The future of Audi

THERE have been rumors about Audi entering Formula 1 for almost two years and with the Ingolstadt company having recently scored its third consecutive 1-2 in the Le Mans 24 Hours there is little sense in the firm staying on in sports car racing as victory at Le Mans would be expected and so the company has nothing to win and everything to lose.

In addition sister company Bentley is planning a major three-car assault on the classic French race after a couple of years of preparatory work. The Audi sports cars are expected to be sold to customer teams - one of which may be led by Alain Prost - and then Audi must decide in which direction to go next.

Building up a team like the one which has been so dominant at Le Mans is not an easy task and so unless the bosses at Audi decide to embark on another serious sporting adventure, that team will break up. The options are limited: there is no sense in racing in the United States open-wheeler scene because technology is severely restricted these days in both the IRL and CART championships and NASCAR is not really the kind of profile that Audi wants to have.

Rallying might be an option but it does not really appeal to the market sector the company is aiming for and there is also a World Rally Championship involvement with another VW subsidiary Skoda.

When one analyses the current situation the only move that really makes sense is Formula 1 where Audi could go up against its immediate rivals BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar. At the moment the company bosses are still saying that there are no plans for F1 but in recent days we have heard rumors from within Audi that this may be about to change and that the aim appears to be to enter the sport in 2004. Our sources suggest that the Ingolstadt firm will not be a simple engine supplier but, like Toyota, will build its own cars and engines.

If these sources are to be believed - and there is no reason to doubt them - it will probably be some months before there is any announcement about the project. Although 2004 seems a long way ahead the team will want to have a car up and running by the middle of next year and so work on an engine design would need to begin immediately. Having said that Audi has had a number of secret F1 programs in previous years and so the basics of a program are probably already in place. Recruitment is another issue as the company will need to find designer and aerodynamicists with Formula 1 experience and they will need time to get their teams together and so if there is to be an F1 assault in 2003 we would expect to hear rumors of a drive to collect staff. It is worth noting that spies in England report that a major head-hunting operation is going on at the moment. It had been thought that this was related to Asiatech but the Didcot operation seems to have given up any immediate plan to become a chassis-builder as well as an engine-supplier.

With 11 teams currently in existence there is room for a 12th without the entrant needing to buy an existing franchise. All that would be needed therefore is the payment of a $48m deposit with the FIA.

We are still not 100% convinced that the program will happen but not only does it make sense but it is interesting that there are rumors from within Audi itself. There is also a strong Audi tradition in Grand Prix racing when one considers the adventures of Auto Union in the 1930s and as Germany rises as a threat to Britain's domination of the motor racing industry, Audi will want to be part of that trend.

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