A rivalry re-ignited: Why Porsche vs. Audi could be the best battle of 2020
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It’s only right that the focal point of Formula E’s sixth season has been the entry of racing titans Porsche and Mercedes, but it’s not the only motorsport rivalry in the paddock with unfinished business.
The battle between Porsche and Audi had only just turned to embers before being re-ignited this year in the all-electric Formula, with the pair’s previous battles still fresh in the memories of sportscar fans.
The duel could well have started at the end of the 1990s but for the decline of the GT1 era at Le Mans, with Porsche’s factory effort bowing out after winning the ‘98 edition, and Audi joining the ranks the following year.
As one German giant left the sportscar scene with huge success in its wake, so another took up the mantle and years of utter domination followed.
The R8 was the car to have in sportscar racing during the early 2000s
After a difficult debut in 1999, Audi was unstoppable once it found its stride with the R8, winning five of the next six editions of the French enduro before taking a trio of victories with the diesel-powered R10 TDI.
Porsche made a return to prototype racing at the end of 2005 with the RS Spyder, and would go on to regularly challenge Audi for overall wins despite technically competing in the category below them.
The LMP2 class was usually reserved for privateers, but Porsche teamed up with Penske and despite being underpowered due to the regulations; the agility and handling prowess of the RS Spyder enabled it to secure double the amount of overall victories than the R10 TDI in 2007.
Porsche's nimble RS Spyder caused an upset in the American Le Mans Series
So while the pair may have never ‘properly’ raced each other in this period, the seeds were well and truly sown in what would become an intense Weissach vs Ingolstadt rivalry.
Audi had faced fierce competition at Le Mans from Peugeot and then Toyota when the ‘hybrid era’ of sportscar racing began, but as it edged closer to the record for the most overall victories at the French classic, Porsche announced its return to defend that title.
Porsche's return to Le Mans in 2014 was a welcome sight for sportscar fans
While the 2014 WEC season was ultimately won by Toyota’s rapid TS040, Porsche signalled its intent at Le Mans by taking the fight to Audi well into the dying hours of the twice-around-the-clock enduro before the four rings ultimately upheld its dominance.
The first race of the following season at Silverstone very much set the tone for the rest of the year – some of the best wheel-to-wheel racing sportscar fans had ever witnessed.
This was racing at its brutal best – two manufacturers at the absolute top of their game, with designers and engineers showcasing cutting-edge technology and drivers pushing it to the absolute limit.
You could see for yourself the strengths and weaknesses of each car: the Audi gaining ground through the corners by leaning on what seemed like endless downforce, while the Porsche fought back and packed a punch by deploying well over 1000bhp as the hybrid system kicked in down the straights.
The same duels became standard practice as the battle raged throughout 2015, with Porsche winning Le Mans and emerging victorious at the end of the season, before repeating the feat the following year, breaking Audi’s reign of supremacy as it would call time on its LMP1 programme at the end of 2016.
Porsche, Toyota and Audi were an integral part of what was truly a golden era for the WEC
Amid thoroughly-deserved praise for Audi’s success was a sense that Porsche may have won the battle, but not the war – with both manufacturers still having scores to settle. Now, that war is set to resume once again.
Of course, Formula E is a different ballgame entirely. The pair had previously been battling over a minimum race distance of six hours, and will now be duking it out on narrow street circuits in races that are essentially a sprint in comparison.
But one crucial factor remains the same: the will to win. Both marques are eager to emerge victorious in the latest chapter to the rivalry, with Porsche looking to upset Audi’s apple cart just like they did in 2014.
Porsche signalled its intent with podium in opening round
As with every golden era, it was difficult to appreciate at the time just how special what we were witnessing really was – which is why it’s important to relish this battle in Formula E, especially in the wider context of incredible manufacturer involvement including Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar, Nissan, and DS.
There are some lessons from the sportscar world that will carry over, too. Race strategy and energy management are crucial to success in a Formula E, and drivers have to pick their moments to overtake cleanly; just as they do when navigating slower traffic in endurance races.
And it’s not just the manufacturers who are resuming battle – so are their drivers. Porsche team-mates Andre Lotterer and Neel Jani have shared a car at Le Mans three times, while Lucas Di Grassi was a stalwart of the Audi sportscar line-up during their infamous battles with Porsche.
Having been part of their brand’s history in the previous chapter, they’ll be just as keen to claim bragging rights in what is set to be the most competitive season in Formula E’s history.
Of course, it’d be naive to jump to conclusions just one race weekend into the current season, but both Porsche and Audi currently stand at one podium apiece – although technically an Audi-powered car took the first victory of the season by virtue of Sam Bird’s win for Envision Virgin Racing in the opening contest.
Even if we don’t get to see an overall title battle between the pair this season, their paths will inevitably cross at some point – and they can resume doing exactly what they do best – demonstrating their latest technologies in the most memorable way possible; by pushing the limits wheel-to-wheel with one another as they have so often done in the past.