It took just over half a year for Volkswagen Chief Executive Matthias Müller to complete the inglorious journey from hero to goat. It remains to be seen whether he can correct his missteps.
In his hour of triumph, on June 14, 2015, he donned a gray racing suit. Tears of joy streamed down his face as Mr. Müller, then head of Volkswagen-subsidiary Porsche, celebrated an emotional victory with his team after 24 hours on the racetrack at Le Mans, the world’s most grueling car race held in the French countryside.
It was on this day, at the latest, that VW’s big shareholders tapped Mr. Müller for future greatness. After all, in the eyes of cousins Wolfgang Porsche, 72, und Ferdinand Piëch, 78, who controled Europe’s largest automaker at the time, the 24-hour race was something of a character test. Whoever succeeds at Le Mans must have what it takes to lead one of the world’s largest and most storied car companies.
It was Mr. Piëch, the one-time Porsche employee and later head of VW, who wrote an important chapter of automotive history on this track in 1970, when the Austrian engineer seized the wheel of his Porsche 917 – nobody else would – and proved the unconventional sports car before a crowd of skeptics. In the process, he gave birth to the Porsche mythos.
But success in Le Mans, as Volkswagen’s dynastic shareholders so painfully learned since anointing Mr. Müller as group savior last September at the onset of VW’s global emissions-rigging scandal, has nothing to do with the leadership needed to steer the world’s No. 2 carmaker out of its biggest crisis.
Today, there is little left of last summer’s radiating hero of Le Mans.