Audi legends reflect on 18-year Le Mans Prototype legacy

The No. 7 Audi R18 of Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer races on the track during opening practice for the 24 Hours of Le Mans on June 15, 2016 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)
Brian Cleary/Getty Images

Today’s Six Hours of Bahrain marks the end of an era for sports car racing, as Audi’s factory LMP1 program draws to a close after a remarkable 18-year involvement in top-level prototype racing.

Launched in 1999 at the Twelve Hours of Sebring, the German manufacturer’s ever-present prototype effort amassed 106 victories, more than a dozen championships worldwide and 13 overall victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans through its nearly two decades of dominance.

Groundbreaking achievements, such as becoming the first diesel (2006) and hybrid electric-powered (2012) cars to win Le Mans, as well as other engineering feats including its quick change rear-ends, will be remembered in Audi’s legacy.

For Allan McNish, who joined Audi following Porsche and Toyota’s withdrawals from prototype racing in 1998 and 1999, respectively, as well as a non-start for Porsche’s LMP2000 project, the Scot admitted he couldn’t have imagined the longevity of the Audi program when signing with the program.

“I had gotten into sports car racing and three times in two years the manufacturer had stopped the program,” McNish told Sportscar365. “I was never thinking that they’d be in for more than two or three years.

“Because remember, Le Mans, for manufacturers, was generally a three-year program. It was two years to learn, one year to win and maybe they extended it to five years. It was never anything more than that.

“To be in this position now… It’s longer than so many drivers’ careers, and a lot of drivers that raced for Audi at Le Mans.”

McNish and Tom Kristensen, arguably the two most successful Audi drivers, both joined the manufacturer in 2000, with the Dane having come off a stint with BMW, which had also pulled the plug on its Le Mans program at the same time.

The nine-time Le Mans winner, who has driven every generation of Audi LMP900/LMP1 car except for the current-spec R18, following his retirement in 2015, was also the first to win in an Audi, at Sebring in 2000 alongside Frank Biela and Emanuele Pirro in the venerable R8.

“Ever since Dr. Ullrich invited me to his office, and we did the handshake in 1999… It has been a long journey with a great bunch of people, which has grown very, very big,” Kristensen told Sportscar365.

Kristensen believes the unusual longevity and success of the program, which lasted through three changeovers of the Audi board of management, could be credited to Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, who had been in command of the program from the start.

“In that sense, Audi has been very committed to that over the years,” he said. “It’s also shown that a word is a word from Dr. Ullrich and people could rely on that.

“People in America, around Don Panoz when they developed the American Le Mans Series, that would not have been possible without Audi. I’m absolutely sure about that.

“We certainly should honor the legacy of Dr. Ullrich and his people because they created a platform for us drivers, for the teams and mechanics, and have caused these great championships to grow.”

McNish echoes Kristensen’s sentiments on Dr. Ullrich’s legacy.

“I think Dr. Ullrich is really the man that has got to take the credit for that,” he said. “He was the one, on the difficult days, when the global [economic] crisis hit in ’08, he was able to keep everything running.

“He was the one, when Peugeot decided they couldn’t, for very good financial reasons, enter the World Championship on the day of the registration [deadline], to be able to keep Audi in the game when I know there was a lot of people questioning whether that was the right thing to do.

“I’ve been with a few manufacturers, but none of them lived and breathed racing in the same way.”

There were hundreds of others who played a part in Audi’s story over the years, but only nine people who had been involved in the program since the start.

In addition to Ullrich, team owner Reinhold Joest, Joest Racing managing director Ralf Juttner, engine chief Ulrich Baretzky, as well as Hubert Neumann, Michael Schlemmer, Michael Werner, Siggi Hausberger and PR representative Martyn Pass were all at the very first race at Sebring in 1999.

Juttner, who has spent more than half of his 32-year professional motorsports career with Audi, has fond memories, particularly from the early years in the ALMS.

“It’s the kind of sleeves-up, the way we worked in the beginning,” he told Sportscar365.

“I remember one of our guys short-cutting a big forklift at Sebring because we had to load our truck at night. There was no forklift available so we stole one, all as an Audi team. Stories like this… we have millions.

“In terms of races, it’s very difficult. I loved ALMS from 2000-2003, for that kind of racing and the tracks, the people and the fact that we were alone.

“There was an engine engineer and engine mechanic per car, Dr. Ullrich, Dieter Gass in the beginning as a car engineer in 2000, and our team delegate who was the junction between us and Audi Sport.

“That was it, all the rest was us [Joest Racing personnel]. We did 12 races a year there. That was really good times.”

While Juttner said their Le Mans wins in 2008 and 2011, both races against the odds, stand as his personal career highlights, Ullrich still feels his most memorable achievement came right near the start of the program.

“It’s still the first victory in 2000 [at Le Mans],” Ullrich said. “It was our big goal when we started the project.

“Then after 13 victories, we all thought, ‘C’mon, did we ever think we could win that race 13 times?’ There was a time we didn’t know how to win it once.

“But in the end I have to say the most impressive thing for me personally is that during this period of time, we have been growing a family of endurance racing.

“Some of the people [have been here] since the very beginning, but many of them have always the spirit of endurance racing, loving sports prototypes, loving to find rulebooks to give to championships.”

While having achieved nine ALMS manufacturers titles, three ELMS championships and two World Championships, Audi’s legacy will arguably always be linked with Le Mans, and that’s where the biggest void will likely be left, at least in the short term.

“Next year’s Le Mans is going to be very interesting,” Kristensen said. “I’ll have a little tear in my eye when I watch [the race] and will be missing the Audis fighting for the top spot, definitely.”