On Wednesday, Audi Sport announced that they are “realigning our motorsport strategy.” As a result, Audi will be pulling out of the FIA World Endurance Championship at the end of the 2016 season and shutting down their prototype program after 18 years. In its place, Audi Sport will launch a new factory-supported program for the budget-capped FIA Formula E Championship.
In the official press release, Audi Sport stated that the move is being undertaken due to the manufacturer’s commitment to the use of electric power in street cars.
“We’re going to contest the race for the future on electric power,” said Rupert Stadler, Audi’s Chairman of the Board of Management on Wednesday. “As our production cars are becoming increasingly electric, our motorsport cars, as Audi’s technological spearheads, have to even more so.”
Audi’s commitment to Formula E will begin immediately with the goal of competing full-time in the FIA Formula E Championship by the start of the 2017-18 season next fall. Audi’s electric plans for the consumer market
The press release does not state it in any way, but the ongoing “Dieselgate” scandal is playing a role here. Audi’s parent company, the Volkswagen Group, is on the hook for billions after the automaker was found to be cheating emissions testing protocol via a computer program.
Audi Sport’s current program in the FIA World Endurance Championship races diesel-electric hybrid cars and has since 2012. Prior to that, the team raced turbodiesels dating all the way back to the Audi R10. With the current diesel climate, continuing to race anything with a diesel element to it could be considered bad PR for Audi. In addition, it is a very expensive endeavor for the manufacturer.
Earlier this week, courts approved a settlement worth $14.7 billion that will force Volkswagen to offer buybacks on every four-cylinder diesel sold in the United States since the 2009 model year and/or free repairs. In addition, the settlement requires $2.7 billion to be put into an “environmental trust” to help curb NOx emissions and $2 billion must be used to promote zero-emission vehicles in the future. Part of that $2 billion mentioned above could conceivably towards the Formula E program. Remember, this is only the United States so far. Legal cases are also on deck in Europe as well.
Team Joest itself goes back decades, but the partnership with Audi Sport began in 1998. The organization designed and built two brand-new cars for the 1999 24 Hours of Le Mans, the R8R and R8C (a closed-cockpit car that competed in the LMGTP class). Given the de-emphasizing of LMGTP after 1999, Audi focused on what was then known as the LMP900 class and built the all-conquering R8 (not to be confused with the current road car). For six years, the R8 dominated racing.
2006 saw the diesel-powered R10 come into use. Since then, Audi has used some form of diesel power in their prototypes. The R10 was quite successful, but the R15 successor was less so due to competition from Peuegot. Two more variations on the R15 (the R15+ and R15++) followed before the 2011 introduction of the first R18. Audi has raced revamped versions of the R18 ever since.
Over the life of Audi Sport Team Joest’s time in endurance racing, the manufacturer has racked up 106 overall victories, including 13 wins in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The overall win for Bentley in 2003 could technically be viewed as a 14th win since much of the personnel on that team were Audi Sport people. Here in the United States, Audi won the American Le Mans Series Championship nine consecutive years (2000-2008) with their R8’s and R10’s.
Audi’s Head of Motorsport, Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, is very sad to see the prototype program wind down.
“After 18 years in prototype racing that were exceptionally successful for Audi, it’s obviously extremely hard to leave,” Ullrich stated. “Audi Sport Team Joest shaped the WEC during this period like no other team. I would like to express my thanks to our squad, to Reinhold Joest and his team, to the drivers, partners and sponsors for this extremely successful cooperation. It’s been a great time!”
Upon getting word of Audi’s choice, FIA World Endurance Championship CEO Gerard Neveu released a statement of his own. In it, Neveu stated that the series understands Audi’s decision, but at the same time, is saddened by the move. Neveu thanked Audi and all the people who worked for the organization for their many years in the championship, but also noted that the move is part of life in motorsports.
“One manufacturer is leaving, others will soon be arriving,” Neveu wrote. “This is the life of a championship.”
Audi Sport Team Joest will finish out the two remaining races in the FIA World Endurance Championship in China and Bahrain.