Courtesy of SPEED.COM
Several high-profile teams are being considered to lead Audi’s possible full-time return to the ALMS in 2011.
As revealed by SPEED.com in July, Audi is courting partners for a full-time return the American Le Mans Series in 2011 and could be close to making a final decision on which team to task with fielding a combined prototype and GT program.
Audi’s previous full-time effort in the ALMS concluded after the German marque claimed the 2008 LMP1 championship with their Florida-based partners at Champion Racing.
Under the direction of team owner Dave Maraj, Champion Racing served as Audi Sport’s North American arm, while the German Joest Racing outfit, in concert with Audi Sport, looked after their European sportscar operations.
But after Audi’s shock withdrawal from the ALMS in December of 2008 (and Maraj’s financial struggles around the same time), Champion Racing closed its doors in 2009, leaving an opening for a new North American partner if and when Audi chose to return to the ALMS with a full works program.
With Audi AG and Audi North America keen to rekindle their sportscar activities in the United States, a number of potential candidates were asked to submit proposals to run a multi-year program that includes prototypes and GT cars on behalf of the Ingolstadt-based constructor.
Discussions have been ongoing for months with a number of players, and three existing teams – Penske Racing, Highcroft Racing and Wayne Taylor Racing -- have reportedly reached the final stages of the review process by Audi.
Of those teams under consideration for the lone ALMS contract, a number of interesting conclusions can be drawn.
Penske Racing, Audi’s arch nemesis from 2006-2008 who ran Porsche’s factory RS Spyder program, is a known quantity to the Germans, earning massive respect for their formidable preparation, resources and highly polished presentation.
Penske’s long history with the Porsche puts the Mooresville, North Carolina-based team in good standing within the Porsche/VW/Audi ownership group, and having seen Porsche’s return on investment with Penske in the ALMS, it’s easy to envision the Tim Cindric-led team as the most attractive option for Audi.
But If public perception is of any consideration, hiring a Goliath like Penske Racing to battle a mostly privateer prototype category in 2011 could be perceived as bringing the proverbial gun to a knife fight.
While the likes of Dyson Racing, Intersport Racing, Drayson Racing and Autcon Motorsports have ably represented the LMP1 contingent in 2010 (in the new, combined “LMP” category comprised of LMP1 and LMP2 machinery that conform to a special performance balancing formula unique to the ALMS), the lack of major new factory LMP entries on the horizon for Audi to battle could paint the brand in a negative light if they were to use Penske to dominate a depleted LMP field.
Asked about the potential of an Audi and Penske Racing partnership, a team spokesperson replied with a “no comment” when contacted by SPEED.com.
Duncan Dayton, right, celebrates with David Brabham, left, after Highcroft Racing captured the LMP1 title for Acura last year. (LAT)
Highcroft Racing, 2009 ALMS LMP1 Champions with Acura, presents another fascinating option for Audi. In contrast to Penske, the Duncan Dayton-owned team has managed to strike a delicate balance between representing a major manufacturer (Acura/HPD) while maintaining the appeal of a privateer effort.
Based out of Danbury, Connecticut, Highcroft’s talented staff, exquisite facilities and strong branding sensibilities could lend a refreshing take on a program that grew somewhat predictable and stale by the end of 2008.
Dayton’s commitment to having only the finest equipment and presentation is well known, but behind the scenes, he has made a large investment to fill his team with some of the best sportscar personnel on either side of the Atlantic. The popularity of Highcroft, combined with their intimate knowledge of the ALMS, could offer Audi similar results to what Penske Racing would deliver while saving a few dollars by going with a smaller organization.
Artfully dodging the question about a Highcroft and Audi collaboration, Dayton told SPEED.com “We still have a championship on the line and we are concentrating 100% on Petit Le Mans at the moment. We never wanted to be a ‘one and done’ team – getting that back to back crown is our key goal. Highcroft has had an outstanding relationship with HPD and Acura and we’ve been thrilled to deliver them the success they deserve. That’s our goal – to do that again. Hopefully another championship will encourage them to continue, but if not, having two championship trophies on the shelf will hopefully make Highcroft an attractive option to any manufacturer. We can’t afford to take our focus off 2010 before that checkered flag falls at Petit Le Mans.”
Wayne Taylor Racing represents another intriguing angle for Audi as the veteran driver and owner has quickly built his team into a powerhouse Daytona Prototype entry in the GRAND-AM Rolex Series.Taylor, who was a central figure in Cadillac’s ALMS program which competed against Audi from 2000-2002, has developed WTR into an impressive outfit in just four years of operation. With the striking livery of primary sponsor SunTrust banks making their Dallara-Ford easy to recognize, Taylor has become one of the elite prototype entrants in the country thanks to a team made up of crafty and experienced sportscar specialists.
Wayne Taylor, middle, shares in the spoils of his team's victory at Lime Rock in June. (LAT)
While WTR lacks the same level of factory experience the other two candidates offer, they have been instrumental in working with the Italian racing constructor Dallara to develop their Daytona Prototype chassis. WTR’s professionalism and capabilities won’t be lost on Audi, as they too have a relationship with Dallara who have worked closely with the Germans for more than a decade on aerodynamic development and to produce their different LMP chassis over the years.
Of the three teams on the table, WTR would have the most growth ahead of them to meet Audi’s incredibly high level of expectations to deliver immediate results. Taylor’s staff is capable of rising to the challenge, but with Audi Sport known for having extremely particular working methods for every imaginable aspect of the job, it would take some time for the two parties to jell.
In terms of providing a turn-key program, Penske Racing’s recent and intimate knowledge of Porsche’s practices and Highcroft’s deep understanding of what an exacting company like Acura/HPD expect from a partner must be seen in a more favorable light.
Nonetheless, receiving the Audi contract would be a huge step for Taylor as he continues to expand his company, and in the workings of a partnership, Audi would likely have the option to mold the team in their image, while Penske and Highcroft would probably be seen as two entities with more fixed operations.
Reached Thursday night by SPEED.com, Taylor declined to comment on the Audi situation.
In addition to running diesel-powered prototypes, the lucrative Audi contract is also expected to carry a GT element for the first time, along with providing a North American GT sales and service solution.
Audi has been in contact with the ALMS for more than a year about the possibility of making their GT3-spec R8 LMS eligible to race in the Series, and while those discussions appear to be ongoing, the only fit for the R8 would be in the GTC category, albeit with a lesser state of technology available to its drivers.
GRAND-AM is also believed to be at an advanced stage with Audi regarding the eligibility of the R8 LMS to compete in the Rolex GT category. With the R8 delivered minus the driver aids that the current GTC/Rolex GT cars run without, a solid sales opportunity could exist for the marque.
After winning Le Mans with the R15 plus, Audi would likely use the new R18 in America to help accelerate its development program to prepare for the assault on La Sarthe in 2011. (Marshall Pruett)
Housing the sales and service center is another point under evaluation by Audi, and in that category, Penske Racing’s 425,000-square foot shop could be a natural fit. The only foreseeable downside would be that Penske’s shop houses their IZOD IndyCar Series program and all of their NASCAR-related teams. While Penske has run both ALMS and GRAND-AM teams out of the very same shop, just how Audi would feel about being a sub-division amongst Penske’s Honda and Dodge racing programs is unknown.
With Highcroft’s Danbury facility and WTR’s Indianapolis base, less space would be at Audi’s disposal for R8 sales and service, but they would have a dedicated operation to call home.
One final aspect of Audi’s return to the ALMS that also appears to have changed is the source of funding for the program. Audi AG previously supported the multi-million dollar effort on an annual basis, but the word is that Audi North America would underwrite the new ALMS racing activities.
The timing of an announcement for Audi’s 2011 ALMS effort is unknown, but they traditionally reveal their plans for the coming year at the Essen Motor Show, which starts on November 27th.
Provided everything goes forward as planned, Audi has a perfect opportunity to add a new chapter to their sportscar legacy in the USA. Finding the right technical partner to run the program while working in unison with the factory is the greatest challenge, but all three contenders can deliver an LMP championship in 2011.
i would love to see Audi back in the series, the biggest negative towards this would be the more then likely domination that they would more then likely have as done in the past. Granted this would mean that all these other teams such as Drayson, Dyson, Highcroft, and Cytosport would have to step up their game and try and compete on this level. but hopefully with the intentions that audi has with trying to maintain a more so privateer type team will allow for more competition an less of an "audi always winning season."
with the Petite being one of the biggest fields it has ever had with 45 cars, this will hopefully allow other teams that are coming over like the Pescarola entry to see how good the racing is in the ALMS and open the door for more European teams to come and compete. Fortunately a little bit of a helping hand from the ACO was also dealt when the instituted the "Global Championship." This should spark some curiosity of some teams from the other side of the Atlantic to compete in other races besides just the two in the championship, the Petite and Sebring.