After months of conjecture and rumours, from the McLaren deal that was on then off to supplying powertrains and whatever else, Audi has confirmed it will be on the F1 grid as a manufacturer from 2026. ‘Audi is tacking its most challenging ambition to date’, reads the press release: ‘combining sustainability, innovation and maximum performance in motorsports’.
The regulation change coming in four years’ time is what’s convinced Audi that F1 is a viable motorsport pursuit (that and its growing popularity in the States in the wake of 'Drive to Survive'). Come 2026 F1 cars will run on sustainable fuel and take about 50 per cent of their total output from an electrified source - far more than the current cars. Audi claims those components were prerequisites to its involvement. Gives them plenty of time to be working on a race car, too, while all the other manufacturers must think about three and a half seasons of racing as well…
The allure for both sides is plain to see. Under Liberty’s ownership F1 viewing figures have soared - it’s reckoned 1.5 billion TV viewers watched the races in 2021. The sport’s popularity is growing in key markets for Audi like China and the USA, so if it can get the four rings in front of millions of fairly young, car-buying eyeballs - with the right sort of almost sustainable messages come ’26 - then that must seem like good business. For F1, it’s another huge manufacturer in the championship when it seemed like they might prefer fully electric motorsport. You don’t need any advertising experience to see how saleable Audi versus Mercedes in the fastest motorsport on the planet might be.
Audi is all-in on this venture, too, developing its own powertrain rather than collaborating with an external supplier. (A price cap coming for power unit manufacturers next year has probably helped sway that decision.) It’s going to be built at Audi Sport’s Competence Centre Motorsport in a place called Neuburg an der Donau, which isn’t far from Ingolstadt. There are already test benches set up, in fact, and Audi reckons everything else that’s required - buildings, infrastructure, some very smart human beings - will be in place by the end of 2022. Talk about being prepared. Notably, too, Audi’s decision means an F1 powertrain will be built in Germany for the first time in a decade.
“Motorsport is an integral part of Audi’s DNA,” said Markus Duesmann, Audi’s board chairman. “Formula 1 is both a global stage for our brand and a highly challenging development laboratory. The combination of high performance and competition is always a driver of innovation and technology transfer in our industry. With the new rules, now is the right time for us to get involved. After all, Formula 1 and Audi both pursue clear sustainability goals.”
There is some bad news that comes with today’s announcement, however. Audi's investment in F1 means no more top-level sportscars; the LMDh project is being discontinued to throw everything at Grand Prix racing. Which seems a shame given Audi’s incredible endurance racing heritage, if understandable given the vast amount of resources a fully-fledged F1 effort will absorb. The commitment to customer racing (cars like the R8 LMS GT3) and that awesome RS-Q e-tron Dakar racer are maintained.
At the same time - and possibly not unrelated to Audi's news - Alfa has confirmed its departure from the F1 paddock. In a somewhat terse statement, the brand said its partnership with Sauber Motorsport will come to a close at the end of 2023. 'Since the economic and industrial turnaround of the brand will be achieved in 2022, Alfa Romeo will now evaluate among the many opportunities on the table, and decide which will be the best one to sustain the long-term strategy and the positioning of the brand,' a declaration that could be said to mirror Audi's assessment of the situation, and leaves open the distinct possibility of a future partnership with the Swiss team.
Regardless, an F1 entry is still a huge move for any manufacturer. Beginning in a season where so many changes for every team ought to help its cause is one thing, but the scale of the task remains enormous. That said, history suggests betting against Audi in motorsport isn’t wise - just look at the DTM, WRC, Le Mans, Formula E and WEC successes for ample proof of that. It’ll be wanting an F1 trophy in the cabinet sooner rather than later.
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