At the precise moment Andre Lotterer drove the #2 Audi R18 TDI across the line and won the 2011 24 Hours of Le Mans, the second place Peugeot giving chase followed by just 13 seconds. That miniscule 13 seconds marked the pin point gap between win or loss after a full 24 hours of racing – just one of many, many elements that contributed to sealing last year’s race amongst the most legendary in history. Since the green flag had dropped a day before, two Audi R18 TDIs had been demolished, while the third sailed across the line on fumes, just barely escaping its own demise thanks to an inopportune tire puncture.
That the 2011 24 Hours couldn’t have been scripted with more drama by Hollywood writers seemed obvious to nearly everyone in Le Mans and watching at home via TV or live web stream. Likely we all surmised that Audi should have done a ‘Truth in 24’ documentary about 2011, though the vaunted team at NFL films who so deftly filmed and crafted Audi’s legendary racing documentary wasn’t in France. Likely they were back in the States, editing someone like Tim Tebo rather than Tom Kristensen.
Nowhere was the need for such a movie more obvious than inside the glass-walled trackside lounges of Audi hospitality. As Audi of America marketing boss Scott Keogh tells it, it was little more than thirteen minutes after the checkered flag had been waved at a speeding red-winged R18 when Keogh found his Audi Sport counterpart Florian Zitzlsperger. Maybe even before the fresh-faced ‘Youth in 24’ driver team of Fassler, Lotterer and Treluyer had climbed down from the Rolex tower podium with trophies in hand, the two Audi marketing executives from America and Germany had already set things in motion for a sequel.
When Keogh returned to his office in the States he began to act almost immediately by putting a call in to his Truth in 24 production partner InterSport and in turn to NFL Films – the documentary house known for its high-quality films about American Football, and the team that so magically captured the 2008 Le Mans Race with the first Truth in 24’.
“I think there was some concern from our side that NFL Films might say “no” because they weren’t filming at the source,” Keogh says, “but truth be told, when they do a lot of their year-end reviews, it is a very similar thing. When they go into a season, they don’t know if the Packers are going to win the Super Bowl or the Saints are going to win the Super Bowl, so they do almost that exact same thing. They grab the footage that is out there and they glue together a theme. Of course that theme changes as teams win and teams lose.”
Same Race, New Challenges
The main question was that of assets. In 2008, NFL had a full compliment of cameramen covering the race and a wired mic and camera team shadowing Audi Sport engineer Howden Haynes. NFL had no presence in 2011 as that monumental race went down. Sure, there was race footage, but would that be enough?
Fortunately, Audi had learned its own set of lessons from the filming of Truth in 24. “They’d already begun to cover the 2009 race and the 2010 race in that format,” explained Keogh. “[Audi Sport] sort of made that standard issue, so when they go to Le Mans it’s let’s mic these people, mic these things and film. Whether or not we make a documentary is neither here nor there. So I think that is the good thing that came out of the NFL Films process. It opened peoples’ eyes to say, ‘we don’t know where magic is going to be and we need to cover this stuff.’
Even with massive amounts of film very readily shared by Audi Sport, there were still considerable challenges. Chuck Johnson of Intersport explains, “An advantage with telling the story after it has taken place is you have a comprehensive understanding of the story and characters and plenty of details and accounts from multiple sources of the race. However, you lose the intimacy of being there first hand while the stories unfold and capturing the raw emotions that are on display. And while Audi had their [film teams] there to capture footage, they did not approach Le Mans thinking they were there to supply interviews or footage for a feature length documentary project. All cameras on the ground for Audi had very specific assignments and none of which were documentary story telling by nature. Therefore the shooting styles are different.”
Another challenge was interviews themselves. While key players were interviewed throughout the process in 2008, interviews this time around happened after the fact and spread out over locations including Ingolstadt, London and finally at last year’s Petit Le Mans.
In video of race week at Le Mans, Leena Gade comes off as quite candid. By the time she sat down for her interview in the pits at Petit Le Mans in Georgia, Audi’s young engineer had already done several rounds of events like the Goodwood Festival of Speed. There’d been time for the emotions to sink in and time to build up a memory of the event in a filtered and polished way that’s not so raw and not so candid. Was this a concern?
Chuck Johnson didn’t necessarily agree with this. “Doing interviews after the fact was an advantage because it allowed producers time to research and be fully prepared and the drivers and other Audi team members had all watched film and dissected the race as well. All in all I think it lead to better more detailed and accurate accounting of the race.”
Keogh echoed the sentiment. “I think if you’d have interviewed Leena a few days later you might not have gotten the balanced perspective on the race as a whole. I think it can run both ways, but what NFL does extremely well is going out and getting the story.”
Connoisseurs of the first film will recognize the differences. With all three cars and their engineering teams being mic’ed, combined with the advances of in-car cameras since 2008, there is a lot more real-time interaction between the drivers and their teams. You see, for instance, how Andre Lotterer reacts when he first encounters the massive wreckage on the track in the middle of the night and you hear how Leena Gade breaks the news to him that the car is Rocky’s, leaving his car the last Audi in the race… and with less than half the race complete.
For obvious reasons, the main characters of the new movie have changed. Key players from the first movie such as Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen, Dindo Capello and Howden Haynes are present here but the story of 2011 really centers on Audi’s young gun team of Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer… not to mention Leena Gade, who marked the first female engineer to ever win Le Mans.
The ‘Matrix Effect’
One more major hurdle we suspect Truth in 24 II will face is what we call the “Matrix Effect”. Sequels of films that are as groundbreaking as The Matrix or the first Truth in 24 often have a hard time measuring up for die-hard fans. We mentioned this to Keogh and he confirmed that they were aware of this as well.
“I think the other thing you need to look at when you make such a magical film as the first one, is that you’re always going to have expectations. Of course everyone’s going to say either it is or it isn’t as good as the first one. So it’s tough.”
One thing they considered heavily in making the new film was whether to act as if the viewer has seen Truth in 24 and therefore has a decent understanding of Audi and of Le Mans, or whether they’d have to behave as if the viewer is completely new. In the end, the team chose to handle it as if the viewer has not seen the first one so that the film can stand on its own and viewers can enjoy it.
“Someone who’s seen the first one might say ‘well, there’s 10-15 minutes I probably would have taken out, but I think that’s the risk you have to take. With The Matrix they could maybe get away with more of that because people know the characters, but here they might not. We have to introduce the drivers, re-introduce Le Mans, re-introduce what we’re doing, and then try to quickly get to the race.
“The thing that is interesting now is that you really get introduced to a whole new cast of characters. Yes, Leena was in the first movie but she was sort of a tertiary character. She jumps into more of a leading role in this one, and then we have more drivers that we hadn’t seen before. For most this was only their second Le Mans with Audi and I think that was a big thing.”
Even with new drivers though, Keogh saw similarities. In the first movie it was Dindo who was a bit more of an entertaining character, and in the new movie Benoit fills that roll. “And then (with Lotterer) you sort of have the solid professional similar to [Kristensen or McNish]. It’s funny how you can draw the analogies and see the balance that these three drivers create in one car on both sides.
“You still see H and Dr. Ullrich, and you still have grounding elements.”
And finally, “With Leena, having a woman who’s 36 years old doing this is just so Audi. She was the first female lead engineer to win this race… ever. It’s a powerful story.”
You look back on 2008 and Peugeot was faster, but the French team was also a bit of a hot mess. Audi’s chief rival appeared disorganized with their drivers, their pit strategy and even on track. Following the movie, Peugeot fundamentally changed their game, so we inquired wtih Scott if he thought Peugeot might have used the first Truth in 24 as sort of a Le Mans Racing 101.
“Maybe. The one thing that came clearly out of Truth in 24 was how bloody prepared [Audi Sport] was. In the opening scene you have the garage door going up and it’s like ‘Holy cow, these guys are here three weeks before the race.”
There is a high degree of secrecy in motorsports. The downside of all that secrecy is that the general public or fans don’t get to see the magic behind the veil. “That was the magic of what Truth in 24 did. It lifted the veil a little bit higher than we’re probably really comfortable with because cool things come out of that.”
And then you have Howden Haynes. “You know, he doesn’t give away the secret sauce, but clearly the point that he makes is that you can do whatever you want out on the track and earn 1/100th or 1/10th of a second, but then in the pits here you go, bang, bang, bang. [Infers picking up more time].
“I think there might be something to that. It may have lifted the game for a lot of people to say, ‘okay, this battle’s in the pits.’ Truth be told, I think that’s okay. In my opinion, raising the level of competitiveness is a good thing because then it forces Audi to say, ‘Okay, what’s next?’
“This year, let’s see. Let’s see what’s next. We begin to move from a TDI scenario merged with ultra, and now merged with a hybrid car on the technology front. I think that forces us to evolve and get speed as well. That’s one of the calculated risks you take when you put cameras on your team. I don’t know if it was necessarily shocking news that Audi comes prepared, and that Audi focuses on pit stops. I think that was well known, but maybe it was just hammered home pretty clearly in that film as well.
“I think the other thing you could counter that with is that the one crystal clear thing about Truth in 24 is that Peugeot had a fast car and that our car was not as fast. I think if you look at this story you have a bit of a switch. In this scenario we clearly had the fast car.
“It’s funny. We took a little bit of Peugeot’s strategy in having a fast machine there. Peugeot took on a little bit of Audi (with efficiency) and it’s brilliant,” says Keogh. “It came down to tire strategy again in both films. It came down to pit strategy again in both films.”
“The different thing about this film is that we had the strong pole position. We had the quick car, similar to what they had in 2008. We sort of took on their roll from ’08 if you will, except fortunately we had a very durable car as well as fast.”
Audi goes into the race as the returning victor and the favored team, but drama ramps up so quickly that there is no need to mount the plot against them. Reality did this better than any writer could.
At Le Mans, to the outsider looking acutely in at Audi Sport, it almost seems like Dr. Ullrich has painted himself into a box when it comes to expectations. Audi Sport’s current motorsport director has been so precedent-settingly dominant in his performance here since 1999 that expectation amongst fans, competitors and maybe even his own upper management may not appreciate how crazy a feat it is to win this often. When you look at the last two years, the way that things happened, Audi could have very easily lost. 2011 makes the level of work and stress that goes into the win so much clearer.
Chatting about 2011 in Sebring this spring, Ullrich was surprisingly candid about how intense last year’s race was on a personal level. “For sure this was the most difficult victory we’ve ever had. We’ve had some difficult ones already, but this was the most difficult. From the mental side, it was the most demanding. We had highs and lows in such an extreme way and in such a short period of time, and I have to say… [pauses] I’m used to 24 hours but this year it took me nearly a week really to get the feeling back that I was 100%.”
Keogh puts it into perspective. “It is a terrible mistake to take these things as a given, that the car is going to run for 24 hours, every single pit stop will go perfectly, every single tire will be great. It doesn’t just happen that way.
“What I love about this sport is that you just have no idea which element is going to come to life. If you have that strong foundation as a team then you can manage, but who would have predicted they’d have two cars out and one car on its own with the least experienced team and we had to go about it. It was a whole different element than in 2008. The drama is unreal.
Handling the Crashes
Of course you can’t tell the story of last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans without addressing the crashes. McNish’s car is obliterated at the end of the first hour and Rocky’s #1 R18 TDI meets a similar demise late into the night. Not surprisingly, headlines the next morning focused as much on this as they did on the hard fought win. Americans at home watched Allan McNish’s #3 R18 TDI nauseatingly tumble through the air, suspended yet disintegrating above the heads of ducking photographers and course workers when the astonishing footage made the NBC Nightly News – a place you’d rarely, if ever, catch Le Mans coverage.
Accidents can be both good and bad. Coincidentally, Audi had just begun marketing new ‘ultra’ branding of its lightweight design. The livery of the 2011 R18 TDI marked the first time the word appeared on an Audi racecar, and here you have these lightweight design cars experiencing two horrific accidents in a matter of hours and miraculously no one was seriously hurt. It speaks to the structural integrity of lightweight design, though communicating the message from a marketing perspective presented a challenge.
Keogh explains, “I think the way we tried to cover it is that we didn’t want to necessarily celebrate what are potentially tragic or could be even deadly events. We tried to cover it in a direct, factual and matter-of-fact way without celebrating it.
“This is a sport of inches and a sport of feet. Seemingly things that don’t look that dramatic can cause tremendous injury. We thought we told a straight story.”
Keogh is emphatic when it comes to the real focus of the movie.
“It would be sort of un-Audi to make the film about these two accidents. I think that’s not really what this is about. The heart and soul of the film is really about the fact that we have just one car left with like 60 percent of the race remaining. Peugeot had three cars and there was a decent fourth car on their side.
“It is a powerful story. For these guys to all gather and unite together. You still had the other teams in the pits, celebrating the thing, the engineers getting together. The fact that they all got together and united around one goal, to me, is the story.
“I think on top of it is this crazy powerful engineering story of ultra light weight combined with strong and safe, which by the way is a story we want to tell on the production car side of the equation. With all of the CO2, greenhouse gas and emission standards, light weight is going to be a continued big push for us and that safety comes with it. That’s huge, because I think the association that comes with it to a normal person is the assumption that because we made a car light that this might mean it is not strong. Of course, that’s not true. It is something we need to rectify.
“These were crazy events. Particularly when Rockenfeller went in. That was a moment you’ll never forget. It was scary.”
Preach What You Practice
‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ has been the company mantra for decades. Succinctly defining the brand, it doesn’t exactly suggest the passion of the people involved. When Keogh first joined Audi of America and approached the first movie, it seems apparent that he felt the need to communicate the human side… the passionate side. In that regard, Le Mans proved a now obvious vehicle with which to make his point.
“The original thinking (for the first Truth in 24) was that Audi is such an engineering and product driven company and these are all good things. Still, we wanted to come up with a way to humanize the company. These are people behind these technologies and these cars. We wanted to present the company not as this static engineering perfection company. In this company there is humanity that brings this to life. You see characters like Baretzky and McNish and H.”
When talk of Truth in 24 comes up, inevitably someone mentions the team-building value exemplified in the movie. More than a few have suggested they’ve used it as inspirational model in the workplace. We asked Keogh if Audi does the same?
“We use the analogy most when dealing with customers in a dealership. You have customers coming in for their 9AM appointment, scheduled to do maintenance and the customer comes back in an hour. I think we all know that’s not always how it happens. The customer comes in and they’re 15 minutes late, and then they need a ride to the train station, so someone has to take them there and then take the car back.
We look at these analogies when we look at Kundenbegeisterung or customer treatment because we think this is very similar to the chaos that you have to manage on a given day. That is one thing those guys (Audi Sport) do well. They anchor around that team, which is very powerful.
Actor Jason Statham picks up the roll of narrator again for Truth in 24 II. Last time around, Audi only secured the rights to use Statham’s voice in the American version and there were other limitations to distribution. While Americans could download the movie free-of-charge via Apple’s iTunes, others outside the USA didn’t find it as readily available. “This time we sorted that out,” Keogh adds. “Statham just finished his reading in London. And, then what we’ve gone ahead and done is secured the rights on the first film. So now we’ve got Statham [Truth in 24] 1 and Statham [Truth in 24] 2 internationally, across the board.”
And while distribution details may have been set, there was still the trick of fitting the work of the documentary into the actor’s busy schedule. Keogh explains, “Statham has been doing a movie, which has made things tricky, pulling him out of that shoot and getting him to do the read. Mr. Statham gets very into character when he’s doing these things so it’s hard to yank him out of one character and put him into this.
“The thing that I love about [Statham] is that the guy is a crazy professional. We may say ‘well just read the thing’ and it’s not a problem. For Jason, he read it and wanted to hear it played back and had been listening to it since then. He did the first read two weeks ago, and there were a few things he wanted to read again. I think it’s great that he approaches it that professionally. I think his voice… everyone knows that first line of ‘Truth in 24’. It wouldn’t have worked if you read it, if I read it or if Johan (de Nysschen) read it.
“‘It always rains in Le Mans.’ It’s a great line. That’s one thing we toiled over dramatically. What is our first sentence?
I think we’ve come up with one, because it can’t just be a great sentence. It has to tie to the film. I think we’ve got one but you’ll have to see it.”
Green Flag for the Rollout
On Thursday April 26 Audi held a red carpet premiere of the movie complete with Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer in Los Angeles. An east coast premiere for Audi fans followed on the 28th at the Audi Forum New York. For those unable to attend either of these exclusive premieres, Keogh and his team have orchestrated an American television premiere May 5 on SPEED. For many, this will likely be their first exposure, though sources at InterSport have indicated that the movie is cut down to fit into an hour time slot. Hardcore fans will want to catch it in feature length. Fortunately, Audi’s got any number of options available for those seeking the full piece.
American Audi dealers will be holding their own screenings throughout the window from April 26 to the SPEED debut. There are roughly 270 dealers in America and Keogh estimates there could be as many as 200 screenings amongst them. Big dealers will do screenings at movie theatres where they invite customers, R8 owners and motorsport enthusiasts. Smaller dealers will do more intimate showings in their dealerships.
Worldwide iTunes availability of both movies will follow. So too will DVD sales, as a dealer contact has already indicated that they should have copies to sell via the Audi Collection by May 20.
Audi AG is working on plans for a European premiere that will likely fall around the World Endurance Challenge (WEC) round at Spa or at a round of the German DTM series. Europe will have television partners as well but those partners will be different and whatever channel makes sense for them. These television showings are expected to happen closer to Le Mans, as part of the lead-up to the French endure.
When asked about doing a showing at Le Mans, Keogh seemed split. On one hand he said that they easily could do that. On the other, he wondered aloud if it shouldn’t be something where Audi turns the page and celebrates the debut of the new R18 e-tron quattro.
All in all, Keogh and his German colleagues seem to have hit on a winner. Truth in 24 II as a franchise may not achieve the commercial appeal of The Matrix, but it’s not meant to. In the end, the pair of movies offer one of the most creative and credible approaches to motorsport communication we’ve ever seen, are apt additions to any motorsport fan’s movie library and likely even an inspiration to last year’s F1 documentary Senna.
“We’re excited,” summarizes Scott Keogh. “I think this is exactly the type of thing that Audi should be doing. As you know from the race, the tale was sitting there. We just had to put it together and weave it, and that’s exactly what we’ve done.”