Much has already been written and said about the withdrawal of Audi from the FIA WEC series and top-tier LMP racing.
John Dagys talks about Audi’s Gift to the Endurance Racing World on Sportscar365.com. Tony DiZinno credits Audi for making Le Mans great again and offers some personal reflections about what Audi did for his personal sportscar passion.
The gang at Radio LeMans talked about the news during the Midweek Motorsport Edition on the day of the announcement. That podcast is available here.
Like NASCAR struggled in the years after RJ Reynolds Winston sponsorship ended, the FIA WEC will struggle in the absence of Audi. The amount of “activation” resources spent by Audi has been enormous. For every Euro of engineering or staff investment for the product on the race track, Audi must have spent a Euro (or more) to make sure everyone knew they owned the track.
Banners alongside the track have been a very visible means of grabbing eyeballs and making sure you remember Audi’s presence even when the four rings aren’t in the television frame or spectator’s sight line.
The quantity of staff and guests at LeMans alone was staggering. Multi-story temporary hospitality structures? Yes – several of them. Audi didn’t just bring guests to LeMans – they took over an exhibition hall to build hundreds of pods for guests within a 10 minute walk from the Le Mans track – and kept a fleet of cars and vans to ferry guests around the facility.
Building a structure just before the Dunlop bridge solely for all spectators – not just invited VIPs – to get a great look at cars launching up the hill at the end of the front straight? Yes.
Those things barely scratch the surface of the Audi approach to making the most of their investment. The logistics are incredible. The impact for service providers, caterers, local temporary staff, airlines, construction crews, transporter drivers, electricians, and more will be material. While the loss will be felt inside the FIA WEC offices. The tracks that sell advertising space and hospitality spaces and the surrounding communities will also feel the impact.
The high standard on the race track is abstract in some ways, but certainly operated as a bar for others to meet. We know that Audi staff had to make the case each year to continue their program, but imagine the poor person tasked with making the business case to a Board of Directors or Chief Financial Officer at another manufacturer to spend the cubic Euros that it would take to be competitive.
“We should be able to win so that we get good publicity, right?”
“Maybe here and there, but Audi has pretty much dominated Le Mans and most other race tracks so we shouldn’t count on winning anything. They sometimes run 3 cars which gives them a few chances at a win. If one stumbles, we might get on the podium.”
“What about if we spend $100m Euros? We should be able to win with a budget of $100m Euros, right?”
“Not likely. Audi spends north of $200m each year.”
“We should be able to at least be competitive, right?”
“Not really. Audi has a deep bench of very experienced engineers who have perfected their craft, they constantly develop new cars and new technology and have some of the best drivers in the world.”
“Why would we do this, let alone spend $100m Euros for the privilege?”
As the philosopher Tommy Kendall says, there may be no right or wrong, but there are consequences.
The rear-end change during the 2000 LeMans race is still discussed today. Think about that for a second. We are in 2016 and a mechanical fix done 16 years ago during one race still is discussed in hushed tones of reverence among sportscar fans. It is memorable amidst all of the all of the other memorable Audi moments on the track and when the trophies were handed out. In fact, the switch was so remarkable that it inspired a change in the regulations to ensure that such a thing could never happen again.
There wasn’t anything cutting edge about the technology. No unobtainium materials were employed, hybrid harvesting systems in operation, or crazy budgets involved. It didn’t even test the rules or seek to operate in the gray areas of nebulous interpretations. It was merely very clever engineering and preparation. It was the brains of the people involved. The regulation change was ostensibly made in the name of cost, but it was a tangible sign of the ever-present push to be better, faster, more reliable, and more competitive. It was also a signal to the rest of the field and any potential challengers.
As easy as it might be to blandly attribute Audi’s success to a faceless German automated machine, the Audi effort was populated by colorful characters. Dr. Woflgang Ullrich always had a twinkle in his eye as he fielded questions from pit reporters during the race. He also generously stopped what he was doing briefly in pit lane on the morning of Le Mans to say hello – and did it with a big smile. Brit Howden “H” Haynes played the central figure in the Truth in 24 and made himself a celebrity in the sportscar world. Like Dr. Ullrich, he is the same person with the same affect as the person seen on screen and he easily made time to briefly chat about the misfortunes in practice for the 2014 race and subsequent repairs. Howden’s protoge, fellow Brit Leena Gade, not only calmly stepped into his place when he departed Audi, but claimed victory on her own terms. When is the last time you saw a spectator banner at the racetrack that featured the name of an ENGINEER? Drivers, teams, countries – yes. But, an engineer? The power of the personalities at Audi, Audi’s willingness to let them be the focus of attention, and their relentless desire to do no more than play their part in the team.
Ulrich Baretzky, the Head of Audi-Sport Engine Development and mad scientist of the engine department, has designed powerplants for almost every type of race car since starting at Audi in 1986 (and did quite a bit before that point as well). Like changes such as Diesel or not, Audi was at the forefront of hybrid and diesel technology along with a host of other technological developments. Another one with a twinkle in his eye, one wonders what ideas were tried in the lab but never made it to see the light of day. One can debate the beauty of the Audis – brutish in some years rather that beautiful – but the car clearly was always designed around the engine.
Reinhold Joest was well accomplished long before getting together with Audi. He was a successful driver, winning at daunting places like the Nurburging and the 24 Hours of Daytona. He never won LeMans as a driver, but drove the famous (infamous?) Porsche 917 Pink Pig at LeMans in 1971 so his name still adorns the flanks of the car as it sits on display in the Porsche museum. In total, Herr Joest has won the 24 Hours of LeMans a total of 15 times. That does not happen by accident. The purposeful, methodical, and logical approach to race preparation and execution is the product of experienced and wise leadership.
Americans could always look to Brad Kettler, a fixture in so many different roles in the Audi racing program over many years. Tom Kristensen – Mr. LeMans – is likely the sole reason for the Danish invasion at Le Mans each year. Allan McNish always proudly ran with the Scottish Hunting MacInnes tartan banner on his helmet. There is no question that the program always was for a German manufacturer with deep German roots, but the best and the brightest were sought regardless of the flag on their uniform.
In 2011, Audi endured two enormous crashes. Allan McNish’s unsuccessful attempt to slice down the inside of a Ferrari GT car just after the Dunlop bridge rained Audi parts down on photographers and bystanders. A full wheel assembly bounced behind the barrier with suspension pieces still attached. Later in the same race, Mike Rockenfeller crashed at night in a big way and littered the track with debris in the fast run towards Indianapolis corner (ironically, also trying to pass a Ferrari GT car). There wasn’t great video of the incident, but the magnitude was clear.
The looks of concern in the pit box and dampness in Dr. Ullrich’s eyes betrayed the emotion of the moments. The emotion was palpable. Despite crashes that comprehensively destroyed both cars, both drivers walked away – an amazing testament both to the design of the cars and to the investment the team had in the men behind the wheel.
Even down two of their three bullets in the gun, Audi won the 2011 race in front of three Peugeots.
While we’re talking about drivers, consider the roster of drivers that have worn the Audi rings in the prototype program. Yes, names like Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish come to mind easily. But think about names like Frank Biela, Didier Theys, Emanuele Pirro, Rinaldo Capelo and Michele Alboreto. Alboreto, the Italian former Ferrari F1 driver , sadly died in a 2011 testing crash at Lausitzring in an Audi R8.
Christian Abt, Laurent Aiello, and Stephane Ortelli ran in the early days of the program. Mike Rockenfeller, Timo Bernard, Romain Dumas, Loic Duval, Marcel Fassler, Benoit Treluyer, Lucas Di Grassi, Oliver Jarvis, Marc Gene, and Lucas Luhr came later.
The drivers individually were impressive and the Audi success helped them to establish their place in history, but the driver combinations were magic. Biela, Pirro, and Kristensen won three Le Mans races in a row. McNish, Capello and Kristensen won Le Mans, Sebring and others. Having fast drivers is one thing, but getting the combinations right and balancing the desire to be fast but to be a productive team-mate is an art. Somehow Audi did that consistently.
While customer cars weren’t numerous, the factory team stepped aside in support of customer cars from teams like the American Champion team. Champion not only provided exposure in the United States, but it gave opportunities to drivers like Johnny Herbert, JJ Lehto, and Marco Werner who won LeMans overall in 2005. Stefan Johansson had several drives for Champion as well. Japan’s Team Goh claimed their own LeMans title in 2004.
Audi’s engineering behind the scenes (and drivers and other support) gave Bentley it’s 1-2 finish in 2003 while customer teams followed in third and fourth. While it may have been a Bentley badging exercise, arguably the win and publicity gave Bentley road cars a strong push in its resurgence as a player on the luxury car market.
With so many moments and angles to choose from, it can be easy to overlook even those that attracted global attention at the time. Think back to 2014 when Porsche made its return to top-tier sportscar racing. Just before the race, Audi published a one minute Youtube video showing an Audi LMP prototype making its way from Ingolstadt, through the German countryside (passing a gentleman on a Porsche tractor – cheeky and subtle), into Stuttgart and stopping in front of the Porsche factory. Spinning tires created a haze of tire smoke but instead of circular donuts, the prototype spelled out “Welcome Back” on the pavement. Very classy. Excellent concept and choreography. Very clever use of social media. Interestingly, the message was also scrawled on the pavement in English rather than German, a clear acknowledgement of the global target for the message.
Of course, Audi had already learned the power of media multiplication through their support for Radio LeMans, and the twin Truth in 24 documentaries. The documentaries were spearheaded by Audi USA and gave birth to one of the iconic lines of the sport – “It always rains at Le Mans.” John Hindaugh’s commentary to millions of radio and internet listeners brought fans much closer to the sport and to the Audi story. His soundtrack for the movies told the story of the races. Just as Audi helped to support Radio LeMans, Radio LeMans helped to spread the word for Audi. A rising tide lifts all boats…
Books can be (and will be) written about the Audi era of prototype sportscar racing. Audi’s place in history is unique and ought to be recognized. Should Audi be compared with Porsche? They both racked up overall wins, adapted with changes in technology, pushed the limits of development and sustained over a long period of time. Porsche perhaps wove a broader thread of influence throughout the grid by virtue of its more extensive customer program and its support of both prototype and GT classes at the same time.
Sadly, the complex nature of the modern-day prototype means that most Audi prototypes will never find there way into private ownership and historics racing. Some of the earlier Audi R8 models have indeed been sold and make periodic appearances, but like the Porsche RS Spyder, that was very likely the last model that will do so.
Arguably, Porsche’s place in sportscar racing history is continually cemented and enhanced by vintage races and events like the Rennsport Reunion that celebrate the marque. Porsche has wisely supported such events as well. So many fans have been drawn to models like the 956 and 962 who never saw the models race in period. Audi is unlikely to have this kind of exposure for its racing heritage and its place in history will likely suffer for it.
So what’s next for Audi? DTM and Formula E.
DTM is in shrinkage mode with the 2017 field paring back to 6 cars per manufacturer. DTM racing is popular and high tech (and has some crazy history), but is relatively focused on the German and European market. The races are sprint races for one driver rather than endurance races with multiple drivers.
Formula E is clearly the current favorite of European manufacturers given the focus on electric power as the future instead of internal combustion. The rules give some latitude for development, but the races are open wheel sprints on mostly tight street courses. It may be an unkind and biased assessment coming from an endurance sportscar fan, but it is difficult to see how Formula E has the potential to write history for Audi in a similar magnitude as sportscar racing. Audi will undoubtedly attack the series with its methodical way of doing business and may score success, so there is no reason think that they won’t claim their share of headlines.
Does the R8 LMS platform continue? The GT3 customer program has certainly brought success on the track and for Audi’s profit statement. Arguably, Porsche has always set the standard for customer GT racing, but Audi gave customers more choices and proved that a business case can be made. Mercedes sold over 100 SLS GT3 models and expects to sell a lot of AMG GT3 models further the point. Chatter of an R8 GT3 successor has been suspiciously quiet, so one wonders whether the customer Audi GT program is coming to an end (whether due to the VW emissions fines or otherwise). It would be a shame and diminish Audi’s ability to make a more permanent mark in sportscar history.
We honor the results. We respect the effort, approach, dedication and passion. We respect the pace of technological development. We appreciate the exposure that Audi brought to the sport globally – not just at Le Mans. We enjoyed the interaction with the personalities and additional layers they added to the story on the track. We always feared the escalating budgets and the small number of players in the LMP class. We knew maintaining both the Porsche and Audi programs within the same corporate family was borrowing time. To invoke the cliche, we’re thankful for the experience but sad that it is over. By any measure, Audi and all of the staff and drivers that wore the four rings as a part of the motorsports family should be proud of themselves.