Monday’s announcement that Audi would exit Formula E following the conclusion of the 2020-21 season came as a major surprise, but as team principal Allan McNish explains to Hazel Southwell, it was a difficult but necessary decision to make.
Through their initial association with affiliated brand ABT Sportsline, and later via their official works team, Audi are arguably the most successful of all the major manufacturers to have competed in Formula E.
Now, following a review of their motorsport programmes, the decision has been made to switch their focus away from Formula E towards a Dakar Rally project and a Le Mans return in the new LMDh category.
So on the eve of the 2020-21 season, and with progress being made towards shaping Formula E’s Gen3 regulations, why has Audi made the decision to bail out, and why now?
“So there were two announcements – one on the programmes, as in coming out of Formula E, going into Dakar and also into LMDh, but [also a second] on the structural change of Audi Motorsport, and that process has been going on for a wee while,” explained McNish.
“With that, we [held discussions regarding] the championship, the options, other alternatives, regulations, and also where [Audi] are going and what they’re thinking of [with their] road cars as well, so in that respect, it’s been an ongoing process.
“For a little while now [we’ve] known, roughly, the directions we were going to go. The board made their final decisions and then clearly we’ve had the announcements, which coincided with [coincidentally] the announcement yesterday [Julius Seebach replacing Dieter Gass as Audi’s head of motorsport].”
Having stopped their WEC and Le Mans programme in 2016 as well as bringing an end to their DTM participation this year, it’s probably fair to see Formula E now as being Audi’s flagship motorsport activity, at least it has been in recent times.
McNish believes Formula E has played a crucial role in Audi’s transition towards a future fully-electric motorsport programme, but insists that the decision to leave was not linked to any potential dissatisfaction with the series’ Gen3 rules or the direction it was taking.
“Because it was the lead programme, it took us from being what you would consider a traditional internal combustion company into an electric company and a new energies company,” said McNish.
“OK, the initial touchpoint [in Formula E] was through ABT in the beginning, but Audi Sport was still on the team name. It was a precursor to what was coming. E-Tron, which is the electrification side of Audi, we raced that initially at Le Mans with a hybrid and [Formula E] was then the takeover towards full electrification.
“[The decision to leave Formula E was] not really a decision related to Gen3 as such. It’s more a case of the overall car company, the brand and the motorsport strategy going with it. The Gen3 process actually has been pretty impressive, very frankly. It’s just timing that’s quite tricky.
“That’s for everybody – with the timing of the whole COVID situation, with the whole car market, the shift towards electrification in whichever market you are looking at, the fact that some markets are down, some markets are up, it’s really tough right now.
“To get commitments, [it is] a very difficult time, but again, there is a point where everybody either has to commit or not, and that’s for everything, not just necessarily for this.”
Only last week, Audi‘s Season 7 car launch focused heavily on the inclusion of a brand new powertrain the team say was developed in-house for the first time. In recent seasons, Audi’s MGU had initially been developed by ABT and Schaeffler which Audi optimised.
The timing of their exit announcement then seems a little odd being so soon after that, but McNish explains that out of respect for their partners and competitors, it was important to be upfront about their intentions.
“You have to plan for the future, but also Formula E, the FIA, and also the other competitors and manufacturers [do as well], so therefore if there is a decision, whichever way the decision is, you are better putting it out there,” said McNish.
“In that respect, I think it’s only fair to everybody else that you do in advance, signal your intentions, especially if it’s something that’s going to change the way the programmes are going to be run.”
Even though Audi themselves will cease to compete as a manufacturer team, the lifespan of the MGU05 – their all-new and recently launched powertrain – will be extended through customer team Envision Virgin Racing, who surprisingly outscored them last season.
As well as their works team and customer supply, McNish hints that the learnings they’ve taken from Formula E can, and most likely will, be applied to their involvement in other categories moving forwards too.
“We’ve got to focus on the electric drivetrain, and we’ve had stable regulations as well, so with our new powertrain, it’s been a step forward. Some of the things that are inside it won’t just stay in Formula E,” said McNish.
“That in-house knowledge, IP, everything else, will continue into things for the future. Now the electrification is here because now we’ve got the E-Tron, we’ve got the GT, we’ve got a whole lineup of battery electric vehicles coming for 2025.
“At the end of next year, when we get to New York and London, that will be our final goodbyes as a racing team in [Formula E], but we’ve got our customer team [Envision Virgin] who are really good actually and that keeps everybody on their toes. That relationship is strong.
“Clearly we can continue that support through Season 8 and all of that is in place to be able to support customer teams. Ultimately it’s their decision whether they want to go down that route, but that we can do. But for us as a team, we will at the end of Season 7 be giving our farewells.”
That farewell, when it does come, will be an emotional one, as Audi have been one of the standout competitors of Formula E’s six seasons to date. Their lead driver Lucas di Grassi has become both a champion on track in that time, but also a champion for sustainability off it through his success in the series.
So when, as a manufacturer, you’re able to boast having won both the drivers’ and teams’ championship, as well as having accrued the most points, podiums, and the second most wins amongst your competitors, what motivation do you carry into your final season?
“We come here to win. We built the MGU05 to win. We strengthened the team to win. We brought in the driver lineup we did to win. We have that focus for whatever happens in the future, that focus is clearly there,” said McNish.
“Also, this morning – the team were here opening up the tent for the final day of testing, straight in with the knowledge that this is the final year, but there’s only one time you can win your final season. It’s only now, so we are very focused on that.
“Now that sounds easy on paper but the reality is everybody else is really focused on it as well, and there’s going to be super tough. We are in a really tough championship. I haven’t really got a very good read on it even from here [in testing] how it’s sort of looking.
“From that perspective, I think it will be a hell of a season. For us clearly, we’ve developed all of this, we’ve put the energy and effort into developing the car as we have and all the testing to do that job, and that’s where we are and what we’re focused on.”