Why Audi is dropping Le Mans for Formula E

After months of rumours, it’s finally happening: Audi is doing the unthinkable and pulling out of the World Endurance Championship. In a statement released today, Audi’s chairman of the board of management, Rupert Stadler, announced that Audi “will terminate its FIA WEC commitment, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, at the end of the 2016 season”. Instead, he explained, the company will be increasing its presence in Formula E, with the all-electric series now in its third year. This tells you all you need to know about the future of transport.

Why Audi is dropping Le Mans for Formula E

Carmakers pull out of motorsport all the time, but this is different. If you’ve watched Formula 1 for the past 30 or so years you’ll have seen the likes of Ford, Jaguar, Honda and Toyota pass through the sport’s revolving doors – often due to a change in company direction, or poor results. But that’s just not the case with Audi.

For the past 16 years, Audi has dominated the Le Mans 24 and endurance racing, first with its petrol-engined R8, and then from 2006 onwards with several diesel-powered challengers. To put its success in perspective, Audi has won THIRTEEN of the past 17 Le Mans 24 hour races, with only Porsche, Peugeot and Bentley breaking its streak.

“After 18 years in prototype racing that were exceptionally successful for Audi, it’s obviously extremely hard to leave,” says head of Audi motorsport, Dr Wolfgang Ullrich. audi_pull_out_le_mans_formula_e_why

So why is Audi pulling out?

Although the move is shocking, if you look at the trends in motorsport and the transport industry itself, it starts to make more sense. For the past few years, Audi has moved towards sustainable energy, first by creating hybrid “E-tron” versions of some of its most popular cars and then unveiling some impressive-looking EV concepts, too. The World Endurance Championship and Formula 1 are both pioneers for cleaner, more efficient engines, and simply put, Audi’s diesel-engined race car is not good PR or marketing in 2016 – especially after dieselgate. Sure, it might be innovative and sophisticated, but it’s going the opposite way to the road car industry.

In the statement today, Stadler said “We’re going to contest the race for the future on electric power. As our production cars are becoming increasingly electric, our motorsport cars, as Audi’s technological spearheads, have to even more so.”

Splitting the strategies

The other reason for pulling out comes from a factor closer to home. Audi is part of the VW Group – which includes Porsche – and the Stuttgart-based manufacturer is simply a better fit for the WEC right now. Porsche’s 919 Hybrid has won the last two Le Mans 24 races, and it’s arguably the more motorsport-focused brand out of the two. What’s more, Porsche’s prototype uses a cleaner and less controversial petrol engine. If you’re the VW Group, it makes sense to split your strategies over two sports.formula_e_london_eprix

Audi could be making the move for financial reasons too. VW Group has an estimated $14 billion in compensation to pay over in the US, and VW Group’s decision to halve its WEC entries could be seen as a cost-cutting measure. 

Why Formula E?

Audi has said that it’s pulling out at the end of the year, and increasing its partnership with the ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport team. Although it started off as more of a sponsor, Audi now plans to actively contribute to the technical development.

I’ll be writing about Formula E in more detail soon, but it’s clear to see why the carmaker is focusing its efforts on the all-electric series. Motorsport is about development of technology – and to an extent, marketing – and Formula E offers the best of both worlds. We’re rapidly moving towards all-electric transport, and being involved in Formula E allows Audi to develop tech, and puts it in an innovative space. 

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