According to Audi Sport boss Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich (LEFT), sports car racing's biggest spender has yet to decide if it will compete at the highest level in North America next year.
With the deletion of the LMP1 category from the new United SportsCar Racing championship, the 12-time overall winners at the 24 Hours of Le Mans are currently left without a series to showcase its prototypes in our market – at least one that allows the German marque to use a prototype that's currently in its inventory. And, coupled with the recent split between Audi and its R&D chief Wolfgang Durheimer, who set the strategy for the company's motorsport plans, many of the grand ambitions held by Durheimer within the American market have been put on hold.
“I have to say that we have not taken the decision yet on America,” Ullrich told RACER. “We have been looking into the possibilities together with Audi of America and there is no decision taken on what we're going to do next season. So we are going to continue to look into that and we will try to find something for the United States, because Audi of America asks to have a motorsport program on a level that fits with what Audi is accustomed to having, but at present, it's not so easy to define what's the right thing to do.”
Durheimer, who has since been replaced by Ulrich Hackenberg, was rather vocal during April's World Endurance Championship season opener at Silverstone, expressing his interest in seeing Audi build Daytona Prototypes, possibly supplying engines for the IndyCar Series and supporting the planned American DTM championship.
Whether Durheimer was speaking on his own accord or as a sounding board for concepts that came from Audi's upper management is unknown, but with his departure in the middle of last month's Le Mans event, a loss of direction has fallen over Audi's options in one of the manufacturer's most prized markets.
In March, Ullrich had seemed far more positive about something coming together for 2014, but with the first USCR race at Daytona just over 200 days away, the untimely change in R&D leadership has come at the wrong time – exactly when a decision was needed to be made on the future.
“It's interesting to discuss what Audi might be doing, but we have not decided yet to go into any open-wheel program, therefore I really can't give you any comment on that, and the same is true on sports cars. We have been in negotiation with [the IndyCar Series] and received information; we looked in detail into that, and we have had many meetings with [Grand-Am] about the new series. Still, it's difficult to find the right thing to do for the United States in the short-term future.”
Outside of its stated desire to win races overall (Audi claimed GT honors at this year's Rolex 24 At Daytona with a fleet of works-supported, Grand-Am-spec R8s) in North America, the Ingolstadt-based works team is moving ahead with its next-generation R18 P1 car for the 2014 World Endurance Championship.
While the new rules that govern the P1 class starting in 2014 will push each manufacturer to advance the current state of energy recovery systems in competition (while decreasing the use of fossil fuels with combustion engines), the USCR does not have a place for anything like the kind of technology found in P1, limiting its top class to cost-capped P2 cars and Daytona Prototypes.
If, when, and how the disparate views on prototype technology and manufacturer participation can be reconciled between the USCR and marques competing in the WEC is unknown, and in the interim, it has widened an ongoing divide.
American sports car fans can watch P1 cars race at Circuit of The Americas when the WEC visits Texas in September, and another stop at COTA in 2014 is expected, but as long as the philosophical and technical gap remains between the two sanctioning bodies, manufacturers like Audi, Porsche, Toyota and possibly Nissan will face hard choices if they want to race for overall wins in America.
It's certainly far more expensive to compete in the WEC, but at the moment, that's where the biggest prototype players are committing their budgets.
“I think it was important that we have done for the last year is to work together with other manufacturers to prepare the new [WEC] rulebook; it is a completely energy and efficiency orientated one,” Ullrich continues. “It's a step forward to have a future orientated rulebook for the Le Mans P1 class. But still having in mind you shouldn't become slower or they shouldn't become endurance races; it should be really hard and fast races. And I think this is interesting for many manufacturers. We see that as only positive because competition is what we're looking for.”
Building a DP of its own is still a possibility for Audi with the time left in 2013 – either starting from scratch or working with an established DP constructor – but the window closes with each passing day. Work on its next P1 challenger, however, continues without interruption.
“I think already the last decade it started with bringing technologies into the Le Mans cars that you could see that could be helpful for road cars some years later, so Audi and Audi Sport work together every day to bring these technologies together in our next prototype,” Ullrich explains. “The new rules produced are certain to push again in this direction and I think it makes it as well more interesting for some manufacturers, because you can really show that what you learn in motorsport is something that is really useful for the development of road cars.
"This is especially true if this is environmentally oriented – and this is what we have done since 2000, basically, but now it is even more pushed by the rulebook, I think this is one of the reasons why more manufacturers are interested today, and thinking about coming to Le Mans. It's an easy choice for us to make this decision.”