In this story abridged from an article appearing in the April issue of RACER, David Phillips explores the reasoning behind Audi’s winning entry and ALMS exit at Sebring.
For a company planning to contest one (1) race in North America this year, Audi casts a considerable shadow on the American motorsports scene. Consider the American Le Mans Series. Having won countless races and championships throughout this decade against opposition ranging from token to overmatched, Audi was poised to do battle with Acura only to announce in December that its second generation diesel sports prototype will only race at Sebring and Le Mans this year.
Then there’s the IndyCar Series. Last summer the Indy Racing League began an extended conversation with the world’s leading automakers to develop new engine rules in the hopes of enticing one or two of them to compete with Honda. Audi has actively participated in those conversations and is believed by many to be the manufacturer most likely to join the Indy car fray.
But it was another shadow – the dark, ominous shadow of a worldwide economic recession – that most influenced Audi’s racing plans for the coming season; plans that, for now, are limited to the 12 Hours of Sebring, 24 Hours of Le Mans and the DTM championship.
“There’s one very obvious reason for withdrawing from the ALMS,” says Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, head of Audi Motorsport. “That was the economic situation we saw coming. Like everybody, Audi Motorsport was trying to find a solution to reduce costs but still keep motorsport in the important areas running. So we said Le Mans is the key program with the sport prototype and DTM is the key program for the European market.
“It was for sure not an easy decision but it’s understandable and the good thing is we continue with sports car and DTM (Germany-based touring car championship). We’ve been putting a lot of effort for quite a long time to have the ALMS on an ongoing, growing road and we really tried to continue to be a part of it. At least we managed to be in Sebring! This is only a small part of it, but let’s see what the future brings.”
Machiavellian speculation had Porsche Automobil Holding SE, largest shareholder of the Volkswagen/Audi Group, effectively vetoing Audi’s ALMS and LMS plans for ’09. Dr. Ullrich says he has no knowledge of such maneuverings at the VW/Audi Group board level, only what happened within Audi.
“I only know that I was in the Audi board meeting,” he says. “There was a very strong discussion because everyone on our board is very supportive of motorsports as they are convinced it has been important for the development of our brand. But we face an economic situation and we have to find the best way through it: that’s what we all work on.”
That Audi had been intending to race in the 2009 ALMS is evident from the design of the dramatic new R15 TDI, successor to the all-conquering R10 TDI. Unlike the R10 or the R8 for example, the R15 features fuel hose connections on both sides of the car, an unnecessary complication for a car designed to race exclusively on the clockwise-only European circuits.
“The R15 is a car that, by far, takes American racetracks into more consideration than any of the other race cars from Audi before,” says Dr. Ullrich.
“I hope that maybe we can use it in one of the next seasons. But I can’t tell you today because it depends very much on how the economic situation develops and how the market is going to run. Everybody has to accept that sometimes you just need to make the best out of a minimum of financial effort.”
There is no little irony that Audi will go missing from the American Le Mans Series after Sebring. Absent an occasional cameo by Peugeot, Audi has essentially been competing against itself in the top category of the ALMS (call it LMP900 or LMP1) for nearly a decade. Now, with new and formidable opposition from Acura, Audi reins in its prototype program. Ullrich has no concerns that some may perceive Audi as ducking from competition.
“We asked for three years for our competitors to move into the top category,” he says. “Sometimes it happens that when they move, other circumstances force other decisions. This is exactly what happened. We knew if they did a car for LMP1 it would be competitive and we were very happy to get competition in the U.S. But whatever competition was there, it would not have changed our decision either way; it was a decision that was taken purely because of the economic situation.”
Of course, many believe Audi may be destined to square off against Acura’s parent, Honda, at the most storied of open wheel races in the not too distant future, namely the Indianapolis 500. Then again it could be VW versus Honda, depending on VW/Audi’s marketing strategy. One thing is for sure, according to Dr. Ullrich: absolutely no decision has been made
to compete in the IndyCar Series, let alone which brand.
“We have been involved, in discussions about future IndyCar Series regulations,” he says. “We have given our input and I think it was a very constructive discussion. But no decision has been made if we should do something in this direction and there has not at all been a decision about how we will do it in the brand.”
Still, one would be hard-pressed to imagine a more illustrious double than winning the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, three weeks apart, regardless of the valve cover badge. And the prospect of racing 1.6-liter, four-cylinder, turbos at Indianapolis is hardly anathema to VW/Audi.
“For sure it’s interesting that it ended up with four-cylinder turbocharged engines, which is our future concept as well in downsizing for road cars,” says Dr Ullrich. “Just seen from the Audi perspective, it always figures well to go into racing with technology which is for the near future something that we can offer our customers and which is a concept that looks to be a good one for the future.
“Maybe you can race a four-cylinder turbocharged engine three or four years from now also in the sport prototype. Maybe you can run it in Indy cars and maybe there are other categories as well going in this direction. So it’s interesting to see how these things develop, because if things fit with the long-term future strategy, why should it not be part of our future motorsport program?”
In the meantime, Dr. Ullrich says, “It is correct to plan for what could come so that you aren’t forced into emergency braking. It is always better to pre-plan a way through the next years properly with even a reduced program but keeping the important things running. Then as soon as it is possible, try to come back to other programs that you think are also important.”
One look at the R15 – or VW/Audi’s discussions over the IndyCar Series’ engine regs – leaves little doubt about which programs Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich thinks are the important ones.