Audi shows the world how it's done... again.

It was supposed to be yet another “battle for the ages” between the factory-entered Peugeot 908 HDI and Audi R15 Plus TDI prototypes. Two proud manufacturers squaring off against each other with their $75,000,000 (or more) annual budgets to demonstrate supremacy in the world’s most famous - and important - endurance road race… the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

But there was more to the subplot going into this race too. Much more. Stung by Peugeot’s decisive victory in last year’s running of the French endurance classic - even though it had won the event a staggering eight times over the last decade - the upper management at Audi and its board of directors were none too pleased. After all, the classic German “way” of going motor racing - especially if you’re a factory with the prestige and motorsports accomplishments of Audi - is not to just show up and do well, but to crush the opposition into submission with a dizzying display of absolute power, speed and efficiency. Understanding that mindset, it’s clear that winning isn’t enough. It’s never enough. Total domination is the only way to go about it. Which is why Audi team leader Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich had to plea for the financial wherewithal from Audi management to wage a properly-funded campaign against the burgeoning threat from the French automaker.

Peter M. De Lorenzo is a national columnist who founded, a highly-regarded website devoted to news, commentary and analysis of the auto industry. He is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.Ullrich and the rest of the Audi team knew that Peugeot was not only hungry to win France’s heart - and attention - by winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the second year in a row, it was anxious to humiliate Audi again with their own show of dominance. Ullrich was given the financial means to revitalize the R15 race car into a “Plus” configuration for this year’s race - despite Audi management’s concern with the global economic downturn that was looming over Europe - but he was also given a very stiff ultimatum: Win, or else it would probably cost him his job.

And early on, things weren’t looking so good for the Audi boys. The Peugeots were blistering fast the moment they were unloaded from their trailers for practice. And qualifying would prove that the Peugeot 908s were notably faster than the Audi machines - and comfortably so too - lapping the Circuit de la Sarthe as much as two to three seconds per lap faster in all conditions.

But fortunately for Audi, races aren’t won in practice or in qualifying. Whether it was an air of confidence or just plain cockiness, the Peugeot machines were clearly pushing the envelope in terms of their performance capability and durability, and the race did not go well for them almost from the start. The pole-sitting 908 - with former Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais part of its driver lineup - retired with suspension damage after less than three hours Saturday, before Bourdais even did a driving stint.

And with six hours left, the leading No. 2 908 of Stephane Sarrazin, Franck Montagny and Nicolas Minassian retired with turbo failure. That was followed four hours later by the No. 1 Peugeot 908 HDI, driven by Alexander Wurz, Marc Gene and Anthony Davidson, which suffered a blown engine with just two hours left in the race. And finally, the non-factory Oreca Peugeot 908 of Olivier Panis, Nicolas Lapierre and Loic Duval also retired with a blown engine, with Duval gamely trying to catch the No. 7 Audi, which was then leading.

While all of this was going on the Audi machines continued to circulate relentlessly - just fast enough to keep within sight of the Peugeots - until the race finally came to them, resulting in a 1-2-3 sweep of the 2010 24 Hours of Le Mans for the German manufacturer.

The No. 9 Audi R15 Plus driven by Timo Bernhard, Mike Rockenfeller (both from Germany) and Romain Dumas (France) set a record for the number of laps completed of the 13.6-kilometer (8.4-mile) Circuit de la Sarthe during the race with 397. They finished a lap ahead of the No. 8 team car driven by Benoit Treluyer (France), Marcel Fassler (Switzerland) and Andre Lotterer of Germany. The No. 7 Audi team car driven by Dindo Capello (Italy), Tom Kristensen (Denmark) and Britain’s Allan McNish was third, three laps back.

“It’s unbelievable, I didn’t expect it,” Rockenfeller told the media afterwards. “We did a good, clean job and we were lucky that our main competitor had so many problems.” “At the beginning it was a little unlucky for us, but at the end it worked out fine,” Audi team chief Wolfgang Ullrich told the AP. “It’s a great reward for all the work everyone has done. I think this has to be the hardest Le Mans we’ve ever done.”

It was not only Audi’s ninth overall victory at Le Mans, it was the fourth time they delivered a 1-2-3 sweep, having also accomplished the feat in 2000, 2002 and 2004. And with this victory Audi ties Ferrari for second place on the list of the most successful manufacturers at Le Mans. (Porsche has the best record with 16 wins.)

Twelve years ago Audi decided that it could not and would not accept its perennial “No. 2” status behind German juggernauts BMW and Mercedes-Benz any longer. They embarked on a course to elevate their production cars based on its “march to a different drummer” attitude, and made them bristle with engineering excellence and advanced technical thinking. At the same time, Audi decided that racing would be the tip of its technological spear and the showcase for its considerable engineering capabilities, and that it would race at the highest levels of the sport - and win - to demonstrate those capabilities.

And it has paid off handsomely, with Audi now regarded as one of the great luxury-performance brands in the world.

Through focused consistency, an unwavering commitment to excellence, and an unwillingness to settle for anything but the best that they can be - on and off the track - Audi is now the benchmark for how it’s done for manufacturers around the world.

VIEW Regis Lefebure’s 24 Hour Gallery

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