The contracts have not yet been signed, but according to information gathered from senior Audi officials on the floor of the 2015 Frankfurt auto show, it’s all but a done deal – Audi will join the Formula 1 grid no later than the 2018 season. Despite lukewarm denials from Audi public relations officials, the board of directors intends to go ahead with the project – potentially expensive collateral damage from the Volkswagen Group’s diesel emissions cheating scandal notwithstanding.
“Market research has recently confirmed once again the significance of F1,” claims a senior manager with knowledge of the deal. “The rub-off effects are substantial; we see enormous potential for the brand once the race series reinvents itself in 2018.” Putting aside VW’s diesel debacle, can Audi afford such a venture, especially given the extra R&D funds necessary to support its expanding connectivity and e-mobility efforts?
According to our man from Ingolstadt, cost won’t be an issue – at least at the outset. “If all goes according to plan, this commitment is going to be virtually cost-neutral. The biggest chunk of the up-front investment will be provided by a bunch of Middle East entrepreneurs,” he said. “Instead of pedaling a marque or a specific product, they want to tap the commercial opportunities [the new-look] F1 is offering. The idea is to use the Red Bull team as a door opener. Why Red Bull? Because of their success and experience, because of its top-class infrastructure, and of course, because of the pending sponsorship agreement.” Red Bull has long been the primary sponsor of Audi’s lead DTM German touring-car series team, and there are strong ties between the leadership of Audi and Austrian-based Red Bull.
If and when the F1 deal gets the official nod, Audi is expected to withdraw from all other motorsport activities, including its hugely successful Le Mans prototype program and its DTM efforts, which are handicapped by a controversial weight penalty. Despite its massive presence there, Le Mans has become an incestuous corporate battleground (see this year’s race against sister marque Porsche), and while endurance racing covers most key markets, its impact versus expenditure equation is relatively poor.
F1 is admittedly a bit of a farce at present, with German rival Mercedes dominating the 2015 season. But starting with the 2018 season onward, new rules are being developed with the goal of creating a much more competitive grid. Audi has just extended the contract of motorsport chief Wolfgang Ulrich by two more years, the timing of which indirectly confirms the appointment of Stefano Domenicali (ex-Ferrari F1 team principal, now parked at Ingolstadt’s special projects arm) for the 2018 season. Red Bull has been hugely unhappy with its Renault engine this season, and could move to Ferrari power for 2016 and 2017 F1 seasons as it waits for Audi.
An Audi Red Bull Racing team would require the hiring of additional chassis and drivetrain experts as well as aerodynamicists, areas where Domenicali can no doubt have a major impact. After all, according to our inside man, “We want to be fit to fight for the world championship by 2020.”
However — and not surprisingly – in the face of similar reports in Germany, another Audi spokesperson told Germany’s DPA, “The Auto Bild report is pure speculation that requires no further comment. But the claim that Audi will give up its commitments in the DTM and [FIA World Endurance Championship] are without any foundation and are firmly rejected by us.”
Bild also cited an Audi spokesman who said, “Formula 1 has been discussed from time to time, but the chairman decided against it only a few months ago and nothing has changed.”