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?
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