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Surprise, surprise? Why Audi withdrew from the WEC
By Colin Smith • 02/11/2016
COLIN SMITH BACKGROUNDS AUDI'S WITHDRAWAL FROM THE WORLD ENDURANCE CHAMPIONSHIP
After 18 years of continuous 24 Hours of Le Mans participation -- achieving 13 victories -- Audi will close the doors on its LMP1 Hybrid prototype programme in the FIA World Endurance Championship after the final round of the 2016 championship in Bahrain this month.
Last week's announcement was both a shock and not such a great surprise. Question marks have hovered over the Audi programme since Volkswagen Group sister brand Porsche returned to top level sports prototype racing in 2014. There was always doubt about how long the group would sustain two very expensive motorsport programmes competing directly against each other. The answer has come -- leaving Porsche to race against Toyota Gazoo Racing in 2017 with the likelihood of only four (possibly five at Le Mans if Toyota runs three) cars running in the top prototype category.
Audi's other motorsport programmes are unaffected. It will continue to compete against BMW and Mercedes-Benz in Germany's DTM series and operate its highly successful customer racing programmes in GT3 racing with the Audi R8 LMS, and with a new TCR touring car based on the RS 3 sedan.
In announcing the end of the prototype programme, Audi also specifically signalled a heightened interest in electric motorsport, identifying not only its increased presence in the Formula E electric single-seater category this season but also referencing interest in a future full-electric rallycross series.
The talk around electric racing highlights that perhaps the biggest issue for Audi was that its Le Mans race programme has been inextricably linked to diesel since the R10 TDI debuted in 2006.
It's worth looking at the endurance racing programme in the wider context of Audi's motorsport efforts. Beginning in the early 1980s Audi has used motorsport to market quattro all-wheel-drive and turbocharging in rallying and racing, and then TSI direct injection petrol engines, TDI diesel technology, its Ultra lightweight philosophy and, most recently, TDI diesel-electric hybrids in endurance racing.
As a case study for using motorsport to enhance brand image and sell cars Audi is perhaps the most convincing example. It has linked motorsport and its road cars by using the Vorsprung Durch Technik (advancement through technology) branding.
But it appears the TDI diesel technology promoted by the Le Mans programme is no longer considered appropriate.
It can't be a coincidence the Le Mans programme was canned just a day after Volkswagen Group agreed terms for a US$14.7 billion ($20.56 billion) settlement relating to last year's Dieselgate emissions scandal.
The idea of big budget spending on a motorsport programme that promotes TDI technology seems no longer palatable. And if you want another scrap of evidence that points to Volkswagen Group beginning to distance itself from diesel, the new North American market large seven-seat VW Atlas SUV was launched last week and there is no diesel version.
It's been reported that Audi Sport won't shed any of its 300 staff as a result of cancelling the LMP1 programme. That raises speculation it is already working on something new with some pundits mentioning campaigns as diverse as Formula 1 or a new Daytona Prototype International for North America's IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship.
There is one rumoured programme on the horizon that falls under the umbrella of the Audi family. It's a Lamborghini Huracan racer for the GTE-Pro category to challenge Ford, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Corvette and Porsche. It could hit the track in 2018 at the same time BMW makes a return to the GTE-Pro category.
Another theory is Audi has decided to quit its diesel commitment and temporarily step away from endurance racing to prepare a new generation racer. The road map for future prototype regulations is still to be confirmed but is expected to evolve to encourage higher levels of hybrid electrification and potentially embrace hydrogen and fuel cell technology.