PRUETT: Back to the future with Audi and VAG?

Image by Marshall Pruett

PRUETT: Back to the future with Audi and VAG?

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: Back to the future with Audi and VAG?

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It’s funny how time and distance can change perceptions. For those who were fortunate enough to follow the American Le Mans Series in the 2000s, you might remember a time when Audi was hailed as the best and worst thing in the paddock.

Thanks to its crushing dominance in the LMP900/LMP1 class, Audi’s R8 and R10 prototypes built throngs of fans who turned out in significant numbers to watch the cars conquer their rivals. And in the act of entertaining North American audiences, Audi also managed to stifle competition as its massive budget and engineering depth ensured most major auto manufacturers steered clear of the category.

Cadillac briefly tried to challenge Audi, but was woefully out-gunned and quietly shuttered its program. Series founder Don Panoz managed to put up a great fight with his boutique marque, and took the rare win off of Audi. But as a whole, Audi owned LMP1 as manufacturers wisely avoided wasting money on fruitless challenges. The result left the German squad to play with hearty privateers, or ramp up for the occasional visit from a European rival at Sebring or Petit Le Mans, while cruising to a long string of ALMS championships.

Audi’s technical marvels were crowd-pleasers, but didn’t exactly encourage competition in the ALMS’ top category. Image by Marshall Pruett

That’s where the recent announcement of Audi’s new IMSA-centric LMDh program, due in 2023, could recast the brand in an unwaveringly positive light. Acura, BMW, Cadillac, Hyundai, Lexus, Mazda, Porsche, and a half-dozen more have kicked the proverbial tires on joining the new hybrid LMDh platform. None, at this stage, however, have gone so far as to commit to the LMP2-based class.

As the first brand to formally confirm its participation in LMDh, the budget-minded formula received a significant co-sign from the century’s most successful name in prototype racing. Counter to the 2000s, it positions Audi as the marque to validate LMDh while inspiring other manufacturers to step forward and join the DPi 2.0 party.

Behind the scenes, a few brands are known to be more active than others on the topic. Acura is believed to have advanced LMDh intentions. And with the signing of Chip Ganassi Racing to complement Cadillac Racing’s existing partner teams, it’s hard to imagine the new relationship was forged for the final two seasons of DPi without the possibility of continuing when LMDh arrives. If the rumors are true, Porsche, Audi’s sister brand in the Volkswagen Audi Group empire, could be next to confirm.

A final decision by VAG towards the latter half of December has been tipped, and it’s believed an interlinked Audi+Porsche LMDh plan is being readied where a single chassis supplier would be nominated to serve both brands. Despite suggestions that Dallara would be recruited to build both LMDhs, RACER understands Multimatic is the leading candidate to receive the project.

VAG’s preference for LMDh, rather than the FIA WEC’s Le Mans Hypercar formula which debuts in March, is also telling. The projected costs for a season of factory racing in LMH is higher than LMDh, which could be the deciding factor for more manufacturers who want to participate, but have smaller budgets to use after the industry-wide financial losses caused by COVID-19.

Selling chief marketing officers on the less expensive prototype formula, where amortizing costs over a reasonable number of years, and the prospect of selling customer cars to further offset the financial ask exists, makes LMDh an easier pitch to make. Prior to the pandemic, LMH, with its more exotic hybridization and road car options, looked like a natural to attract the likes of Audi and Porsche, but the inherent cost controls associated with using a spec LMP2 chassis and outfitting it with custom engines and bodywork won the argument with VAG.

Audi has yet to declare its intentions for teams and presence when 2023 arrives. Although it mentioned racing at the biggest endurance events, no signal was given on whether it will have full-time campaigns in IMSA and WEC, but one can assume the company is not going through the exercise of creating LMDhs with a goal of parachuting in and out of both championships without vying for season-long championships.

Whether that would be IMSA, WEC, or both is unknown, but the brand has held conversations with teams that might serve as factory or privateer options. One could safely assume Audi, and likely Porsche, have sourced buyers and fielded inquiries from interested parties who are willing to place orders, which fits the cost-conscious approach said to be presented to VAG’s decision makers.

Champion Racing’s Audis proved that LMP1 and customer car racing need not be mutually exclusive, but the real growth in entries came elsewhere. Image by Marshall Pruett

Another point of interest to track that has a 2000s feel is found among entrants. With Audi and its partners at Champion Racing locked into LMP1, LMP2 took off as the place for manufacturers to fight without hemorrhaging money. As Acura and Porsche entered the frame, the bigger IndyCar teams were recruited to run works-affiliated programs. Michael Andretti, Adrian Fernandez and Roger Penske added lucrative ALMS ventures, and they were joined by Gil de Ferran, plus quality prototype teams in high-profile engagements.

On the current IndyCar front, Ganassi is returning with General Motors in 2021, Meyer Shank Racing is stepping up to DPi with Acura, and Team Penske continues to be spoken of as Porsche’s top choice for LMDh. As more manufacturers opt in to the class, don’t be surprised if some old and familiar names head back to prototype racing as factories search for big teams to lead the way.

It’s too early to hail Audi’s comeback, and Porsche’s probable return, as a nod to the LMP900 R8 and GTP 962 days where lots of turnkey prototypes rolled off the assembly line. But maybe it isn’t that great of a stretch to envision revisiting a friendlier time where big factories opened their doors — and filled their wallets — by competing against healthy numbers of customer entries.

Provided this blueprint is embraced, is could become the formula for the other manufacturers to follow who’ve expressed interest in LMDh. Audi’s declaration isn’t a guarantee an LMDh stampede is on the way, but if Porsche or another world-famous brand plants its flag in the class, more will accept the challenge. On its current arc, IMSA’s Rolex 24 At Daytona in 2023 is primed to be an amazing turning point for the series.

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