Audi calls time on Le Mans programme in favour of electric racing

Motor company is to bring to an end the most successful Le Mans racing operation in modern history, shifting its motorsport focus to the burgeoning Formula E category

Audi has killed off the most successful Le Mans racing programme in modern history, shifting its motorsport focus to the burgeoning Formula E category.

The German brand will retain its GT customer programme and its domestic DTM tin-top racing team, but will end its involvement in the World Endurance Championship (WEC) and the Le Mans 24-hour classic at the end of this year.

That means the team which won 13 times in 18 attempts has already run its last Le Mans 24-hour race, where it also took legendary Danish racer Tom Kristensen to seven of his nine wins at La Sarthe.

Audi was behind many milestones at Le Mans, claiming the first win for a diesel car and the first win for a hybrid car. It won the WEC twice and the American Le Mans Series nine times in a row from 2000. It has 80 pole positions and 106 wins from 185 starts in the WEC.


Audi’s 300-strong motorsport operation will now pivot to Formula E and, intriguingly, the company has floated the prospect of signing on with a full works team if the FIA switches the World Rallycross Championship to battery-electric power.

"We're going to contest the race for the future on electric power," Audi chairman Rupert Stadler said, while also guaranteeing the future employment of the Audi Motorsport workforce. "As our production cars are becoming increasingly electric, our motorsport cars, as Audi's technological spearheads, have to even more so."

Audi has a toe in the water of Formula E, supporting the Team ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport operation this year. It will intensify this financial and technical involvement with the team into 2017, but will sign on as a full factory team from the 2017/2018 season.

Audi plans to have its first battery-electric vehicle (BEV), a mid-sized e-tron crossover SUV, on sale in the US and Europe in 2018, and Stadler has called this the beginning of the “greatest transformation stage in the company’s history”.

In Formula E, Audi will join other works teams from Renault, Jaguar, Chinese BEV makers NextEV and Faraday Future, and India's Mahindra, while Mercedes-Benz has reserved a team slot for the 2017/2018 season. Other contenders in the 10-team formula include Virgin, Venturi, Techeetah and MS Amlin Andretti.

US motor racing icon Roger Penske is heavily involved with Faraday Future Dragon Racing, Williams is involved in the Jaguar team, and BMW and Indy racing team owner Michael Andretti are both working with MS Amlin Andretti.

Now in its third season, the category runs a control chassis, with free -battery development and free front and rear suspension designs. The cars can regenerate up to 150kW of power under braking, though output is capped at 200kW. (This will increase to 220kW in the fourth season and 250kW in the fifth.)

The 880kg cars are weighed down by a maximum of 230kg of battery and this is the first season in which teams don’t have to change cars mid-race to complete a race distance.

Their seats are filled with a who's who of former Formula One drivers and category champions from other race series, ranging from World Touring Car Championship winner José María López to one of F1's most experienced drivers, Nick Heidfeld. Other F1 refugees include Sebastien Buemi, Lucas di Grassi, Nelson Piquet jnr and Jean-Eric Vergne.

Audi's move frees up its Volkswagen Group stablemate Porsche to contest the WEC without internal interference as it seeks to build on its 18 Le Mans victories.

"Obviously [it's] extremely hard to leave," Audi Motorsport boss Dr Wolfgang Ulrich told the team. "Audi Sport Team Joest shaped the WEC during this period like no other team. I would like to express my thanks to our squad, to Reinhold Joest and his team, to the drivers, partners and sponsors for this extremely successful cooperation. It's been a great time!"

Audi’s decision to walk away from the WEC and Le Mans was largely shaped by the dieselgate crisis, cost-cutting and the brand’s aim for an electrified future. Audi and Porsche both cut down from three- to two-car Le Mans assaults this year for cost reasons.

Unlike Porsche’s, Audi’s WEC LMP1 hybrid racers were diesel-powered. Volkswagen Group chief executive Matthias Müller has gone on record that he would prefer increasing electric-powered or -assisted models over a big array of diesel motors.

Another factor was the prospect of a near-complete redesign of its six-megajoule R18 e-tron quattro powertrain for 2018 to reach up to the WEC’s incoming 10-megajoule regulation. The boost in electric power of the hybrid racers would have dictated that Audi’s 3.7-litre turbodiesel V6 be redesigned and redeveloped to include a second recuperation system for its kinetic energy.