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OCTOBER 21, 2003

What is VW up to now?

The motor sport strategy of the Volkswagen Audi Group is at best mysterious. After winning the Le Mans 24 Hours for three consecutive years with the Audi brand, the company switched to the Bentley brand for 2003 and scored an impressive 1-2 finish. It was expected that Bentley would be back in 2004 to add to its record of wins in the classic sports car event. However it has just been announced that the firm will not be taking part at Le Mans in 2004. Bentley chairman and chief executive Franz-Josef Paefgen came up with a rather lame excuse that the planned three-year program had come to an end but said that success at Le Mans had "provided an excellent boost for our image and a successful communications platform for the introduction of the Continental GT."

Paefgen said that the company "will certainly continue to review our position but being pragmatic, all our efforts need to be concentrated on the next phase of our regeneration, and our priority is delivering a new range of Bentleys to our rapidly expanding customer base."

In pure marketing terms, Paefgen seems to have a point. There is very little to be gained from continuing at Le Mans. The Continental GT is already sold out for 2004 with an amazing 3200 deposits already received, despite the fact that the car is retailing at $150,000. The Bentley factory in Crewe can build up to 5000 cars a year but Paefgen says the firm will always build fewer cars than the market demands and says that there are plans for only 3500 cars in 2004.

Most impressive of all is that most of the deposits are from new buyers and if the firm continues to attract new customers at this rate, the $700m investment by Volkswagen in Bentley will soon be paid off.

While the withdrawal of Bentley will no doubt lead to rumors that VW is getting ready for F1, it is probably more likely that the German firm is going to try to take advantage of new rules from the Automobile Club de l'Ouest which will make it possible to win the Le Mans 24 Hours with a turbo diesel engine, a major publicity coup for the company that gets it right. The rules for 2004 will allow for 5-liter turbo diesel-engine prototypes in the LM P1 class and the equivalency formula is believed to be such that it is worth a company like Audi going for outright victory.

It is also worth mentioning that Audi motorsport engineers are engaged in the development of the Lamborghini Murcielago R-GT, which is to be used to promote sales of the Italian brand's latest supercar.