Embattled Audi has bounced back from dieselgate to find its feet in the ‘cleaner’ world of Formula E
“It was a very sad moment when Audi left the WEC,” says Audi’s head of motor sport, Dieter Gass, who was instrumental in achieving Audi’s brace of WEC LMP1 titles in 2012 and ’13. “And I still know people who are upset about Audi leaving.”
Who could blame them? Audi spent 17 seasons in the highest class of endurance racing, taking 13 Le Mans wins from 1999 in a war of supremacy between Peugeot, Toyota and latterly Porsche. From 1997’s seminal R8R prototype stemmed the R8 and an era of endurance racing domination.
The evolution of prototype racing is evident thereafter. The diesel R10 TDI – a project which cost Audi £10 million per year – followed the R8 and took a hat-trick of Le Mans wins between 2006 and ’08. Diesel turned to hybrid in 2012 and continued another streak of five Le Mans wins between 2010 and 2014. Then, in 2015, ‘dieselgate’ hit: the TDI moniker had to be dropped from racing.
The scandal that emerged of the VW Group caught cheating the emissions standards test forced Audi, which is part of the German giant, to rethink its approach to motor sport. The fallout is still being felt today. In June, Audi chief executive Rupert Stadler was arrested in Germany as his house was being searched by fraud investigators. Billions of pounds-worth of fines have been paid since VW admitted in September 2015 to using illegal software to mask diesel emissions, and hundreds of thousands of Audis have been recalled to date.
Audi pulled the plug on its costly sports car battle with Porsche and Toyota in 2016. The writing was already on the wall, according to Audi’s double Le Mans winner and current boss of the Formula E team, Allan McNish.
“Audi had been there for so long – much longer than any manufacturer in one era – that it had become part of the furniture, and it quit at a logical point. But it was still a shock when Audi suddenly wasn’t there,” he says.
“I miss Le Mans, but it’s a chapter in a book that we unfortunately had to change.”
SO, FROM THE hybrid R18, Audi ditched the combustion engine and entered the brave new world of Formula E. That’s where Gass, McNish and Lucas di Grassi find themselves now, under a Zürich heatwave as circuit racing returned to Switzerland for the first time since 1954. Cobblestones deck the pitlane, tramlines weave across the racing line, makeshift bridges cover the road adjacent to Lake Zürich, and the media centre is set in the basement of an insurance company; employees are given a grandstand in return.
The engineers explain that there was a total of zero layoffs from Audi’s Le Mans withdrawal in 2016. Many relocated to research and development positions within the company or sought employment elsewhere; some moved to its World Rallycross and DTM campaigns, and some across to Formula E.
Stefan Aicher is one of those engineers. Previously, he was responsible for gearbox, suspension, car systems and hydraulics in the Le Mans era. Now, he’s in charge of electric drivetrain and energy storage systems for the Formula E squad. He says it is a very different working environment.
“Those years of LMP racing were a paradise for engineers,” he explains. “There were far more possibilities to develop compared to F1 – maybe without aerodynamic freedom – and from a technical point of view the LMP1 car is the highest-level and most difficult car to produce and run.
“Then you move over to this Formula E car, and it looks like a really, really easy car to make. But everybody has the same resources; there is nothing here to develop apart from the drivetrain. In Formula E, you’re looking for the dirt behind the lens, the minimum that makes the difference between success and failure,” says Aicher.
With the reparations for the diesel scandal still being paid out, Audi’s move to electric racing was also catalysed by cost-cutting. Budgets for the Formula E programme are around a seventh of what Audi was spending at the end of its LMP tenure, and electric racing has paved the way for its ‘e-tron’ range of electrified road vehicles. Now, Audi aims for 25 per cent of its global car sales to be electric vehicles by 2025.
To account for the remaining 75 per cent, Gass believes that Audi “needs something like the DTM. We absolutely need a championship with a combustion engine, and DTM is the ideal tool to sell those cars.
“I know it’s not in the same way as in the past, but by succeeding in racing you create the image for the brand.”
With WRX changing to an all-electric platform soon, DTM may be the only series that the Audi factory backs which involves combustion engines. Gass began his career with Bugatti in 1991 before joining Audi as a race engineer from 1994 until 2001. He had stints with Toyota and Lotus in F1 before returning to Audi in 2012, and he’s now firmly accustomed to the four-rings’ new school of racing.
“It’s different here,” says Gass, “But Formula E’s biggest asset is that you’re able to go and race in the centres of the capitals of the world. You can’t do that with any other championship or category. And it’s obviously very future-orientated due to being fully electric, and we see the effects on the roads today.
“There are things that we can use from endurance racing. Energy management is one thing we learned from the WEC and transferred to Formula E, and the engineering staff here are basically the same people who have been working for Audi over the years, but we also have some people from DTM. The mechanics and the operational side of the team is mainly ABT [Audi’s tuning partner] employees, however.”
Project manager of Audi’s Formula E team Tristan Summerscale also worked at Toyota’s F1 squad and joined Audi’s LMP1 programme before managing the financial, planning and technical sides of the Formula E outfit.
“I started in the new, clean world of FE when we left WEC in 2016,” he says. “I’d spent quite a lot of time with Audi, and the reaction of the staff was one of shock, as to be expected when you’ve been involved in something for such a long time with the success. But to be totally honest, it was an extremely interesting project that didn’t align itself with the production side of things – going electric – and that’s where Formula E came in.”
He explains that Audi couldn’t bring the battery over from its Le Mans challenger as that’s a standardised part, supplied by Williams before the contract switches to McLaren in season five (2018-19). But when the brake-by-wire system – using electric systems rather than hydraulic systems to brake – is implemented next season with the striking new ‘Gen 2’ Formula E cars, Summerscale anticipates that Audi will have an advantage.
“In Formula E, you’re looking for the dirt behind the lens, the minimum that makes the difference between success and failure”
“Obviously, Audi had hybrids and, in the final R18, had a battery and brake-by-wire. We have quite a lot of experience with battery technology and that’s relevant, but it’s brake-by-wire where we’ll be able to use our knowledge.”
While Audi could feasibly develop its own battery for competition, Summerscale shies away from the idea: “One of the most important things in this championship is to keep costs under control, and the manufacturers agree,” he says.
“If you open up battery technology, that [costs rising] could happen. You don’t want to lose half the field in a growing series because if costs increase, they won’t have a chance. Long-term, it could definitely be interesting, but we don’t want to go in that direction.”
Audi won last season’s title (2016-17) through di Grassi’s pair of wins and seven podiums. The 33-year-old Brazilian moved across to Formula E after the manufacturer’s WEC campaign folded.
“Formula E is extremely difficult in many areas,” explains di Grassi. “It’s probably the most difficult championship I’ve ever driven in because the driver makes all the difference. In sports cars, the driver is a very small part of it. If I had a bad car at Le Mans, that’s it.
“The biggest difficulty with the current format is that there’s very little time during the weekend. It’s like taking two free practice sessions out of the F1 weekend, and then introducing 10 new tracks to the calendar; it’s much more complicated because you need to get up to speed much faster, without making any mistakes. And there’s no space for mistakes and no track-limit discussion. The track limits are the concrete walls. All the cars here are within half a second of each other, so everyone has a chance to be on pole.”
That same afternoon, New Zealander Mitch Evans claimed Jaguar’s first-ever pole in the series by just 0.1sec. Its qualifying method is similar to F1’s of the 1990s, when it was a one-lap shootout, with just one flying lap allowed in the ‘Superpole’ shootout.
It’s a complex formula in that respect. There are two practice sessions for each event: an opening 45-minute session and then a 30-minute session on race day. Qualifying lasts an hour, but drivers are divided into groups decided by a lottery in the driver briefing, and they have six minutes to complete a lap. The top-five drivers progress to the ‘Superpole’.
That seems to be one of the biggest turn-offs for older generations when it comes to Formula E. A lack of noise and smoke, along with modern gimmicks such as ‘fanboost’ – where fans vote using social media to give three drivers additional energy to use for the race – do little to garner hardcore motor sport fans.
‘That’s it. I’m out,’ reads one comment on motorsportmagazine.com beneath an article about ‘fanboost’ – the system by which fans vote for their favourite drivers before the race and the three winners get a temporary boost equivalent to an extra 40bhp for a single five-second burst during a race. In reply to an article quoting FE CEO Alejandro Agag’s claim that it will be the only motor sport in 40 years, one commenter writes: ‘Formula E is TERRIBLE and EMBARRASSING.’ Another compares it to ‘slot car racing’, and a worrying number write ‘I hope to be dead by then.’
But Di Grassi is bullish when it comes to playing the generation game.
“This is the older generation,” explains di Grassi. “It’s not our fan base, our target. I don’t think we need to pull them in. If they want to see some nice racing then it’s fine. If they don’t, it’s also fine.
“The important thing is the millennials and the younger generation, the generation that is not such a fan of motor sport. They don’t care if it makes noise or not and they don’t care about the smell of diesel or fuel. They want the entertainment and they want to understand where the future is going. That’s what we’re providing, and this is the right demographic to target.”
AND CHANGES ARE on the horizon: the ‘Gen 2’ car, which will be raced from the 2018/19 season, promises to raise power from the existing 200kW limit to 250kW, and a new high-capacity McLaren battery is intended to bring an end to mid-race car swaps. Races will, however, be reduced to 45 minutes rather than 60 minutes, and the qualifying system will also lose its lottery element.
Di Grassi misses out on the final shootout in Switzerland, and ends up sixth in qualifying, nearly four-tenths off the pace. He skates around the track, the car bouncing along the bumpy main straight with the noise of the floor hitting Tarmac audible to spectators lining the circuit. Lake Zürich is a blur to him, 270hp (200kW) being deployed through the Enge district of the historic city, while speed cameras and parking meters along the circuit lie dormant for the weekend.
Team-mate Daniel Abt, son of fabled Audi tuner Hans Jürgen Abt – who lends his family name to the team – has raced alongside di Grassi since Formula E’s inception. He manages to qualify in the top 10 in Zürich.
The 25-year-old German says: “People expect this series to be quite different, but a race car has four wheels and two paddles. Sure, there’s no noise, but you get used to it. The biggest challenge is that the day is so long. You get up at 6am and you have no rest between then and the race in the evening.
“That’s all we have to cool off,” says Abt as he points at a room with a plastic chair and some water in it. “There’s no air-conditioning and in places like Chile, Malaysia and Hong Kong, it gets difficult.”
Abt, who competed at the 2015 Le Mans 24 Hours with Swiss team Rebellion Racing, hasn’t looked back since his switch to Formula E.
“In sports car racing or endurance racing, the goal is to stay safe and bring the car back to your team-mates. Here, it’s not like that. I prefer this kind of racing much more. If I was a fan, I wouldn’t want to watch a six-hour race as it’s too long. Never, in my whole life, have I watched a six-hour WEC race – it’s just not interesting to me as there’s no action,” he says.
Di Grassi appears similarly forward-thinking. He was the first driver to commit to the championship, and the fourth employee of what is now Agag’s championship, and is now also the CEO of autonomous racing championship Roborace.
“I believe in the future of Roborace the same way that I believed in F1, when everybody was laughing at it in 2012,” adds di Grassi. “Everybody is laughing at Roborace, and they don’t see how it will work. I’m pretty sure that this will change again, and I’m invested in the technology and a series that is important for motor sport and mobility, one that nobody has explored so far.”
And still, those who consider themselves motor sport ‘purists’ scoff at the notion of an electric racing series, even as Formula E has grown out of infancy.
McNISH WAS APPROACHED to drive for Audi before favouring retirement and accepting a managerial and driver development role instead. McNish admits that he dismissed Formula E: “Very frankly, I didn’t think it would get to the first race and I definitely didn’t think it’d get to the end of the first season because I’d seen – and maybe I was too cynical in that respect – so many championships start and then stop. But I hadn’t actually looked into it with the understanding of what they were doing, but also the drive and the political capability of Alejandro Agag, basically.”
And there’s the noise issue – the lack of it. The former LMP engineers all still miss it, reckons Summerscale.“When you stand in the pits in Le Mans at 1am and the Corvettes are thundering past, you hear and you feel it deep down,” says Summerscale.
His colleague Aicher tempers that, adding, “It was nearly the same when we changed from petrol to diesel. We said, ‘what kind of f**king sound is this? You can’t hear the car’. But it takes a year and you’re used to it completely, and it’ll happen here too.”
Di Grassi takes victory in the Zürich race. He’d eventually go on to finish the year second in the drivers’ points after the season finale in New York, but he and Abt did help Audi to its first Formula E teams’ title. After the win in the blistering heat of Zürich, McNish and his team cool off with a jump into the lake.
Gass looks on at the water with excitement, clenching McNish’s hand as the pair jump in. Drying off, his wistful tone on the winning days at Le Mans fades.
“I get it,” says Gass, “but I needed to accept that there are particular people who come to see a Formula E race that don’t care about those things. They aren’t petrolheads, they haven’t been watching racing for 25 years, and it’s different now.
“It’s a world without noise and fumes. And it’s OK like that.”