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Audi: Deep, Deep Racing DNA
by staff
Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Audi's plans with iconic motorcycle company Ducati? That jury is still out, but their record in four wheels is impressive.
image by DFA

The purchase of Ducati in 2012 by German auto giant Audi appeared to be an odd match since Audi doesn't produce or race motorcycles, unlike German rival BMW.

But Audi's racing roots run very deep, and they include motorcycle racing.

Horch, the predecessor of Audi, began racing at the turn of the century. Horch factory cars competed in long-distance races, rallies and ice racing in the 1900s and 1910s.

The company's cars continued to race in Europe in the 1920s, but Audi became a motorsports monster in the 1930s in Grand Prix racing - the predecessor of Formula One - with the Auto Union marque. Adolf Hitler poured German government money into the Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz racing programs before World War II.

Auto Union dominated Grand Prix racing just before World War II, in the hands of legendary drivers such as Germans Hans Stuck and Bernd Rosemeyer and Italians Tazio Nuvolari and Achille Varzi.

The Auto Union juggernaut also helped to firm Audi's reputation for precise, innovative engineering. Auto Union race cars featured technological innovations as supercharged piston engines, fuel-tank placement to guarantee even weight distribution, streamlined aerodynamics and huge horsepower.

World War II decimated all industry in Germany, including automobile manufacturing. But the Audi name stayed alive in competition in the 1950s through the DKW brand, one of the smaller German marques - along with Audi and Horch - that merged in 1932 to form Auto Union.

DKW motorcycles returned to prominence in the 1950s, racing in German domestic series and the World Championship. DKW riders had won races across Europe in the 1930s. Ewald Kluge captured the Lightweight TT race at the Isle of Man and the European Championship on a DKW in 1938.

Another link was added to Audi's motorcycle heritage when Auto Union merged with NSU in 1969. NSU bikes were a mainstay in the smaller-displacement classes in the World Championship in the 1950s, winning the 125cc world title in 1953 and 1954 and the 250cc championships from 1953-55.

The merged company was called Audi NSU Auto Union AG and marked the return of Audi as a separate brand for the first time since before World War II. Volkswagen, which bought complete control of Audi in 1965, introduced the Audi brand to the United States in 1970.

Audi was seen as a staid marque at the time, with no recent racing heritage to promote. So Audi engineers decided to develop four-wheel-drive technology for a performance car, and the legendary Quattro was born.

The revolutionary Quattros quickly dominated World Rally Championship events against two-wheel-drive competition in the early 1980s, winning drivers' titles in 1983 and 1984 and manufacturers' crowns in 1982 and 1984.

Americans didn't - and still don't - pay much attention to the WRC. But Yank auto racing fans know about the annual Pikes Peak International Hill Climb every July, so Audi decided to show off its Quattro technology at that event. And it typical Audi fashion, it dominated Pikes Peak, winning and setting course records from 1985-87.

Audi left World Rally after a Ford RS200 left a stage in the Rally of Portugal in 1986 and killed three spectators and injured 30. So Audi then turned to Trans-Am racing in the United States in touring car racing in Europe in the 1990s.

But the company reached its most noteworthy global racing success since the Auto Union days in the 1930s by dominating international sports car racing in the last decade.

Audi has steamrolled the world's greatest endurance auto race, the Le Mans 24 Hours, since entering it in 1999 with closed-top and open-cockpit prototypes. Audis have won the race every year since 2000 except for Bentley in 2003 and Peugeot in 2009. But the Bentley's engine was built by Audi.

That dominance is even more remarkable considering the wide range of engineering solutions Audi has devised to win in the last 12 years. The original R8 was an open-cockpit car powered by a twin-turbo gas engine. Then Audi switched to its TDI turbo-diesel R10 to become the first oil-burner to win at Le Mans and the prestigious 12 Hours of Sebring in Florida.

In 2011, Audi returned to closed-cockpit cars to win Le Mans with the turbo-diesel R18 TDI. Audi evolved further in 2012, winning Le Mans with the R18 e-tron Quattro, a hybrid version of the R18 combining a flywheel-driven electric motor and a turbo-diesel engine. The e-tron system has six automatic modes the driver can select from the wheel, managing engine mapping, short acceleration from corners, wet-weather traction and more.

Audi's engineering has flourished among the more flexible rulebooks of 1980s World Rally, 1990s Supertouring cars and current international sports car racing. It will take some adjustment for Audi to work in the tight confines of the current MotoGP specifications with Ducati.

Still, history proves whether it's Auto Union Grand Prix cars, NSU motorcycles or Audi rally cars, touring cars and sports cars, Audi doesn't race just to win. It competes to dominate and will throw the resources and engineering necessary to achieve that goal.

But with no motorcycle products in its current portfolio, will Audi use Ducati as an engineering and performance laboratory or a marketing exercise? Time will tell.

ENDS

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