After almost two whole decades of dominance, one of the biggest names in endurance racing has called time on participation.
Audi Sport officially announced yesterday that, at the end of 2016, the Audi brand will no longer compete in the World Endurance Championship. That means 18 years of Le Mans competition will also come to an end, as Audi Sport elects to pursue Formula E instead.
This decision is hardly surprising, and had been rumoured in the previous weeks as a very real possibility. Since the introduction of the R10 TDI, Audi’s LMP strategy for the past decade has been built around the use of diesel engines. Following last year’s dieselgate furore, diesel power has become immediately unfashionable across the Volkswagen Group.
Whilst the motoring world was already pushing towards the greater use and integration of electric power, dieselgate has made this even more important for brands like Audi and Volkswagen. Audi Sport already has a partnership with Team ABT Schaeffler Motorsport in Formula E, meaning the barriers to entry are low. Throw in the fact that Formula E now allows for the development of bespoke powertrain elements, and it becomes a fairly easy decision.
Jaguar, BMW, Renault and Citroen already have involvement in Formula E, proving it to be an extremely attractive marketing arena for manufacturers. With street circuits bringing racing directly to crowds in cities, there’s no denying Formula E is the current hot ticket.
But does Formula E have the same glamour of fighting for 24 hours to take a victory at Le Mans? No. Not right now, that’s for sure. However, if you look back through Audi’s motorsport history, the brand’s involvement has often been an indicator of a series become the next big deal. Take Group B rallying in the 1980s, super touring in the 1990s, or endurance racing in the 2000s, for instance. Audi had involvement in all of these types of competition, but also left once they had proved their point.
Thus, Audi leaving the World Endurance Championship after an almost solely dominant period of nearly 20 years isn’t that big a surprise. Taking 13 outright Le Mans victories from 18 attempts is a huge achievement, and has showcased new Audi technology such as FSI, TDI ultra and e-tron powertrains. Another important point to remember is that Porsche currently has an LMP1 endurance racer. As both part of the Volkswagen family, having Audi and Porsche fighting against each other in the same series may be an unnecessary expense to justify at board level.
Audi Sport will still compete in the DTM championship, and has yet to make a decision on whether to continue the successful involvement in the FIA World Rallycross championship. Audi will undoubtedly be missed at Le Mans, and from the overall World Endurance Championship. Other manufacturers may well breathe a sigh of relief when contemplating Le Mans in 2017…