Audi's Le Mans machine

There is no such thing as a free lunch. or dinner, for that matter. So when Audi invited me to dinner at Goodwood House I wondered what the agenda might be, and what might be expected of your correspondent.

Answer – nothing. And this is because Audi just do things so damn well. They make good cars, they win a lot of motor races, and above all they are innovative engineers (I was of this opinion before the dinner, just in case you wondered). I also believe that they do actually care about communication, which is rare in a world suffocated by public relations twaddle and clever but meaningless advertising.

Over smoked salmon, organic Goodwood beef and sticky toffee pudding, here was a prime opportunity to grill the Audi hierarchy and drivers on the headline event of their racing year: the Le Mans 24 hours. I started at the top, with Wolfgang Ullrich, the long-serving Head of Motor sport. This charming and razor-sharp doctor of engineering and sciences never fails to inform, surprise and appraise. Now that Volkswagen/Audi owns ducati, did Dr Ullrich think we might eventually see Valentino Rossi racing one of his all-conquering sports cars?

“Ah, there’s a good point,” he laughs, “and a nice question. He’s a good friend of Rinaldo Capello, who has driven for me for many years, so maybe something will happen. If he is still there in the future, then maybe we do something – after all he has proved already he can drive race cars. and, you know, Valentino is Valentino, so it might it, but right now it’s too soon to say.”

What about the prospect of racing against Porsche?

“This is somewhat political,” he smiles, giving me the eye. “I have never been concerned about a competitor, but I rate Porsche very highly, and if we are both competing at Le Mans in future, I know it will be dificult to beat them. We always try to have a car that can win the race, but Le Mans has many question marks year by year. It’s not only the level of competition, it’s also the race itself which can be dificult. Good competition is good for the series, as we have seen in the AlMs in america, but let’s talk about who beats whom when we actually compete.”

At La Sarthe this June there will be no Peugeots to worry Audi, but there will be Toyotas, and former winner Allan Mcnish reckons they should be taken seriously.

“We’re all disappointed by Peugeot pulling out,” he says, “but Toyota has stepped into the breach. Historically it takes three years to win Le Mans, but simulators have accelerated that process, so if they are reliable they could be a threat. They withdrew from Spa after a testing accident, so we don’t know how good they are. Remember, this race is unique, Le Mans takes no prisoners, it demands a lot of respect, and last year it all went a wee bit wrong and we lost two cars in accidents.”

So will Allan be taking things ‘a wee bit’ steadier this year?

“No. If you go to that place with any reservations, then you’re better not going there at all. no, this is a new season, a new start, and we won at sebring, so we move forward, and Le Mans will be different this year without Peugeot.

“I have nothing to prove any more, but you always want to notch up another win, so maybe these days I approach things with a bit more brain and a bit less brawn. Some people might disagree with that, but my preparation is perhaps a little different from when i was trying to make a name for myself.”

Does he savour the prospect of racing against Porsche in the very near future?

“Oh yes, it’s great news, especially as I was the last man to win Le Mans for Porsche, in 1998 with Laurent Aïello and Stéphane Ortelli, and Germany is a small country so bragging rights on a Monday morning will be important.”

Rob Widdows