returned prototype racing in 2014 and subsequently won in 2015 to 2017. Then, just over a month after their 19th Le Mans win in July 2017, Porsche announced they would be withdrawing from the WEC.
This wasn’t so much of a surprise though. Prototype racing had been playing with hybrid racing since 2012. However, in later years, electrical faults have been wreaking havoc and retirements on the race. Toyota had showed dominance in 2016 and lead for much of the race but, still in search of their first win at Le Mans, their car gave out on the last lap of the 24-hour race (no joke). Porsche ploughed through electrical issues every year since its return in 2014. It was not a surprise that they’d had enough.
So, why am I telling you this story?
Well, for over eighty years Le Mans has been the event, the race, the place, where manufacturers come to test their new innovations. Audi, Peugeot, Toyota, Nissan, Ferrari, Volvo, BMW. Porsche, Aston Martin, Chevrolet, McLaren, Mazda… they have all built their road car empires on the lessons learnt at Le Mans. Engines, suspension, aerodynamics, brakes… this technology is developed and tested at Le Mans (and the Nürburgring too, admittedly). So, the collapse of prototype racing at Le Mans, largely thanks to Volkswagen’s Dieselgate, will likely mark the decline in new technologies from the German cars.
Toyota remains and hopefully Mazda and Nissan return too. The future of the innovation lies where it has for decades… Japan.
The views expressed in this article are those of only of the author, Phillip Hamilton, not PBC itself.