Audi exit caught ALMS by surprised It's been a roller coaster of a week for the American Le Mans Series. Last Friday, Audi served up a curve ball worthy of Sandy Koufax when, seemingly out of the blue, it revealed it would not compete in the 2009 Series after the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring presented by Fresh from Florida. Coming on the heels of the not-unexpected news that Porsche had elected not to compete in LMP2 next year on a factory level, Audi's announcement was - if not devastating - worrisome news.
Seven days later, however, Mazda and Dyson Racing confirmed they will join forces in 2009 for a two-car LMP2 effort. While Mazda's decision to double its effort with one of the Series' top independent teams hardly balances-out the loss of two manufacturers who regularly fielded six prototypes in recent seasons, it goes a long way to nullify the perception that the Series is hemorrhaging manufacturers. In fact, given that BMW confirmed its plans for a GT2 program a fortnight ago and that Porsche's commitment to GT2 remains steadfast, the number of auto makers committed to the '09 schedule remains essentially unchanged from last year. And with a new, two-car LMP1 program and a continuing (if reduced) LMP2 effort, Acura is more committed to the Series then ever.
Still, there's no denying prototype racing circa 2009 will lack some of the pizzazz of recent seasons. Where once Porsche and Acura went toe-to-toe in an LMP2 battle that, often as not, threatened Audi (and occasionally Peugeot) for overall victory, now it will be a surprise if Acura does not win more or less at its leisure in LMP1 with any opposition from LMP2 for the overall victory offered by Mazda and, er, Acura.
On the other hand, GT2 figures to be more fiercely-contested ever, what with the welcome addition of BMW and (after Le Mans) Corvette with ANOTHER manufacturer in the wings. Indeed, this figures to be a dream season for GT2: not only a battle royal among a host of the world's leading auto makers, but an opportunity to emerge from the shadows of the prototypes.
No two ways about it, though, Audi will be missed. Just why the German automaker opted for a Sebring-only American Le Mans Series program this year is hard to define. Audi was sending all the right signals to the Series last year, from its less than top-secret decision to develop a successor to the mighty R10 TDI to Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich's upbeat comments at the post-season banquet about competing with Acura in 2009.
While the worldwide economic meltdown is an obvious reason, nowhere in its official statements did Audi even mention the worrisome economic environment as a factor in its decision.
Some have opined there must be more to this than meets the eye; that Audi would hardly have taken on the design and development of the R15 just to race at Sebring and Le Mans. And if Audi's '09 focus is beating Peugeot in Turbo Diesel Smackdown III at Le Mans, wouldn't competing in the American Le Mans Series after Sebring be the best way to develop the R15?
Not necessarily. For after Sebring come St. Petersburg, Long Beach and Miller Motorsports Park - the latter the only one of the three on a pure road circuit and thus the only one remotely close to approximating the environment of le Sarthe. Perhaps the plan is to dispense with those street races and focus on Le Mans in '09 before embarking on a more ambitious program for 2010 - a variation on Audi's modus operandi with the R10 which, it will be recalled, debuted at Sebring in '06, was replaced by the venerable R8 at Houston, Mid-Ohio and Lime Rock, then returned to complete the post-Le Mans part of the schedule prior to a complete seasons in '07 and '08.
Then again, some have connected the dots and concluded Audi has other fish to fry in North America, namely an IndyCar Series that is actively pursuing additional manufacturers for the 2011 season, the centennial of the Indianapolis 500. Audi's name has been frequently mentioned in association with the ICS; indeed, Audi is widely seen as the manufacturer most likely to join Honda competing at the pinnacle of American open wheel racing.
What is known, however, is that Mazda is taking what was already the most comprehensive commitment to American racing by an automotive manufacturer to the next level. To its support of grass roots competition, the MX-5 Cup, Skip Barber National and MazdaSpeed Challenge series, Star Mazda and Formula Atlantic, now add a top shelf prototype program to which the stars of the MazdaSpeed Motorsports Development ladder can aspire…and rest assured Audi's departure hardly leaves the American Le Mans Series manufacturers cupboard bare. ALMS