Audi has a glorious record of recent success at the Le Mans 24 Hours. But is its superiority at the world's most famous sportscar race under threat from Peugeot's new 908?
Having taken an impressive six victories in seven years - with the only blot on its copybook since the turn of the millennium coming at the hands of VW Group stablemate Bentley in 2003 - Audi had reason to be confident ahead of the race on 16-17 June. At least, it did until the French firm announced that it was taking part.
Peugeot won the event twice in the Nineties, and is following in the footsteps of Audi's R10 for its return to the Sarthe circuit by creating its own derv-powered prototype. Bosses at the French outfit are playing down the 908's chances, but their main rival is already relishing the competition.
"Peugeot's Le Mans comeback will be very special. A titanic battle is what we all thrive on," said Audi's Scottish star Allan McNish. "It's a big project for Peugeot to pull together in a relatively short time, but the team is well organised, it's done it before, it has a good driver line-up and, as much as it claims it's taking part to learn in 2007, it's going about the race in an aggressive manner. So we've got to concentrate on the job in hand.
"Obviously, we were fully focused last year as we were racing a diesel at Le Mans for the first time. But this time, with two 908s on the grid, it will be a very different challenge. Like us, Peugeot is involved in motorsport for one simple reason: to win races."
Spurred on by the emergence of its new rival, Audi recently completed a 30-hour, non-stop test in southern France. And McNish says the atmosphere was different to similar trials in the past. "As we're in a dogfight, we pushed like mad, and so did the mechanics," he explained. "We don't know how fast the Peugeot will be, but can take nothing for granted."
The R10 has been stronger in the run-up to the 75th staging of the 24-hour classic, and this has boosted McNish's hopes. "The basic set-up of the car and our understanding of it was raw last year," he told us. "Most of the development concerning performance came after the race.
"We've improved in a lot of areas since 2006, and so the R10 is quicker and much easier to drive than it was." Yet despite all the improvements, the three Audis arrive in France on the back of three straight defeats at the hands of Porsche in the North Ameri-can Le Mans Series (ALMS) - although that doesn't bother McNish.
As he points out, a couple of the poor showings came on tight street circuits. What's more, the Porsche Spyders aren't venturing to Europe.
"The R10 was created specifically for Le Mans," he continued. "Its aerodynamics were designed for the high speeds we experience on the straights and through the corners. Obviously, we have to adapt it for other tracks, but it's at the Sarthe circuit where the car feels really at home."
Of course, Le Mans is no beauty contest - but even so, the heavyweight duel between Audi and Peugeot could come down to bodywork styling. While the German squad has opted for an open-cockpit design on its entry, the French have gone for a roof. And as yet, no one is quite sure which is the better solution.
"It's marginal," is McNish's considered opinion. "In theory, the R10 should have more mechanical grip as its tyres are wider. The coupé should be faster on the straight and deliver better fuel economy, as it has lower drag. Personally, I think Peugeot has designed a very attractive machine. However, I go by what the stopwatch says - that's far more important than the way a racing car looks."
McNish has good reason to favour a hard-top. To date, his only Le Mans victory came in a closed Porsche 911 GT1 back in 1998; since then he hasn't enjoyed the best of fortune around the circuit.
"It's been a bit cruel to me really," he shrugged. "I have led every year since I won, and always been driving a car that's been capable of victory, but things have gone against me. Last year, my R10 won eight out of 11 rounds in the ALMS championship, but all our problems seemed to come in one race at Le Mans.
"It just goes to show what a tough event this is. You can dominate everything else, but when you get to Le Mans it's about every person and every part of the car functioning perfectly for 24 hours - that's equivalent to 16 grands prix run back-to-back.
"In the cold light of day, I admit that I have missed out in terms of victories. But I've been on the podium pretty much every year, and you can't complain too much about that."