Reports in AutoCar today suggest that Audi is set to withdraw from the World Endurance Championship, ending its long association with the Le Mans 24 hour race by ceasing its LMP1 motorsport operations, according to rumours circulating at its Ingolstadt headquarters in Germany.
While Audi won’t officially be drawn on speculation it is set to bring to a close the most successful chapter in it motorsport history, high ranking insiders close to its chairman Rupert Stadler suggest the company has made the decision to end its LMP1 motorsport engagement from the end of the 2017, giving the German car maker one more shot at adding to its haul of 13 Le Mans victories.
The decision to withdraw Audi from Le Mans comes after cost cutting initiatives were introduced by the Volkswagen Group in the wake of the dieselgate affair. Bosses are said to have questioned whether it was in the best interest of the financially embattled company to pit its two most profitable brands, Audi and Porsche, directly against each other in the world’s premier sportscar championship. Reports suggest that a season’s budget for each manufacturer is more than 200 million euros.
Among the arguments against a continuation of both Audi and Porsche in the World Endurance Championship is the fact that much of the attention around the global race series is focused on the Le Mans 24 hour race. Despite the media attention it draws, Volkswagen Group officials point out there is only ever one winner of the Le Mans race each year.
“Whatever way it turns out, one of our brands is deemed to lose,” said an insider.
Autocar understands Volkswagen Motorsport boss (and Bentleychairman) Wolfgang Durheimer has been ordered to streamline the group’s motorsport activities in a move aimed at freeing up development budgets for a wide-ranging electrification strategy that will result in the Volkswagen Group introducing up to 25 new electric cars by 2025.
The decision to end Audi’s commitment to LMP1 is also tied to a decision made by the Volkswagen Group to no longer showcase its diesel engine technology in a motorsport environment in aftermath of its diesel emission manipulation scandal.
It also follows a decision by Volkswagen chairman, Matthias Mueller, to reduce the number of diesel engines across the group in favour of petrol-electric hybrid and pure electric systems.
In recent years Audi’s WEC contenders have run a diesel-electric hybrid system, which despite its promise has no direct connection with its road cars.
“One of the attractions of the two brand LMP1 strategy was their differing driveline concepts,” said the insider. “Bringing both Audi and Porsche to a common driveline concept would limit the technology transfer to our road cars.”
A further hurdle that counts against Audi’s continuation in LMP1 is the introduction of new driveline regulations. From 2018, manufacturers competing in the premiere class of the WEC will be committed to a 10 megajoule rule, which would require a major revision of the turbocharged 3.7-litre V6 diesel engine and electric motor application used by the existing Audi R18 e-tron quattro that runs under the 6 megajoule rule, including the adoption of a second kinetic energy recuperation system.
Cost cutting initiatives to its motorsport program put in place by the Volkswagen Group prior to the start of the 2016 World Endurance Champion resulted in Audi and Porsche reduce its presence at this year’s Le Mans 24 hours, both running two car teams in place of the respective three car programs seen in recent years.
Together with its Le Mans program, Audi is also said to be seriously considering the future of its DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters) race program, with insiders indicating it could be heavily restructured.
Yet despite the apparent decision to end its commitment to LMP1, Audi is expected to continue to support in the rejuvenated GT3 and increasingly popular GT4 race classes. There is also speculation that some of the funds saved from the WEC withdrawal could be redirected to a works Formula E entry, which would pit Audi against likely rival entries from Jaguar, Mercedes and BMW.
Earlier this year reports suggested that Audi could race a hydrogen-powered Le Mans car in the future – although the project was said to be dependent on the technology edging closer to reality for production cars than is currently the case.
Audi’s now departed head of technical development, Stefan Knirsch, told Autocar that a hydrogen-powered Le Mans racer “could be possible” although no timescale for such a car was set.