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DAGYS: Audi’s Gift to the Endurance Racing World

John Dagys on Audi’s game-changing commitment to endurance racing…

Photo: Audi

Photo: Audi

It was the news we were all dreading, but expecting to come at some point.

Audi’s exit from top-level prototype racing was made official on Wednesday morning when Chairman of the Board of Management Rupert Stadler announced to 300 motorsport employees in Neckarsulm that its 18-year run in top-level prototype racing will be coming to an close.

Rumors of Audi’s departure have been reported over the past few weeks, sparked by a report in German publication Auto Motor und Sport that had cast questions over its future involvement in the new wave of LMP1 regulations, which are due out in 2018.

But the news hit sooner than expected for most, with the German manufacturer pulling the plug at the end of this year, not next, despite its 2017 car already being well into development.

It’s the biggest news to hit the sports car racing scene since Peugeot’s withdrawal in 2012, just weeks before the first race of the FIA World Endurance Championship.

More than four years later, the WEC has enjoyed a tremendous amount of growth and success, largely due to Audi’s early commitment. But looking even further back, there’s no doubt sports car racing has a lot to thank Audi for.

When it arrived on the scene in 1999, the sport was still in a fragmented state. The 24 Hours of Le Mans was essentially a standalone race, while the FIA GT Championship and FIA Sportscar Championship ran to different regulations in Europe.

Don Panoz had just launched the American Le Mans Series, the first ACO-blessed championship, which would quickly grow to include rounds in Europe, and set the global standard for sports car racing. And Audi was there nearly every step of the way.

Despite facing limited factory competition and underfunded privateer teams, Audi was the mainstay in the ALMS and Le Mans throughout the 2000s, helping tell the story of its direct-injection technology, prior to becoming the first manufacturer to win Le Mans with diesel power in 2006.

Audi’s marketing efforts, on and off the track, were considered to have been a significant success, particularly in the U.S. market, where diesel was still in its infancy. Audi helped transform the perception of diesel into being a viable option for sedans or SUVs, particularly during the period of skyrocketing fuel prices.

While the focus of its LMP1 program shifted back to Europe in 2009, Audi played a key role in the rebirth of a sports car world championship, with the WEC in 2012, and its precursor, the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup from 2010-11, which laid the groundwork for the first FIA-sanctioned World Championship for prototypes in 20 years.

Peugeot’s sudden pre-season withdrawal cast immediate doubts into the championship’s future and would have been an opportune time for the “four rings” to close the books on its ultra-successful prototype chapter.

However, that didn’t happen. Audi stuck through a challenging first year, running virtually unopposed in the opening two rounds before being joined by the first-year Toyota squad, with two cars at Le Mans but only a single TS030 for the remainder of the inaugural season prior to a full-time, two-car program.

Two years later, Porsche joined the party, there were new LMP1 regulations with a larger dependence on hybrid technology, and the WEC was all of a sudden in the spotlight, and quickly gaining ground on Formula One.

But with two Volkswagen Group companies competing against each other — each spending upwards of $200 million annually — and the “dieselgate” scandal hitting last year, it was arguably only a matter of time until either Audi or Porsche would be out of LMP1. And that time has come.

While it casts a cloudy future for the globe-trotting championship, with only Porsche secured for the long-term and Toyota’s current commitment up at the end of 2017, there is hope another manufacturer will jump in to ensure a strong future.

Next year’s Le Mans could be a bitter pill to swallow, with as few as four factory LMP1 hybrids on the grid, if Toyota’s third entry does not materialize, alongside potentially only one other LMP1 car in the ByKolles entry, following Rebellion Racing’s move to LMP2.

Peugeot and BMW have expressed interest in returns to top-level prototype racing, but both face significant challenges to make their programs a reality, especially in the short-term, in time for the new 2018 regulations.

Significant cost-cutting measures will need to be introduced to get Peugeot back in, while the ACO has continued its push for hydrogen power, one of the keys crucial to BMW’s entry, but that technology is likely at least three or four years away.

Can the WEC wait that long?

Audi’s sudden, but not unpredictable, departure from LMP1 has left some serious questions and concerns over the future of the championship. But instead of laying blame at Audi for being in this position, we should be grateful for what they have done to help revolutionize endurance racing in the last 18 years.

There wouldn’t be a FIA World Endurance Championship if it wasn’t for Audi. The 24 Hours of Le Mans would also have a significantly different look and feel to it as well without the brand’s 13 overall wins. North American sports car racing may not be where it is today, either.

Manufacturers come and go from all forms of motorsport. Only two have been mainstays in endurance racing for the better part of the last two decades.

We owe a lot to Audi, Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, Reinhold Joest and the hundreds of people who have been part of this historic adventure.

Now, it’s time to write a new chapter of endurance racing history, and to continue what Audi helped build.

Which manufacturer will be next?

The views and opinions expressed on this web site are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Sportscar365.com, John Dagys Media, LLC and/or any/all contributors to this site.

John Dagys is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Sportscar365 as well as the recently launched e-racing365 Web site for electric racing. Dagys spent eight years as a motorsports correspondent for FOXSports.com/SPEED Channel, and contributes to other publications worldwide. Contact John

30 Comments

30 Comments

  1. TM

    October 26, 2016 at 5:00 pm

    Could Audi run the R18 in the hands of a privateer at Le Mans next year?

    What will Joest move to?

    • Josh

      October 26, 2016 at 5:12 pm

      The engineering support required for those cars is probably extreme. I doubt many if any privateers could run them.

      • Parker

        October 27, 2016 at 8:40 am

        Joest Racing would have the expertise to run the R18 if it were to be entered privately. Audi ran the R8 in the hands of privateers from 2003-2005 and the R10 from 2009-2010.

        • Parker

          October 27, 2016 at 8:43 am

          Correction. Audi also had a privately entered R8 in 2002. Running privateer Audis at Le Mans isn’t a new concept and hopefully someone can do it next year.

          • Michael

            October 28, 2016 at 1:53 pm

            Even 2001 private R8 competed in Le Mans 24h

    • GC

      October 26, 2016 at 6:08 pm

      Hybrid P1 is for factory cars only, so the privateerwould have to do a lot of redesign to R18 if they took the hybrid system out.

      • Helmut

        October 27, 2016 at 8:33 am

        No, privateers are allowed to run hybrid cars. No one does so though for budget reasons. But they *could* if they wanted to.

  2. southcove

    October 26, 2016 at 6:12 pm

    (we see this all the time in F1 w engine programs) Regrettably the cost, engineering expertise is now so high that truly on a factory can field a true P1 car. I wonder if we couldn’t go to engine/electronic packages similar to F1 (like w the new Haas program), lock in the technology for several years w enhancements and let the private teams design or contract out (like Wirth, or the old beloved Lola) for chassis and aero…

    Presently the cost is astronomically too high and if Toyota pulled out for instance where does that leave P1? Time to make some needed changes… you live and die by manufacturer participation (and now so much of GTE and GT3 programs are headed the same way.

  3. John Q

    October 26, 2016 at 7:03 pm

    I think it’s safe to say that without Audi, and its commitment to the ALMS, North American sports car racing wouldn’t be where it is.

    Even in lieu of the other rationale for withdrawal, a $15B (and counting) settlement is a hard pill to swallow for any company, and would easily seal the program’s fate all by itself.

  4. Mike S

    October 26, 2016 at 7:34 pm

    I just can’t get into e-prix. I know the use for road cars is the real return there but as a fan I don’t want to hear or go hear a winding electronic motor. I like seeing the professional sports car drivers in them but it isn’t desirable to me.

  5. GridS2Plaza

    October 26, 2016 at 7:40 pm

    I think it is safe to say without the ALMS and Don Panoz, Audi would not have had a legitimate series to race & develop their prototypes.

    Audi’s legacy this past 18 years in prototype endurance racing can only be matched by Porsche’s run with the 956/962.

    WEC is definately going to suffer for their departure. With only 4 cars in LMP1, its beginning to look like the ALMS when Audi departed.

    ELMS looks like a more entertaining series and certainly what IMSA is proposing with the DPi variation on LMP2 might have significant impact on where WEC goes with the regulations.

    If it wants to be manufacturer focused but only 2 or 3 manufacturer’s pony up for the premier class it is not sustainable. Sports car racing has always been a blend of manufacturers and privateers. WEC needs to re-visit the history books a little.

  6. TM

    October 26, 2016 at 7:59 pm

    Where will the factory Audi drivers end up?

    • Fabio

      October 26, 2016 at 11:58 pm

      I’ve been giving this one quite some thought. Di Grassi has Formula e secured to there’s 5 guys out of a ride.
      They all have Super GT experience so I can see any one of them heading back to Japan, especially Lotterer and Treluyer who still live there.
      There’s DTM if they remain with Audi, but just as BMW, I can only see Audi’s involvement there shrinking instead of growing.
      There’s bound to be a seat in F-e next season too. If Audi is serious about F-e, they can’t keep Daniel Abt much longer.
      And there’s the WEC. Toyota fielding a 3rd car could make use of some of these guys. Lotterer, Duval and Jarvis have all worked with Toyota at some point in the past, and their experience would be valuable in Cologne.
      Porsche too has a seat to fill after Webber’s retirement. They could go with Tandy or Bamber, but taking one of Audi’s refugees would also be of benefit to Weissach.
      And there’s always Team Joest. Why not field a 3rd 919 for Joest? They’ve worked with Porsche successfully in the past. They’re a proven team, and the cost of running a 3rd car is minimal compared to developing another R18. It would make 5 hybrids for the WEC, and one more car for Porsche to tacke the 24h, with a line-up as strong as any else.
      My favorite is the last one.

      • JamieR

        October 27, 2016 at 6:30 am

        Lotterer I see as the most likely candidate to switch to Porsche.

        Fassler may now race for Corvette at Le Mans and the IMSA endurance races,(or if GM ever go for it, represent them in the WEC GTE)

        If Audi are so keen on FE, one of them may join Di Grassi, I would assume Treluyer/Lotterer, both of whom have plenty of open-wheel experience in that department.

        One or two will most likely end up in a DTM ride, do a Blancpain season in an R8, or in a P2 car on either side of the Atlantic.

        I can’t see any of them going to Toyota, whom I can seethem either keep the squad unchanged, or get a young driver in. If it is the former I will be increasingly concerned about their own LMP1 future.

        • Fabio

          October 27, 2016 at 10:59 pm

          I see Duval in for Audi at FE, seeing as he has a lot of experience in the class racing for Dragon.
          As for GT racing, I see it more likely that Albuquerque, Rast and Bonanomi focus on it than any of the full-season WEC guys.
          I don’t see Toyota changing their full-season line-up for next year, but on the 3rd car for Le Mans I definetly see many Audi refugees.

      • FLB

        October 28, 2016 at 6:18 am

        Benoît Tréluyer lives in France now. He has a successful sport hotel with his wife, the Chalet Tréluyer. He completely had it renoated in 2014. He also has a young son, so his family may become his priority at this point.

      • Pierre

        October 28, 2016 at 12:49 pm

        Audi BMW and Merc will all go from 8 to 6 cars in 2017 DTM…future doesn’t look bright there
        present R8 will not be replaced, GT3 future (for an Audi factory pilot) doesn’t look brighter…
        maybe TCR? RX?
        it seems like the VW WRC future isn’t safe at all ether…
        damned diesel…

  7. NorthSask

    October 26, 2016 at 8:48 pm

    This is the (entirely predictable) reason why privateers and gentleman drivers can not be pushed aside for the $ signs of big manufacturers. While manufacturers are essential, they come and go. And when they go, if you’ve abandoned the privateers with brutal regulations as the FIA/ACO have done in LMP1, you’re left with the 2017 LMP1 grid…

    • AllardJ2X

      October 26, 2016 at 11:41 pm

      That’s the brutal reality of motorsports. The privateers are the ones that stick around and keep a series a float. Manufacturers come and go as they please for many reasons, mostly because of marketing. If a series tries to put all of their eggs in one basket in order to lure a manufacturer, they can alienate privateers and even some manufacturers, and when that manufacturer leaves, the class is virtually empty.

      Group C was a success because of the strong privateer support, and the ability for them to get their hands on a Porsche 956/962. It’s important to have a formula, not only with strong privateer backing, but also the ability to be competitive with a modest budget (e.g. Being able to purchase a strong customer car such as the Porsche 956/962 in the Group C era). Without those elements, a formula cannot survive.

      • Jessie

        October 27, 2016 at 1:41 am

        Agree

      • rissas dad

        October 27, 2016 at 7:37 am

        Its yet to be seen, but maybe what IMSA is doing with DPi is a formula for success. Top class for manufacturers to come to and not need to spend 100-200million a year to be competitive and be seen (ROI), while any privateer can buy a car and be tech-wise on the same level as the manufacturers and have a chance to win. Not exactly the same as GrC in its heyday but could it be? The ELMS as a privateer-centric series at least for prototypes is very healthy. Different market team-wise to be sure.

        • rissas dad

          October 27, 2016 at 7:39 am

          I for one will making my return to next years Petit after a three year break. Honestly it will still bother me in knowing, while standing trackside, that I’m not seeing the fastest and best prototypes in the world as in the ALMS days, but the future isnt dark. JMO

  8. ssaghtyty

    October 26, 2016 at 10:56 pm

    My Prediction :
    Refined Nissan LMP1
    BMW
    Chevy

    • AudiFan

      October 27, 2016 at 12:16 am

      Refined Nissan?????

      7D3…. is that you?

    • JamieR

      October 27, 2016 at 6:21 am

      I doubt Chevy somehow, considering their reluctance to even race in GTE in Europe.

  9. AFS

    October 27, 2016 at 9:20 am

    I think with competition not nearly as stiff in F1, Mercedes should put their engineering chips in WEC. They have history in sportscar racing, and subjectively they look like they’re on a roll with sales (which I imagine allows them to bankroll an LMP1 program), and they have the know how.

    Other possibles:
    -Hyundai: Hybridization is not new, but Hyundai can make the case (and bankroll it) to fully adopt hybridization across it’s entire range. Meaning, no more gas-only engines, but introduce cheap and reliable hybrids to sell en masse.
    -Jaguar: I’m really, really hoping that their Formula E campaign is a stepping stone to WEC.

  10. Griffm3

    October 27, 2016 at 10:24 am

    BMW is coming in 3 years…GTE program to get their feet wet in WEC before introducing their program with revised regulations.

  11. mt. wood

    October 27, 2016 at 11:29 am

    If Porsche pull the plug, Toyota’s development cost will be very cheap. Win LeMans every year, if no rivals appear.

  12. Mark Roberts

    October 30, 2016 at 9:42 am

    Maybe the ACO have been “working “towards this by putting more emphasis on LMP 2 & 3 so their pyramid is not reliant on major manufacturers. Next year the LMP2 class will be more prominent and possibly within the next 2 years LMP1 will quietly disappear

    • Charles Hall

      November 4, 2016 at 5:35 pm

      I’m thinking we need to wait and see on what IMSA’S DPI formula does a’s the ACO may adopt those regulatons for LMP1. Might be why they are so against letting DPI configurations race Le Mans. I’d love to see the hybrid formula go away unless it was in the GTE as well. I like the hybrid racing idea. I also like the DPI idea. At least there the motors are street based. I actually would like to see indy car do something similar to DPI. Get a couple of approved chassises that a gt3 engine could run in. I actually believe the racing is going to get better over the next couple of years in IMSA as the chassises get tuned.

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