Over more than 3 decades, few companies have demonstrated more consistently how to “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” than Audi. Since at least the 1980s, Audi has used its involvement in motorsports to demonstrate the efficacy of its latest technologies. In the process, the Volkswagen (VW)-owned premium brand has risen from a niche player to being considered on par with its chief competitors at Mercedes-Benz and BMW. However, as a direct result of the VW diesel emissions scandal, the Audi racing program is making its biggest pivot in nearly 20 years.
The modern era of Audi motorsports began in the early-1980s with the introduction of Audi’s Quattro all-wheel drive system. Drivers such as Michel Mouton, Walter Rohrl, and many others demonstrated that, from that time on, all-wheel drive would be essential in order to win in the World Rally Championship. But since most drivers don’t spend their days driving through forests at high speed, Quattro was then proven on tarmac in series like Trans Am.
Since 1999, Audi has been developing its latest powertrain technologies in endurance racing, including 13 overall victories in 18 years at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The various evolutions of the R8 that competed from 1999 to 2005 demonstrated the efficiency of gasoline turbocharged direct injected (GTDI) engines that Audi brands in its production models as TSI. While most casual observers consider racing to be all about speed, efficiency can be just as important—especially in 24-hour endurance races like Le Mans. The more time a car spends in the pits getting refueled, the less time it is racking up miles on the circuit. Increasing the number of laps between stops from 10 to 11 and eventually to 14 or 15 laps makes a huge difference in the ability to win.
Performance and Efficiency
As a premium brand, Audi customers are often as interested in performance as they are in efficiency. In 2006, the company set out to prove that you don’t have to sacrifice one for the other. The new R10 and its successors, the R15 and R18, have been powered with a series of TDI turbodiesel engines that quickly came to dominate everywhere they ran—including the first ever victory by a diesel at Le Mans. Thanks to the particulate filters used on the R10, it was both smoke free and quieter than most gasoline racing engines.
In 2012, Audi launched the final series of its endurance racer with the R18 e-tron that paired a smaller TDI V6 with an electro-mechanical flywheel hybrid drive system. Like its predecessors that became the first Le Mans winners with GTDI and diesel engines, the R18 was the first hybrid to win Le Mans.
Following the September 2015 revelation that the VW Group (including the VW, Audi, and Porsche brands) had been cheating on diesel exhaust emissions on millions of vehicles around the world, the promotion of diesel was no longer viable. In the past year, the VW Group has made a major commitment to electrification, announcing that it will introduce 30 new plug-in models in the next 10 years. It is unlikely that any VW-owned brand will ever sell another diesel-powered light duty vehicle in the United States.
Following the final two races of the 2016 World Endurance Championship, the Audi effort will end entirely. It is now all about electrification, so from 2017 onward, Audi will focus instead on the battery-powered Formula E championship with a full, factory-backed effort launching in 2018. As the technology improves, electric racing will expand; by the 2020s, it’s likely that we will see full EVs at Le Mans and possibly the return of Audi.