CAR: Audi Withdraw From LMP1 After 18 Years,

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CAR: Audi Withdraw From LMP1 After 18 Years,

2016 Audi R18 TDI e-tron quattro at the 6 Hours of COTA
If Formula 1 fans are impatient for complaining about one team dominating for three or four years at a time, they ought to look further afield and realise how good they've got it. See, if your first love in motorsport is endurance racing, the dominant force has now been around all century long... and they're only now being regularly overhauled by none other than a corporate stablemate of theirs.

Yes, I'm talking about Audi in LMP1. Since their second attempt in 1999, they have never once missed out on a podium finish at the gruelling 24 Hours of Le Mans. Not. Once. Of those 17 podium scores, 13 have been victories, a win count very nearly on par with all-time leaders Porsche who have now returned to reassert themselves (a heart-stopping Le Mans finish this year saw the old guard from Stuttgart score their record 18th win when Toyota #5 broke down on the final lap). Not only have Audi been all but untouchable since the start of the 21st century, but they have hit some key technical milestones along the way, such as the first Le Mans win for a car with a diesel engine (2006) and the first for a hybrid car (2012).

It's not just around Circuit de la Sarthe that they've left their mark, though; of the 185 races Audi has entered in "Le Mans Prototype" racing cars around the world, 106 of them ended in victory. From 2000-2008 they won the American Le Mans Series championship nine times in a row while US sports car racing grew around them. Top that off with back-to-back World Endurance Championship (WEC) manufacturer's titles in 2012 and 2013. They have been relentless, they have been dominant and they have done it all while pioneering new technologies... and they have done it all with a certain class indicative of the spirit of endurance racing.

Audi's 13 Le Mans-winning cars.
The middle row comprises diesel-powered cars. The front trio are diesel-hybrids.
However, being owned by Volkswagen has suddenly made the current situation very difficult thanks to the "Dieselgate" scandal, which is costing VW Automotive Group (VAG) billions of dollars in fines and buy-backs while shattering diesel's reputation as the cleaner, thriftier fuel of choice. While many argue that motor racing is the unequivocally ideal place to develop new car technology (Vorsprung Durch Technik and all that), many others in the corporate world see it as a mere folly... and an expensive one - the recent hybrid powertrain arms race between LMP1 factory teams has caused costs to spiral upwards to a level similar to a major Formula 1 team, which given that VAG also includes Porsche means that the German giant is effectively paying for the approximate equivalent of both Red Bull Racing and Mercedes-AMG F1 at the same time... with the obvious guarantee that at least one of them will lose.

When everything was rosy, that was fine - pit Porsche's petrol/battery hybrid and Audi's diesel/flywheel hybrid against each other, develop two or more sets of technologies at once and generate some healthy competition between brands that otherwise don't really overlap with each other much. Remember, we're talking about the business behemoth that could afford to lose millions on Bugatti Veyrons and eco-spaceship XL1s and shrug it off like they were just doing us all a favour in the process. Now, however, things are not rosy at all and the knock-on effects are obvious. For instance, the "all-new" Bugatti Chiron bears striking technical similarities to its predecessor perhaps because it was only allowed to make production if it could turn the company a profit this time. Audi itself could soon be made to stop using its own chassis platform for its cars, instead adopting the one Porsche already uses for Panameras and the like to save group costs. So basically, with savings needing to be found across the board, running two LMP1 factory teams has quickly become unreasonable...

But why Audi and not someone else's racing? Well, there's another, more direct issue the Ingolstadt squad would face soon; in 2018, a new 10-megajoule hybrid sub-class will be introduced to the WEC. As Porsche proved with its utter dominance in 2015, the bigger your hybrid system the better. However, more electric power means a bigger, heavier energy store (battery), something of grave concern to Audi whose diesel engine is notably heavier than a petrol equivalent - certainly their V6 TDI will weigh more than Porsche's tiny 2.0-litre V4 T - giving them a clear performance disadvantage one way or another as the only team using diesel engines, which already have to take longer to fill up during pit stops thanks to a rule aimed at balancing out their better fuel consumption. So add a possible performance deficit to VAG's need to slash costs across the board together, then throw in that the diesel technology is no longer desirable and... well, things aren't looking good, especially after Ferdinand Piëch left the group.

And so, despite them having developed a machine for next year anyway, an era in sports car racing will end with the 2016 WEC season, as announced on 26th October:

"Speaking to 300 employees of the motorsport department on Wednesday morning, Chairman of the Board of Management Rupert Stadler put this strategic decision in the context of the current burdens on the brand, pointing out that it was important to focus on the things that would keep Audi competitive in the years ahead. That is why the Board of Management had decided to terminate Audi’s commitment in endurance racing. In the future, Audi will be using the know-how and skills of the motorsport experts from Neuburg and Neckarsulm partially in motorsport and partially in production development. 

“We’re going to contest the race for the future on electric power,” says Stadler. “As our production cars are becoming increasingly electric, our motorsport cars, as Audi’s technological spearheads, have to even more so.” The first all-electric racing series perfectly matches the strategy of offering fully battery-electric models year by year starting in 2018, Audi currently being in the greatest transformation stage in the company’s history. The commitment in FIA Formula E will already commence in 2017. It is regarded as the racing series with the greatest potential for the future. That is why Audi has intensified the existing partnership with Team ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport in the current 2016/2017 season. On the road toward a full factory commitment, the manufacturer is now actively joining the technical development.

The commitment in the DTM [German silhouette touring cars], where Audi will be competing with the successor of the Audi RS 5 DTM in 2017, will remain untouched."

Audi also says there is a "job guarantee" for all their motorsport employees, whom will now be shared between developing production cars and pushing the electric drive technology in Formula E, a series in which it already supports the competitive ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport team at arm's length ready turn into a full factory effort next season. I covered the inaugural FE race on this blog, but in true style neglected to cover any more of it after that. Since the first season of racing when the cars were completely standardised, the regulations around the powertrain - everything between (but excluding) the battery and the wheels - have subsequently been freed up to allow companies to develop their own concepts, of which there are now eight different types on the grid. Having just started its third season, Formula E is what's hot right now among car makers wanting to look cutting edge, with more manufacturer teams taking part than in Formula 1 including Renault, DS [Citroën], Jaguar and Mahindra (not to mention a BMW-supported independent team), plus Audi for season four and potentially Mercedes-Benz in season five, when a new McLaren-supplied battery will allow teams to use one car for the entire race length and the aero will no longer be standard. You've been hearing all decade long that electric cars are the future and here's even more proof of it.

Plus, y'know, it's substantially cheaper to enter than F1 or WEC. That helps too.

In the meantime, Audi will still have a factory team in DTM and I don't see anything denying that they'll keep building R8 GT3 cars to sell to customer racing teams around the world, alongside the new RS3 LMS touring car that won the TCR class in VLN at the Nürburgring last weekend.

Still, while all great things must come to an end, the world of endurance racing will surely feel Audi's absence in 2017. Between Nissan's miscarriage of an LMP1 project last year and this sudden withdrawal by a staple manufacturer, LMP1 will soon be left with just two factory teams (Porsche and Toyota) and, thanks to Rebellion Racing switching to LMP2, a single uncompetitive independent team (CLM/ByKolles). Depending on whether the Toyota finally brings a third car to Le Mans or not, we're talking about only five or six cars in the top class of the 24 Hours and WEC, right when it looked like sports car racing was in a new golden age.

It'll be an absence the weight of which is matched only by that of the pages Audi has added to the racing history books since the turn of the millennium.

Farewell Audi. May you return when the time is right. In the meantime, Toyota has perhaps never had a better chance at FINALLY winning the big one after so many disappointments...

Written exclusively for SmallBlog V8

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