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Audi just quit Le Mans to focus on Formula E

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And dieselgate may have been partly to blame

Audi is shaking up its motorsports program in a big way. The German car manufacturer announced this morning that it will be leaving the FIA World Endurance Championship — one of the premiere racing series and home to the 24 Hours of Le Mans — and instead will focus on its growing involvement in Formula E, the all-electric racing series.

In a statement, Audi says that “the first all-electric racing series perfectly matches [Audi’s] strategy of offering fully battery-electric models year by year starting in 2018.” Audi also says that it’s undergoing the “greatest transformation stage in the company’s history,” and that “burdens” on the brand (Audi is owned by Volkswagen Group, and some of its road cars were implicated in the recent emissions cheating scandal) make it “important to focus on the things that would keep Audi competitive in the years ahead.”

“As our production cars are becoming increasingly electric, our motorsport cars, as Audi’s technological spearheads, have to even more so,” Rupert Stadler, Audi’s chairman, said in a statement.

Audi’s 2016 Le Mans Prototype car

WEC is considered to be one of the world’s top forms of racing, even though the series is only four years old. Each race features many different classes of cars racing against each other, and the competitions last for at least six hours. Audi competed in WEC since the beginning, and it was the was the second most successful manufacturer in the series’ most popular race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The automaker has won that race 13 times, just a few wins behind Porsche.

Audi competed in what is known as the “sports prototype” (or “Le Mans prototype”) class during and even before its involvement with WEC. Sports prototype cars are some of the wildest looking racecars in the world, but the technology in them is arguably much more relevant to road cars than what is found in a series like Formula One. In 2006, Audi was the first manufacturer to win a sports prototype race with a diesel engine, and in 2012 it became the first to win with an electric-diesel hybrid.

Formula E was started in 2014, and is the first global racing series to feature fully electric racecars. Audi has been involved with the Abt Formula E team since the series’ inception, though mostly in name only. (Abt has finished third and second in the team championship standings in the first two seasons.) But the manufacturer announced in September that it was becoming more technically involved in the third season, which is currently underway, and that it plans to become a full factory effort — that is, it will take over all the team’s operations as a manufacturer — by this time next year.

Lucas di Grassi, who races for Audi in both WEC and Formula E, told The Verge he believes there is a “big chance” that Formula E becomes the main series for manufacturers to showcase their technology.
Formula E / Spacesuit Media

Audi is nowhere near the first manufacturer to jump into Formula E, despite the fact that the series only has 22 races under its belt. Renault, Jaguar, Citroën DS, Mahindra, and NextEV all run teams in the series. Others, like BMW and Faraday Future, have partnered with teams and plan to increase their involvement over the years. And Mercedes-Benz recently announced plans to join the series in 2018.

The ramifications of the emissions cheating scandal are likely a contributing factor in Audi’s decision. The heart of the scandal revolved around Volkswagen installing devices on diesel cars that could cheat emissions tests, and prototype cars in WEC currently use hybrid diesel engines. (Audi also announced that it was leaving WEC just hours after VW received final approval to pay out $15 billion in settlement money.)

But Formula E was already becoming one of the premiere destinations for manufacturers to showcase their focus on electric technology, even before today’s announcement. Audi picking Formula E over WEC shows the lengths some might be willing to go just to get in the ring.