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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.