Those of us who cover sports-car racing knew it was coming, but the timing of Audi’s October 26 announcement was a bit unexpected. Nevertheless, the German manufacturer will end its LMP1 racing program at the conclusion of the 2016 FIA World Endurance Championship season.
There will be plenty of time to reflect upon what this means for sports-car racing and the 24 Hours of Le Mans and its overall impact on the motorsports world. But today is a day to celebrate everything Audi accomplished in endurance racing.
It was early 1999 when I was part of small contingent of U.S.-based creative types flown to Miami. We were there to help a larger contingent of German creatives produce public relations and marketing material for the inaugural season of Audi racing in North America. It was evident this was not going to be your typical racing program.
We were based at The Tides Hotel in South Beach. The Tides was once the tallest building in Florida, built in 1936 and renovated in 1997, and we all had our own $400-per-night suite the size of a small home, each equipped with a powerful telescope pointed toward sunbathers on the beach. From day one, the Audi way of doing things was first class with no corners cut. And it remained that way for the next 18 years.
First call was 4 a.m. the following day for our photo shoot. Race cars, a few crew members, two photographers—myself and Audi team photographer Bodo Kräling—a video team, and Audi PR reps were off to Key Biscayne to photograph the cars and drivers at sunrise. Then it was back to South Beach, complete with the closing of public roads and causeways to create images with the Miami skyline as a backdrop.
This was my introduction to Audi Sport. Big. Bold. Buttoned up.
It was also my introduction to the drivers who were and would become motorsports legends. Michele Alboreto, Rinaldo “Dindo” Capello, Allan McNish, Emanuele Pirro, Frank Biela, and Tom Kristensen. That list would grow over the next two decades, each driver etched in racing history books and quite a few immortalized for the ages for their performances at Le Mans while driving for the marque with four rings.
During these past 18 seasons, I was fortunate to photograph all of their races in the American Le Mans Series, including Champion Racing’s Audi glory days, and all of their races in France. And I witnessed history up close: the first diesel-powered car to win at overall at Le Mans, the first hybrid-powered car to win overall at Le Mans, the first Le Mans win in 2000, and the 13th in 2014. And I was able to photograph Tom Kristensen winning eight of his nine titles at Le Mans.
Thank the direction of Wolfgang Ullrich, head of Audi Motorsport, Reinhold Joest and the team that campaigned factory efforts, and Ulrich Baretzky, the mastermind responsible for Audi’s racing engines—and hundreds of unsung mechanics and crew—for all the success. The company in Ingolstadt, Germany, changed the way endurance sports cars were designed, built, and raced. Audi single-handedly changed Le Mans from an endurance race to a 24-hour, flat-out sprint race. And the competition had to raise its game to compete, or else it would crumble along the roads in the French countryside. This mindset changed the tone, the strategy, and the racing in all of the support classes in endurance sports-car racing ever since.
Let’s run the numbers. In the 18 years spanning 1999 to 2016, Audi achieved:
- 106 overall race wins
- 94 pole positions
- 80 fastest laps
- 9 championships in the American Le Mans Series
- 11 wins at the 12 Hours of Sebring
- 9 wins at Petit Le Mans
- 2 championships in the FIA World Endurance Championship
- 13 overall wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans
- 5 1-2-3 finishes at Le Mans
Impressive indeed. And most impressive of all is the record at Le Mans: 13 wins in 18 years. Some would say there were 14 if you count the 2003 victory by a Bentley that was powered by Audi, driven by Audi factory drivers Capello and Kristensen, along with Bentley factory shoe Guy Smith, and where more German was spoken in the garages by the Team Joest-provided crew than the King’s English. These are unprecedented numbers in the modern era of motorsports.
It all seems like it was decades ago and yesterday. And it was both. A long and winding road trip gone in the blink of an eye—and back again by clicking a thumbnail on a digital photo proof sheet.
As a photographer, I see the world as I frame it in my camera’s viewfinder. And only later, sometimes hours, sometimes months or, at times like these, sometimes years, when I go through my archives and edit images for a story, a photograph will take me back and help me see and understand the bigger picture. These are moments that define the racing experience. Endless hours of grit and preparation. Days of glory. Evenings of celebration. Seasons of near perfection.
Audi not only changed the way teams race, but the way car manufacturers activate marketing programs and entertain guests at race circuits, how they develop and market production cars with their race-car programs, and how they grow and maintain a long-term and loyal customer base by on-track performance instead of short-term hype on social media. Audi does this with style and flair and Teutonic engineering excellence at the highest level.
The German marque leaves endurance racing as it entered it, on its own terms. Far more important, we will remember Audi as a great dynasty in the history of all of sports, not just in racing.