Audi has ended their reign in style with a 1 – 2 finish in the 6 Hours of Bahrain. The race saw a vintage performance from Audi that saw them dominate the race from start to finish. It served as a final reminder that for the past 2 decades there has been 1 team, 1 performance benchmark in world endurance racing and that has been Audi. Audi won the 24 hours an astonishing 13 times in 18 tries. No team has ever approached that kind of run. Some of the legends that helped make Audi the success it was took time to reflect on their time with the 4 rings.
Audi came along at the perfect time. As BMW and Porsche saw an end to their respective programs Audi was just getting started. This meant they could partner with a legendary team like Team Joest. Fresh off it’s successes with Porsche. This also meant there was a huge pool of talented drivers to pull from. Rising to the top was Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish. Kristensen became available after BMW’s program ended. McNish was left looking for a ride after Porsche’s LMP2000 program failed to get off the ground.
Kristensen drove every single Audi LMP car except for the 2016 model. Kristensen retired from racing in 2015 ending an amazing career that saw him win overall at Le Mans a record 9 times, 7 with Audi. Kristensen, with help from Frank Biela and Emanuele Pirro won the 2000 12 Hours of Sebring, Audi’s first LMP victory.
“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. “In that sense, Audi has been very committed to that over the years. 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.”
Like Kristensen, Allan McNish enjoyed success prior to his involvement with Audi. McNish won with Porsche in 1998 but found himself without a ride when Porsche pulled out of Prototype racing. Porsche’s misfortune was Audi’s gain. If Kristensen was the ultimate expression of victory McNish was about flat-out pace. McNish was Audi’s top man for qualifying. He would go on to win 2 overall victories at Le Mans for Audi and remained with them as a brand ambassador after his retirement.
“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.”
“I think Dr. Ullrich is really the man that has got to take the credit for that. 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.”
What about the good Doctor? Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich was there through it all. He was the driving force behind Audi’s dominance. Many came and went during Audi’s run. Challenges from American Le Mans Series rivals Panoz and Cadillac came and went, not able to match Audi’s sustained excellence. Bentley won Le Mans in 2003. Even though Audi didn’t win their dna was all over the Bentley program. Peugeot would provide Audi their stiffest test but in the end they did not last. Recently Toyota and Porsche have done battle with Audi and thanks to circumstances outside its control Audi Sport found itself the one forced to leave the sport. All of that success, all of that sustained brilliance was down to Dr. Ullrich and his team. Ullrich outlasted 3 different board of directors. He was the constant and like Audi, Dr. Ullrich will be stepping down from the sport after this season.
“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.”
Kristensen, McNish, Ullrich, these are the names you know, the names that jump to the top of the page when you talk about Audi’s LMP run of dominance. What about the team behind them? Team Joest is a legendary team in its own right. They were winning Le Mans long before Audi jumped into the fold. Joest Racing managing director Ralf Juttner has been involved in motorsport for an astounding 32 years. Half of which has been with Audi. So what does a man talk about with that level of experience? Race victories? Yes. Grand Theft Fork Lift? Also yes. We assume Audi was this all assuming all-conquering mega team from the start but that wasn’t the case. They started from the bottom like everyone else, they weren’t always big time so yes, they had to steal a fork lift at Sebring in 2000.
“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.”
Obviously Juttner looks back on Audi’s run that doesn’t include potential felonies. He looks back fondly at Audi’s run in the American Le Mans Series.
“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.”
It is easy to see everyone involved was immensely passionate and all in during their time with Audi. You can’t help but feel for them now that the program has reached its conclusion. Despite all their various championships from across the globe Audi will always be associated with Le Mans and the 24 hours. We will feel some of their absence when the WEC season starts but we won’t really feel it until we get to Le Mans. Audi is Le Mans, it is an indelible part, etched in to the race’s storied history. Drivers, rules, cars and classes have all changed but for the past 18 years 1 constant remained and that was Audi. Even though I wasn’t their biggest fan I find myself already missing them and Le Mans and racing as a whole just lost one of their greats.
“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.”