Considered part of the “Triple Crown of Motorsport” alongside the Indianapolis 500 and Monaco Grand Prix, the Le Mans 24 Hours race, started in 1923, is one of the oldest and most prestigious races in the world. Teams are allowed three drivers and must race to complete the most laps over a 24 hour period, which means that winning cars must show exceptional performance, reliability and efficiency.
As a result of this, the race has been used as a proving ground for many technological advancements, most recently the appearance of hybrid electric vehicles which first raced in 2009 and have won the race every year since 2012.
Audi has absolutely dominated the 24 Hours of Le Mans ever since they returned to the race 18 years ago. With 13 wins in those 18 years, they have been the manufacturer to beat at the race. In particular, they are credited with heralding the “diesel era” of the race, leading to diesel-engined winners from ’06-’11, and diesel-electric hybrids from ’12-’14.
So today’s announcement that they would quit the World Endurance Championship and the Le Mans race comes as a bit of a shock. Or does it?
For the last two years, Audi has been beaten by Porsche’s gasoline-electric hybrid, and finished a distant third behind both Porsche and Toyota in 2016. Between that and the ongoing “dieselgate” saga for parent company VW, it is understandable that Audi might want to shift their focus away from Le Mans and diesel engines to “greener” pastures.
While Audi has been involved as a sponsor of the ABT team for the past two Formula E seasons, earning 2nd and 3rd place in the team championships, this year they became a title sponsor of the team, signaling that they are getting more serious about electric racing.
In the first few seasons, Formula E offered comparatively less freedom for teams to innovate their own solutions, instead acting as a “spec series” where all cars are similar in order to keep costs low, but the series is gradually relaxing the rules so teams can be more inventive. As a result more manufacturers are rushing to get involved in the series which Audi says has ” greatest potential for the future.”
Audi has been flirting with electrifying its fleet for many years now, but hasn’t ever really jumped in, leading some EV fans to call Audi the “world leader in electric vehicle press releases.” They have announced and shown several electric concepts in both the distant and recent past, including the Q5, A9 and R8, but none of them have yet made it to production, despite the R8 first being shown all the way back in 2009.
The only electrified model they currently sell is the A3 e-tron, a plug-in hybrid with 8.8kWh of battery for just under 20 miles of EV range. Audi sells zero pure electric vehicles at this time.
They clearly have some interest in EVs though, as the very first Model X in Europe was bought by Audi corporate, and their top EV executive recently stated that “Tesla did everything right.” It remains to be seen if they really mean it this time, though. Upcoming electric models are on the Audi slate, but this author will remain skeptical – yet hopeful – until the rubber hits the pavement.