Audi ditches WEC for Formula E

Audi WEC car

It’s no great surprise to learn that Audi has called time on its 18-year involvement in the 24 Hours of Le Mans while also withdrawing, effective at the end of the current season, from the World Endurance Championship.

Though Audi has been THE stalwart of prototype endurance racing in the 21st century, no factory participation is forever in the world of motor sport, where a myriad of factors influence such decisions to stay or go.

The shock perhaps is that Audi is departing in just two WEC race’s time. It has (at least for the foreseeable future) contested its last Le Mans enduro in the prototype LMP1 category. There had been a belief it would depart at the end of 2017.

The sudden finish to the Ingolstadt car maker’s wildly successful LMP1 programme, which yielded 13 Le Mans victories and the WEC drivers' and manufacturers' titles in 2012-13, comes after a strategic realignment of Audi's motor sporting focus, and a significant economic tsunami in the form of the emissions cheating scandal.

Audi had earlier announced it was to take a more serious crack at the all-electric Formula E Championship with the Abt-Schaeffler squad.

This change of emphasis was confirmed with Audi chairman Rupert Stadler saying: "As our production cars are becoming increasingly electric, our motorsport cars, as Audi's technological spearheads, have to even more so.

Audi -WEC-race -car -top -side"We're going to contest the race for the future on electric power.”

Deaf folks are the only fans seemingly happy by the move to the electric-power competition.

The announcement has been greeted with diluted enthusiasm (at best) by hard-core race fans who’ve long lauded Audi’s loyalty to sports car racing and its always innovative technological response to the challenging regulations of the WEC and Le Mans.

Still, Audi’s deeper commitment to Formula E will surely shake up the technology-driven series which recently attracted Jaguar.

The Formula E programme is clearly aimed at promoting Audi's all-electric production vehicles which will bow at the start of the 2018 model year.

“We intend to evolve into one of the leading premium car manufacturers in this field,“  said Dr Stefan Knirsch, a board member with technical development responsibilities.

The world is set to become way quieter, along with some forms of motor sport following suit.

“By 2025, every fourth Audi should be an electric vehicle,” added Dr Knirsch.

The latest developments at Audi will finally dispatch any lingering rumours that the premium car brand is contemplating an involvement in Formula One.

In fact, the Audi announcement of its cessation of prototype sports car racing included an oblique suggestion that the company was aiming to reduce its motor sport budget. The decision, said Audi, needed to be understood "in the context of the current burdens of the brand", an acknowledgement of the considerable financial impact flowing from last year's global 'dieselgate' shame.

A further factor in the change of direction for Audi Sport is the post-dieselgate decline in sales of turbodiesels, the technology Audi has been employing in the WEC.

Audi intends to retain all employees involved in the motor racing program but indicated some within Audi Sport will be diverted into the development of production vehicles.

It is believed the Audi decision will not impact on fellow Volkswagen Group brand Porsche’s ongoing participation in the WEC.

In fact, the announcement doesn’t leave the sibling brands fighting each other in LMP1, although Audi Sport will continue with its customer racing (R8 LMS GT3 and TT Cup). A successful, profitable business within Audi Sport, it recently unveiled a new product, the RS 3 LMS touring car.

But its primary focus is Formula E. It has thrust more technical resources and budget towards the Abt Schaeffer team's Formula E programme for the 2016/17 season. It’s now a full-on factory attack. Hear the roar of…the tyres squealing.

Okay not everyone will be thrilled. But the logic is unassailable.

The boss of Audi Motorsport Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich makes the point that Audi has consistently been using motor sport to test and develop new technologies for subsequent use in production.

He takes pride in Audi using quattro drive to revolutionise rallying and subsequently set standards in circuit racing as well.

However, Formula E uses both a control chassis and battery pack, with manufacturers limited in their development for the category.

In the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Audi was the first manufacturer to take victories with a TFSI engine, a TDI and a hybrid race car.

“Now we intend to repeat this in fully electric racing,“ Dr Ullrich declared.

That's why the withdrawal of one of those manufacturers - and the one currently enjoying the longest run in the prototype ranks - is a major loss.

Losing one of the three manufacturers from the LMP1 category of WEC is a blow, and leaves the series vulnerable if another marque heads for the exit.  But history shows that just two brands can stage an almighty contest.

Porsche and Toyota have won rounds this year. Let’s hope they stick for the long haul (Toyota is getting into world rallying next season).

But the Porsche versus Toyota fight will continue after the WEC waves an emotional farewell to Audi in Bahrain.

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