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A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall

Audi’s decision to end its planned five year Le Mans Series campaign after a single season was, to put it mildly, surprising. The manufacturer has built a new prototype, the R15, and a new lightweight and smaller diesel engine, believed to be a 3.7 litre V8. It has tested drivers Christian Albers and Marcel Fassler in the American Le Mans Series during 2008. It has faced Peugeot in competition in Europe and the Le Mans Series has greatly benefited from the rivalry between the two manufacturers. Peugeot took out full page advertisements in national newspapers in the UK, for example, and people looked at the series in a new light.

Now, the European programme is finished, and the American Le Mans Series project hangs in the balance pending a sponsorship injection from another quarter. The decisions are purely financial, says Dr Wolfgang Ullrich, head of Audi Sport, who also confirmed that all the VW brands were being asked to reduce costs. Audi may have sold more of its newly-launched A4s in Europe than in the first ten months of 2007, and overall its sales in the first ten months of 2008 are up more than 30,000 units to 780,000 according to Automotive News Europe, but they are expecting the recession to bite, and bite hard next year.

“I can tell you that this was discussed internally,” said Ullrich at the Essen Show, denying any Porsche involvement in the cessation of Audi’s European sportscar programme excluding Le Mans. “The VW board gave us a direction how it is going to be next year. It was a clear decision that all brands bring down costs. [Audi] had a long discussion and I am unhappy about [the decision]. The [Le Mans] series was going in a good direction and at good speed. The decision to go in was right, and it should have been for five years, but the world has changed, and we have to adapt.”

The ACO announced just two days later that the Le Mans test day is cancelled. Gone, at a stroke, is Audi’s opportunity to run its new car for eight hours on the full circuit. The first time that the R15 will run at Le Mans is the new free practice session on Wednesday. Advantage Peugeot, and by some huge margin! “2009 will be very difficult for many teams, manufacturers, sponsors and also organizers,” said Daniel Poissenot, General Manager of the ACO. “We have to take care of our competitors for the future. It is a difficult decision to take but I think all competitors will appreciate that.”

Audi will race at the Sebring 12 hours, and at Le Mans, but has yet to finalise its driver line-up. That will depend on the ALMS decision. Would the likes of Allan McNish wait around for just two races in 2009, or start talking to Acura? Remember the Porsche awards of 1998, when David Brabham expected to be confirmed as McNish’s co-driver at Porsche? How warm are the phone lines between Japan and the wee man’s pad in Monaco? Perhaps Audi will race at Sebring, Le Mans, and be able to run a few races after Le Mans in the US.

Audi is also scaling down its DTM campaign from nine factory and one customer car to a maximum of nine cars. But Audi may reduce it to five, thereby freeing up factory-contracted drivers. Why not ditch the DTM project, in which Audi only races Mercedes primarily in the German market, preaching to an already converted audience? Why not concentrate on sports cars where Peugeot and Acura are already committed to an LMP1 programme next year, and others are expected to follow? “That one is easy,” says Ullrich. “The sports car programme is one leg, and the DTM is another. I don’t want to cut off one of them. The DTM promotes the Audi A4. Sports cars promote Vorsprung durch Technik and TDI.”

Looking at the future, we can expect Peugeot to race the new Audi at Sebring, and at Le Mans, but what else? In 2007, the French manufacturer raced alone in the Le Mans Series and though it won everything, it gained very little in terms of marketing and was not interested in continuing without a major manufacturer rival in 2008. Will it consider an ALMS programme instead, all the time learning the strengths and weaknesses of the new R15? Would that spell the end of the Le Mans Series programme? Or will Peugeot pick and choose its races on both sides of the Atlantic next year, all the time gearing up for the big race, Le Mans?

What will happen to Audi factory drivers Allan McNish and Rinaldo Capello? Frank Biela and Emanuele Pirro are already confirmed not to drive the R15. Lucas Luhr and Marco Werner will race in at least one ALMS race (Sebring) and at Le Mans. Alexandre Premat and Mike Rockenfeller will return full time to the DTM. Fassler will remain on Ullrich’s wish-list and may get a prototype drive at Le Mans, and Albers may get the same call. DTM Drivers such as Martyn Tomcyck have asked Dr Ullrich whether or not they can drive the R15 and at Le Mans they may get their wish.

What will happen to the remaining VW brands, such as Lamborghini, Seat and Porsche, all involved in prominent front-line motorsport? Seat sales fell from 350,000 in ten months in 2007 to 336,000 in the same period this year, nearly 9,000 of those lost in Leon sales. The Spanish brand has already cut its British Touring Car programme having achieved its marketing goals, but will that spread to the WTCC in the medium term?

What will Porsche do? Rumours abound that it will produce a mid-engine 911 which will race the new Audi R8 GT car in the new GT1 class, while continuing to milk the cash cow 997 GT3 RSR for GT2, and return to LMP1 in 2010. It is a big ask of a manufacturer with a clear motive of not spending money if it can help it, and which has had its fingers burned with the RS Spyder. But then, who in the 1990s expected it to be in a position to take such a holding in the VW Group in 2008?

We always return to questioning the point of motor sport. When jobs are being lost, it is considered a frivolous activity. Yet the ACO rules provide a platform in which technology can be stretched, to the benefit of the consumer. Having made the investment in a small, efficient diesel which will benefit from restrictor breaks from the ACO, Audi needs to race it, and market it, to recoup that investment. It is rolling out the A4, A6 and A8 diesels in America, and I consider the A5 3.0 TDI as the best car I have ever driven. The Americans now get diesel, now get fuel efficiency, and to not race the R15 in a market so keen to learn would just be a waste.

Andrew Cotton, December 2009