Audi Ditches Formula E, Chooses LMDh and the Dakar Rally Instead
The German automaker thinks its job is done in Formula E and will move funds towards a new Dakar program and a Le Mans returnby Michael Fira, on LISTEN 13:48
German luxury brand Audi will, in a couple of years’ time, be back doing two things that it does really well: go fast on dirt and go fast in really long circuit races. In other words, Audi announced that the 2020-2021 season of Formula E will be the last for Audi as a factory team, the money spent keeping the Audi Sport Team Abt Schaeffler operation at the sharp end of the world’s best-well-known EV racing series being redirected to a couple of new and very interesting projects.
Thus, Audi is already developing an electric SUV that it will race in the Dakar Rally as early as 2022 and, then, a return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans and, presumably, the FIA World Endurance Championship (FIA WEC) is scheduled for 2023 or 2024 when Audi Sport will show up with an LMDh (Le Mans Daytona-Hybrid) prototype on the grid.
Audi and its involvement in motorsports post-Dieselgate
In the world of racing, Audi is primarily known for two very important things. On the one hand, we associate the four rings of the German brand with the development of the AWD technology in ordinary road cars that allowed Audi to, in turn, homologate one of the most famous rally cars of all time, the Audi Quattro. By mixing turbocharging with an AWD platform, Audi essentially ushered in an entirely new era in the World Rally Championship and almost everyone else that came after the Quattro featured the now-mundane 4x4 technology.
On the other hand, Audi has become known for its ability to dominate the most famous long-distance endurance race in the world, namely the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In an insanely short amount of time, Audi was able to win the race 13 times making it the second most successful automaker in terms of outright wins, beaten only by Porsche’s tally of 19 overall wins. And when we say an insanely short amount of time, we mean it.
While Porsche needed 47 years to grab its 19 victories at Le Mans, Audi won 13 times between 1999 and 2016.
In spite of its success in these two very different branches of the sport, Audi could claim to have effectively no presence in either of them as of last year. The end of the Group B era (in 1986) was almost synonymous with Audi’s decision to leave rallying although a number of Group A models did compete well into the ’90s while, on the other side of the aisle, the Dieselgate scandal is largely the reason why the factory had to pull the plug on its FIA WEC program merely four years ago
At the time, in 2016, it became apparent that Audi decided to leave the highest echelon of sports car racing that was the LMP1-Hybrid category to instead focus its attention on the burgeoning Formula E series. Established back in 2014 by Alejandro Agag and his team, Formula E quickly rose to become the most important all-EV racing series on the globe where a variety of top-ranked automakers battled for supremacy in cheap-to-run single-seaters.
The series attracted the likes of Jaguar, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Nissan, and Mahindra seemingly overnight because everyone was looking for a platform that would help showcase their electric technologies in a cost-effective package that also offered exciting racing for the fans. Formula E races have always been organized on temporary street courses meaning that the series was able to stage events in the heart of some of the world’s biggest metropolises such as New York City, Berlin, Paris, Seoul, Rome, London, or Mexico City. This also ended up bonding well with the all-green image of the series as the race weekends were fully carbon-neutral which further tickled the fancy of automakers vying to prove to their customer bases that they were leading the move towards electric mobility.
Audi, which had had a presence in the championship since its inaugural season through the Abt Schaeffler team, finally took the bull by the horns and went all in in 2016 by offering full factory support to the Abt operation as the competition grew tougher in Formula E. The Abt team’s first full season as a pukka works effort was the 2017/2018 season, three years after Lucas Di Grassi won the first-ever Formula E race driving for Abt. 69 races later, Audi can pride itself on some rather impressive statistics including one title, 12 race wins, and an additional 43 podiums. The 2020-2021 season will, however, be Audi’s last in the series which may also put in the balance the future of the Envision team that makes use of Audi cars. Having said that, Audi did confirm that "we will continue to support customer teams through season eight (2021-2022) as well."
Beyond Formula E, Audi has also been active in customer-based GT racing and the German Touring Car Championship (DTM) in the years following the Dieselgate scandal. But 2020 was Audi’s last as a manufacturer involved directly in the DTM, the call made by the Ingolstadt top brass to leave Germany’s national sedan series almost killing the series altogether. That’s because Audi’s exit came just three years after Mercedes-AMG did the exact same thing returning the championship to its pre-2012 state before Aston Martin joined for a brief one-season period.
With only BMW left as the sole carmaker willing to enter Class 1 touring cars, which are the sort of machines that have been racing in the DTM since 2012 and in the Super GT since 2014 respectively, the organizers have decided to turn the championship even further away from its roots by announcing that GT3 cars will be allowed to compete in 2021. While Audi pledged support to the new format, the new direction of the championship sees it re-focus itself around privateers and not factory teams. This decision goes hand-in-hand with Audi’s own to keep making GT racing cars through its Audi Sport Customer Racing department that’s been pumping out mainly R8-based turn-key racers since 2010. We all thought Audi would just keep making R8 LMS GT3s, GT2s, and GT4s while the RS3 LMS TCR tin-top would be rapidly approaching its retirement. Happily, that’s not the case.
The Dakar Rally is the latest challenge that Audi wants to tackle
The Dakar Rally, which no longer has any ties with the city of Dakar, the country of Senegal, or the African continent as a whole, is still the most recognizable event in rally raid. Its legendary status and the fact that the organizers have showcased a clear desire to move towards electric cars and buggies in the near future are what lured Audi back into the world of rallying.
"We want to continue demonstrating the brand’s slogan ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ in international top-level motorsport in the future and develop innovative technologies for our road cars. The toughest rally in the world is the perfect stage for this," said Markus Duesmann, Chairman of the Board of Management and Board of Management Member for Technical Development and Product Lines at AUDI AG. The upcoming all-terrain weapon of Audi will, thus, be an electric model that will make use of an internal combustion engine as a range extender.
Marketing it as a "viable alternative-drive concept," Audi says that the Dakar beast will sport a "powerful electric drivetrain" fed by "a high-voltage battery, which can be charged as required while driving via an energy converter in the form of a highly efficient TFSI engine." Duesmann concluded that the Dakar Rally is "the next step in electrified motorsport," and also took the time to clarify the reasons behind Audi’s announced exit from Formula E. "Formula E has accompanied the transformation phase at Audi [and], today, electromobility at the four rings is no longer a dream of the future, but the present." In other words, Audi feels that Formula E has done its job as a platform that Audi has been utilizing to champion the move towards eco-friendly means of transportation with the German brand stating that its projections show that 40% of the cars it will sell by 2025 will be either PHEVs or full-blown EVs.
Apparently, 13 overall wins at Le Mans simply aren’t enough for Ingolstadt
As if preparing to join the world’s toughest rally raid event in the world in 2022 wasn’t a hard enough task for Audi Sport, we also caught word that a return at Le Mans will take place sooner rather than later. The same press release that announced Audi’s desire to jump over the dunes of Saudi Arabia, the modern home of the Dakar Rally, also talked about Audi’s sports car ambitions.
"We are evaluating other possible fields of activity for us in international motorsport," said Julius Seebach, the newly appointed Head of Audi Sport who takes over from Dieter Gass. "In doing so, we have our customers’ wishes in mind as much as the company’s future strategy, which is clearly focused on electrification and carbon-neutral mobility. This is why we are intensively preparing to enter the new sports prototype category LMDh with its highlight races, the Daytona 24 Hours and Le Mans 24 Hours. The most important message for our fans is that motorsport will continue to play an important role at Audi."
Reacting to the press release, current Audi Formula E Team Principal Allan McNish, who just happens to be one of Audi’s most successful drivers in its first spell in endurance racing, said that building going back to the WEC is good for Audi because it is "the right format and formula for the next period, going forward." The Scotsman, who’s a three-time overall winner at Le Mans (twice with Audi, in 2008 and 2013), added that "[building an LMDh prototype] creates a platform where you can have the same car racing worldwide. The U.S as we know, is a big market for it. It’s a big market for pretty much all the car manufacturers [and then there’s] Le Mans, still also a key race in the world in motorsport."
The announcement made earlier this week goes on to confirm that Chris Reinke’s thoughts regarding the fact that LMDh "ticks a lot of boxes [for Audi]," something that the Head of Audi Sport Customer Racing said back in February were the smoke coming out of an active fire over at Audi Sport. As mentioned, Audi has already won the 24 Hours of Le Mans 13 times and was unbeatable between 2000 and 2008 when it won nine times on the trot.
Its dominance was halted only by Peugeot whose impressive V-12-engined diesel prototype won in 2009. The French automaker will again be amongst Audi’s rivals as it plans to debut a Le Mans Hypercar-spec race car sometime in 2022. Audi, meanwhile, won’t be on the grid until 2023 at the earliest as that’s when the LMDh category will debut and thus join Le Mans Hypercar (LMH) within the top class of the FIA WEC.
We’ve talked about all of the latest news regarding LMH and LMDh and you can read more about the future of world-class sports car racing (including the future of the American IMSA-sanctioned Weathertech Sportscar Championship) here. We also talked about the merger between LMH and LMDh here as these two very different types of cars will go head-to-head for overall honors.
In short, LMH allows an interested large-volume automaker or a boutique automaker to join using a custom-built car featuring a bespoke hybrid drivetrain. LMDh is the cheaper alternative to LMH as the starting point will be one of the four new-for-2023 LMP2 chassis manufactured by Ligier, ORECA, Multimatic, and Dallara. The recipe is, largely, the same as in the case of the current DPi cars that are still active in IMSA competition.
You simply take one of the four chassis, bolt on to it the spec hybrid system (the combined power output is 670 horsepower for both LMH and LMDh), and then cover the monocoque with a body that loosely resembles your road-going products.
LMH cars will also take cues from the road-going products of the large-scale manufacturers involved (Peugeot and Toyota).
So far, a large variety of manufacturers have expressed a keen interest in the LMDh formula and we’ve understood there are still more takers on the cards for the LMH formula in years to come. Ferrari, for instance, is still actively considering a return to sports car racing and so is Porsche, Audi’s rival between 2014 and 2016.Although we thought that the VAG Group would wish to avoid any sort of cannibalization on the race tracks (it happened before with Audi racing against Bentley between 2001 and 2003), Porsche said that Audi’s plans won’t interfere with its own.
"So far, we’ve been the only ones who have expressed an interest in this. And we still are. The Audi announcement doesn’t change that. Everything else is subject to a decision by the Board of Management," Porsche said in a statement. "We still hope that we can make a decision as soon as possible. After all, a commitment means a good amount of preparation time with the partners, especially for the chassis, adaptation to the standard hybrid system, and the choice of the ideal powertrain. That takes a lot of time." It’s understood that Porsche has until the end of this year to decide whether or not it wants to return to Le Mans as well but, at the end of the day, what’s clear is that there are more and more people getting ready to race prototypes towards the second half of this decade. We’re already willing to bet that the centenary edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2023 will be a classic.