Prior to Audi Sport Team Joest’s final race, DSC sat down with Audi Sport boss Dr Wolfgang Ullrich to get a flavour of the emotion and importance of the WEC’s trip to Bahrain.
It was a memorable season finale for so many reasons, with emotions running high from Free Practice 1 onwards. In the end Audi’s tenure in sportscars concluded in the most perfect way – title challenges aside – with a dominant 1-2 finish, allowing Ullrich to depart the scene with a smile, as well as a heavy heart.
It was clear in speaking to Ullrich before the race though, that the end of Audi’s LMP1 programme is going to take a while to sink in.
For him, running Audi Sport’s prototype programme was more than just a job, it was a passion and a hobby at the same time. And for that reason, with his retirement quickly approaching and Audi Sport moving on without a factory sportscar programme he deserves to take the floor and reflect on such a remarkable run of form.
“It’s been tough,” he admitted when asked about the day he found out Audi’s LMP1 programme was coming to an end. “The moment we found out, everyone was desperate, they wanted to finish off the season with a good result. The combination of emotions and concentration has been a very special mix.
“The feeling in the team heading into this final weekend was positive in general. I was feeling a bit worried it would be different but after all the things we’ve done, it’s important that everyone banded together.
“The first moment was sad, knowing how much effort my team of people and I had put into it for such a long time. The job of Audi Sport was done because everyone loved to do it. I knew it wouldn’t be easy to tell my guys. I also understood that it was the right time to change direction in motorsport.
“We have to ensure that Audi Sport is ready for the future, and that it deals with the end of this programme in the correct way, not just this weekend, but going forward.”
Looking back though, Ullrich has no real regrets. He helped build Audi’s performance brand from the start, and was the architect of a remarkable era for the brand, in which it dominated in sportscars across the globe for almost two decades.
“I had no vision at the start,” he chuckled, reflecting on his first year with Audi Sport. “It was our goal at the start that when we wanted to win Le Mans, that was it. I started in 2000 to push hard to build a world championship around Le Mans, it was that long ago and took a few years. There was a step between with the ALMS and Don Panoz, that was a nice time, the ALMS was a great championship, but even then there was a move to go to Australia because it wasn’t as big as it should have been.
“On the other hand we the European Le Mans Series coming along, but it wasn’t even on the same level as the ALMS and it faded away for us in importance. So we started from the beginning and the ACO decided to collaborate with the FIA and we started create the WEC after seemingly endless discussions.
“What we have as a result from years of work is a good one.
“The WEC this season has been at its highest level in terms of competitiveness,” he added. “I’m really amazed by it. But we have to be careful that costs don’t become out of control. Yes, the cars are the most technologically advanced, and its clear that they are going to always be more expensive than most race cars, but it’s important that the organisers work continuously together to keep costs at an acceptable level.”
People kept asking me throughout the years: ‘why do you want to still continue with this project?’
But despite the rising costs of competition over the years – especially since the birth of the World Endurance Championship – Dr Ullrich and the Audi team continued to push the boundaries of race-to-road technology, racing with numerous forms of prototypes throughout the years. Despite winning big races like Le Mans seemingly every year in the early 2000s, Ullrich says that the motivation to continue was always there, and that the board always bought in.
“People kept asking me throughout the years: ‘why do you want to still continue with this project?’ But we wanted to bring the future and new technology into the race cars, and then put them in the road cars. That ethos always helped me to convince the board for ongoing support for the project, because it was really fulfilling Audi’s ‘Vorsprung Durch Technik’ (advancement through technology) philosophy.
“So much of what we tested and created found their way into road cars, it was always great for our customers. Because we kept the momentum up, the board trusted us to take ongoing steps.”
Departing the scene leaves the WEC on less secure foundations at the front of the field, with just Porsche, Toyota and ByKolles (in LMP1 L) confirmed for 2017. Ullrich is optimistic that the championship will survive though, and that the next manufacturer to come along and race may come from a place you don’t expect.
The factory teams that have entered LMP1 over the years have always been the ones that we thought wouldn’t come in
“I don’t want to say that nobody else will come in to take our place. I’ve been in this situation many times before where you are looking around, trying to work out who is going to start a programme, who will be the next big manufacturer. The factory teams that have entered LMP1 over the years have always been the ones that we thought wouldn’t come in.
“I think this championship is now on the highest level of technology and competitive. It asks a manufacturer to think long and hard, but if it wants to play with the big guys, it needs to come but on the other hand, some people will be cautious. It’s going to take a couple of years to get up to speed. Between these two things, manufacturers looking at LMP1 will have to decide.”
A big part of Audi’s withdrawal was the VW scandal which continues to send shockwaves across the automotive industry, even a year later. Diesel technology, which is the platform that Audi has built its LMP1 programme on over the years all of a sudden looks vulnerable in both racing and on the road, with Germany pushing for a ban on diesel-powered cars in the next two decades. Nevertheless, Ullrich insisted that it doesn’t detract from what Audi has created since the Audi R10 TDI’s debut back in to 2006.
“When Audi started with diesel there was so much positivity around it, and Audi was selling more than 50% of its cars with diesel engine,” he said. “We did it because the customer liked what they received. I’m still convinced that a nice turbo-charged diesel engine is the best engine you can get.”
I’m still convinced that a nice turbo-charged diesel engine is the best engine you can get
Dr Ullrich isn’t sure what his future holds. With just one year left to hand over his duties to his successor Dieter Gass, life after Audi Sport could come as a shock to the system for him.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do now it’s all come to an end,” he admitted. “I’m sure that I won’t be fishing during Le Mans next year. I need a bit of time. The day I came home when the decision was made, my son saw that I was not happy, and he said: ‘hey dad, if you want to do it, I’ll come to Le Mans next year, and we will go to a campsite and enjoy the race.’
“He offered, but I didn’t say I would do it!”