After its shocking withdrawal from the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Audi is showing that it still has interest in motor sports.
In the wake of the Volkswagen diesel scandal and a streak of uncompetitiveness, Audi shuttered its highly successful FIA World Endurance Championship racing program at the end of last season. But the Germany luxury automaker isn’t completely done with racing.
Audi previously said it would focus on the Formula E race series for electric cars, and maintain a presence in the German DTM race series, but its continued participation in the FIA World Rallycross Championship was in doubt. The carmaker now says it will stick with World Rallycross, backing the Swedish EKS team.
Rallycross is a different animal from the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race Audi previously dominated. Instead of high-tech, purpose-built race cars, teams use modified versions of ordinary compacts. The races are intense sprints on tracks that are part pavement, part dirt. It’s one of the only forms of racing where drivers aren’t explicitly forbidden from slamming into each other, and each course features some jumps, for good measure.
The EKS team races an Audi S1, a small hatchback Audi does not sell in the United States. The carmaker will provide more technical assistance to the team than in previous seasons, elevating its involvement to a full factory-backed effort. EKS driver Mattias Ekström will also pilot an Audi in the DTM race series.
Rallycross has seen a resurgence of popularity recently. Its short, action-packed races make for an internet-friendly package, and promoters have pitched it to younger audiences as the next extreme sport. The World Rallycross Championship is run by the FIA, which also runs Formula One and the World Endurance Championship. A competitor series, Red Bull Global Rallycross, features similar cars, but is more focused on the U.S. market.
Even with the World Rallycross program, Audi’s motor sports operations will be greatly reduced from the heyday of the World Endurance Championship and Le Mans. Audi has said the Formula E series will be its main focus because it plans to build more electrified cars in the future, but that relatively new series hasn’t achieved the prestige of Le Mans.