By winning at Mosport Audi just clinched the American Le Mans Series title. With only two races to go, the German manufacturer claimed its fifth win out of eight series races.
Enthusiasts often measure the greatness of a sports car producer based on its race record. Bentley, Bugatti, Alfa Romeo, Mercedes, Ferrari, Porsche, and Maserati are all extremely desirable marques due to their respective victories in international competition. Audi, however, might be the most dominant competitor of all time — yet the only company to have little other than trophies to show for its success.
Audi just keeps winning and winning. Launched in 1999, the R8 prototype won Le Mans in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005. (It placed third in 2003.) The R8 was unstoppable in the American Le Mans Series. It was like they were getting bored, so the diesel-powered R10 was released — the first diesel protoype for Le Mans competition. They won outright in the first try at the 2006 event.
And it hasn’t just been the Le Mans prototypes that have pushed Audi into the record books. The S4 won the Speed TV Challenge for GT cars. In the Group B rally class of the 1980s, the Audi Quattros replaced the purpose-built Lancia Stratos as the car to beat. I suppose we can even go back to the 1930s and the run of Auto Union Grand Prix cars, as well.
The governing bodies of almost every series in which Audi has competed has changed the rules to help the competition keep up. When the four-wheel-drive turbocharged S4 crushed the competition in Speed World Challenge, huge weight penalties were improsed for the team in the next season. After the Audi team proved they could change a rear-end in under five minutes at Le Mans, the rules were changed to prohibit such quick-change technology. Rallying’s Group B class was killed outright, because too many competitors were killed trying to keep up with the Quattros.
Despite Audi’s numerous race wins, the company is still considered an also-ran to BMW and Mercedes. Sure they’re experiencing record sales at 54,545 units from January through August 2006 (up over five percent,) but the numbers are nothing to write home about. BMW sold 206,530 cars in the same period.
Don’t even try comparing Audi to true sports car marques as Porsche and Ferrari — you’ll get laughed at. Audi simply produces executive cruisers and expensive mommy mobiles. No sports cars are found in its showrooms. A supercar is expected sometime in the next couple years, but low-volume halos never really change a long-standing corporate image.
Audi has come a long way since the dire days of the 5000 and “unintended acceleration.” (Actually, I recall that my family’s 1980 5000S suffered from a complete lack of acceleration — unintended or intended.) The company hasn’t completely shaken off its image as being maintenance-intensive, and rightfully so. In 2004 Audi was 10 percent worse than the industry average for problems in the JD Power Vehicle Dependability Study, an analysis of three-year-old car reliability. It did, however, place in front of Mercedes, Volvo and perennial bottom-feeder Land Rover.
The company receives kudos year after year for interior ergonomics. Its TT was a design masterpiece. The A8 is a favorite of the CEO set.
Moving to the topic of valuable collector cars, Audi doesn’t even come up. Pre-war Alfas and Bugattis, as well as many early Bentley competition cars are all worth seven figures. Ferraris range from high six figures to the $5M+ GTOs. Porsches can be affordable, provided you’re interested in low-horsepower 911s and 356, but stay away from the high-po Spyder, Carerra, 550 and 906/908/910 competition cars, because those will set you back as much as a Medina waterfront estate.
What about Audi? A Quattro coupe might set you back $15,000-$20,000. Okay, it might not be fair to compare, since the Quattros haven’t had time to increase in value. Along the same lines, the S4, RS4 and RS6 are all still depreciating, but are all absolute locks for future high-value collector vehicles.
Unlike Porsche and Ferrari, the cars in the showroom don’t match the image of the cars winning on the track. So while the company might benefit from technology transfer, the enormous amount of money spent on racing is having little effect on getting performance junkies into Audi dealers.
So when someone is in the market for a fast, nice-handling, luxurious sports GT with sub-par reliability and high-price, they are more likely to pay BMW a visit.
Image in this market is everything. Hopefully Audi can create a few products that harness its impressive race history and turn winning on Sunday into selling on Monday.