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Audi is all charged up about Formula E race series

When it comes to racing, Audi is best known for ferocious rally cars and high-tech Le Mans prototypes. But the German carmaker is also involved in the Formula E race series for electric cars, and it’s getting more serious this season.

Audi is already associated with the ABT Schaeffler team, but mostly in a sponsor/support role. For the upcoming 2016-17 season though, Audi says it will increases its involvement in the series. It also plans to “incorporate Formula E into a factory-backed motor sport program” for the 2017-18 season.

Audi has been a title sponsor of the ABT Schaeffler team since 2014. It also loaned the team driver Lucas di Grassi, and gave it access to certain facilities. For the upcoming season, Audi says it will provide “financial and technical support” to the team. The Audi logo will also be featured more prominently on the team’s cars, because public relations is as big a part of this as anything else.

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Formula E will be used to promote Audi’s electric-car development efforts. Audi plans to launch an all-electric SUV in 2018, based on the e-tron quattro concept that debuted at the 2015 Frankfurt Motor Show last year. That will be followed by several more electric cars and plug-in hybrids through 2025. By then, Audi expects 25 percent of the cars it sells in the U.S. to have plugs.

Audi’s Formula E commitment won’t just be about advertising, though. For the 2017-18 season, Audi plans to actively participated in car development. This coincides with an anticipated loosening of the rules, giving teams the freedom to create their own chassis designs. Teams are currently allowed to design their powertrains, but must use the same Spark-Renault SRT_01e chassis that have been mandatory since Formula E’s first season.

The promise of greater technical freedom is attracting more carmakers to Formula E. Jaguar and Faraday Future have announced plans to enter the series, joining Audi, as well as Renault, Mahindra, and Citroën’s DS brand. The 2016-17 season includes 12 races, and kicks off in Hong Kong on October 9.