Auto Manufacturers Show It’s Not Business As Usual At Le Mans.

Conventional wisdom has always been that racing at Le Mans represents a real-world R+D test bed for the automotive industry. Given the 24-hour format, what works there is supposed to eventually make it down to real production cars us mere mortals can buy.

Last weekend’s annual running of the Rolex 24-Hours of Le Mans reminds that what goes down on Circuit de la Sarthe, though, isn’t always in lock-step with the competing auto manufacturers’ Main Street realities. In actuality, how the manufacturers perform often are in contrast to their day-to-day image.

Case and point is Peugeot. On the French road course its Le Mans Prototypes were the fastest cars in the world, period. Peugeots set the fastest qualifying times, not to mention the fastest race laps twenty-some hours into the competition. This all seems unfathomable given that with the exception of the custom-designed vehicles made for the corporation’s other big racing program, the World Rally Championship, the rest of its cars are by-and-large just everyday econoboxes.

So why didn’t a Peugeot win? One crashed, while a design flaw caused the engines in the remaining cars to break. The last team car died in the 22nd hour of the race while reeling-in the leading Audi.

Speaking of Audi, what its cars lost in raw speed to Peugeot, they made up with insane reliability and fuel economy. Interestingly, this is the same company that for years has scored very low in Initial Quality and Vehicle Dependability studies. In the latest JD Power surveys, Audi rated just two out of five stars on Vehicle Powertrain Quality. As for the fuel economy, even with its popular diesel models (with the marketing power of its podium-sweeping TDI racers), Audi’s American-market fleet averages only 18 mpg and 24.7 mpg highway…or roughly the same as my 2002 Corvette.

Which brings us to those Bowtie Boys from the General Motor’s sports car program. This year two ZR1 Corvettes participated at Le Mans. The first car broke a piston early on. The second car was forced off the road and into the wall by the hard-charging second-place Peugeot in the 18th hour. The never-say-die service mechanics replaced just about everything on the rear (suspension, dry sump oil reservoir, rear wing) of the car in under 30 minutes. Unfortunately, the amazing repair work was for naught, as the car retired just a few laps after returning to the race with a broken piston just like its sister car.

So let’s get this straight — Chevrolet, the company recognized world-wide for bulletproof engines and crappy dealer service every other day of the year exhibits the dead opposite at Le Mans?

Maybe Le Mans simply needs to be recognized in the future for what it is: the automotive manufacturers’ version of Halloween. It might not be the other 364-day-reality for the auto makers, but on this day they can come however they want.

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