Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich has admitted that Audi’s 1-2 finish in its final FIA World Endurance Championship race came as a special moment and a fitting sendoff to the iconic prototype program after an ultra-successful 18-year run.
Last month’s season-ending Six Hours of Bahrain also marked the final race for the longtime Head of Audi Motorsport in his current position, as Ullrich transitions towards his retirement at the end of next year.
“There is no question that this final race, especially the last two races after the news, it was the end of an era. It was special,” Ullrich told Sportscar365 in an exclusive interview.
“Knowing what it means for everybody, the [entire] squad was very much motivated in the last race to make a good result out of it.
“And that we could make it happen at the end, it was really the best thing that was possible at that moment.
“I think, having in mind that it is now the end of an era, everybody just had a positive last race weekend and that’s something very, very positive.”
The Bahrain weekend was arguably the German manufacturer’s strongest run of the year, with Lucas Di Grassi and Oliver Jarvis scoring pole, and teaming with Loic Duval for a dominant win, that also included the Brazilian driver earning the fastest race lap.
It came after an uncharacteristic season for Audi with its new-for-2016 R18, which never lacked pace but struggled with reliability issues.
“We had a car the whole season that was able to win,” Ullrich said. “But it’s different to most of the other years [as] our cars have not been on the level of reliability and we struggled a little bit with that.
“On the other hand, we had, let’s say, sometimes a disadvantage that was given to Audi by the [diesel] fuel capacity being [less] and then by chance, the others got a full course yellow to save a lot of time at the fuel stops compared to us.
“And this was at the high level of [competition] that at the end the races have always been decided by seconds. It was running, at least twice, not in our favor.”
While ending the year with only two wins, Audi’s legacy will be remembered most for its pioneering technology and dominant form, from its early years in the American Le Mans Series to the 13 overall wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a 15-year period.
Ullrich said his proudest moment was their first victory at Le Mans in 2000, in Audi’s only second attempt and first with the R8.
“I think that the next big step was the good progress we made with the diesel-powered car able to win,” he said. “Our first victory in Sebring, we also still have in mind.
“And then, the race that will always stay in our mind was the one in Le Mans [in 2011] with two big crashes for Allan McNish and then Mike Rockenfeller, ending with one car out of three around midnight and ending up as a great victory.
“I think these are the key things besides many, many good memories.”
One of the biggest achievements, however, was the longevity of the program in itself, which spanned nearly two decades, a feat that can only be matched by Corvette Racing in modern-day sports car racing.
Ullrich said it was the pioneering of new technologies is what ultimately kept the program going strong.
“For me it is just a red line going through the programs, and this was always new technology and relevant technology for the road cars,” he said.
“This is what always gave new momentum to the project. The first car, yes was under-powered, but already [with] the R8 came with the first direct-injection turbo engine petrol engine, which was a technology that we brought into all of our road cars.
“Then we came with the first diesel car. Then we [had] the first hybrid car [to] win. So we always had technologies that we could use, there was always a good reason to continue to prove what Audi could do.”
While set to step down in his role as motorsport boss at the end of the year, which will be taken over by Dieter Gass on Jan. 1, Ullrich feels Audi still has a strong future in the sport, but in different areas.
The immediate focus will shift to Formula E, as well as a continuation in DTM, leaving only memories of its legendary prototype program, in what Ullrich arguably will be remembered most for.
“We all know that it was something unique that a team could be on such a high level for so many years together and could move through the different technical levels of sports car racing because this has changed [a lot],” he said.
“But whatever technology we’ve been on, the team was always able to make something quite good out of that.
“It’s a very special thing. You have maybe seen the notes that we had on the car with the amount of races and wins and Le Mans wins. It’s a very, very special story.
“Everybody who has been a part of it is very proud. The good thing is we had a good end.”