For a man of 65, Audi’s head of motorsport Wolfgang Ullrich possesses tremendous reserves of energy and drive.
On Friday night, as the Audi Sport Team Joest outfit prepared for the weekend’s FIA World Endurance Championship race at Silverstone, he left the circuit at 0345hrs, having overseen the mechanics strip down and rebuild the team’s two hybrid turbodiesel prototypes. Ullrich was then back at the track before 0700hrs to prepare for qualifying on Saturday.
Brand new for this season, and using a different type of hybrid system compared with the 2015 machines, this season’s R18s are seriously complex pieces of kit and demand a forensic level of attention from the men with spanners, wrenches and laptops.
He says he’s always been hyper-motivated during race weekends – and he’ll never sleep during the Le Mans 24 Hours race – although the one thing that’s changed as he’s got older is that “these days it takes me longer to recover”. Nevertheless, last year he was awarded with two-year contract extension that means he’ll remain at the helm until the end of the 2017 race season.
The Austrian has overseen Audi’s motorsport activities since 1993, guiding Audi to 13 Le Mans 24 Hour victories in 16 years, a startlingly consistent run of success in such an unpredictable sport. When he’s not busy with sports cars, there are DTM touring cars, the new Audi Sport TT Cup and myriad customer racing activities with the R8 LMS to oversee.
The sweetest Le Mans victory of the lot, he says, remains the first one in 2000, when Frank Biela, Tom Kristensen and Emanule Pirro won in an Audi R8. Ullrich says that although Audi had previously achieved plenty of success with production-based competition cars, the challenge of starting with a clean sheet of paper and creating a prototype from scratch was immense, making a podium shut-out particularly sweet.
Asked how it is possible to sustain such a run of success, Ullrich says guarding against complacency is crucial; every year the opposition progresses and Audi must ensure it moves forward too. Hence the reason that between now and the Le Mans 24 Hours in June, the team will carry out two 30-hour race simulations, pushing the R18’s components beyond the level of durability they will require at the 24-hour race at Le Mans in June.
Last year, Audi was second best to Porsche at Le Mans and also the WEC title battle. Behind the scenes, though, it was a year of change for Audi Sport, which left the former supermarket it had called home in Ingolstadt and moved into a new facility in Neuberg, about 12 miles away from head office. The state-of-the-art base gives Audi all the resources it needs to wrest the initiative back from its VW Group stable-mate.
From a road car perspective, the manufacturer is plotting to ramp up Audi Sport as a standalone sub-brand, broadly equivalent to BMW M or Mercedes-AMG. The revered Audi RS road cars and other high-performance models such as the Audi R8 can therefore benefit from the golden glow of any on-track success that comes Audi Sport’s way.
Audi Sport is under the control of Quattro GmbH and the appointment of former Lamborghini boss Stephan Winkelmann as chief executive of Quattro earlier this year set the stage for the activities of Audi Sport brand to become more clearly defined.
Ullrich's division will play a key part. He says there a ready exchange of engineering information between the race and road elements of the company. It isn’t just the race team informing the road car developers – if the latter want a particular piece of technology to be developed quickly, they can use the intense, fast-moving environment of the race team as a test bed.
Which all makes perfect sense, especially when it comes to developing hybrid technology that could be used to augment the capabilities of high-performance road cars in the future.
All Audi Sport needs now is to get back on the pace of those pesky Porsches when the teams convene in France in June. The new R18 made an encouraging start today when Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler matched the Porsche for pace, only to lose their on-the-road victory due to a technical infringement.