One of the outcomes of the emissions scandal that Volkswagen found itself embroiled in, since the matter came to light in September 2015, appears to be cost cutting. The losses that the company has faced in the nature of fines, and by way of recalls and part replacements, has been to the tune of several billions. As a result of which cost cutting has become one of the prime focusses for the Volkswagen Group – extending across all its brands – with one of the main areas being motorsport. The announcement that Audi Sport was withdrawing from the World Endurance Championship (which includes the 24 Hours of Le Mans) at the end of the 2016 season, choosing instead to focus on the FIA Formula E Championship came as something of a surprise to many. But the budgetary restrictions could go far beyond just this.
German motorsport website Motorsport-Total.com has now reported that the possibility of Volkswagen exiting the World Rally Championship is fairly strong. Volkswagen has dominated the WRC since they debuted in 2013, with Sebastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia taking the title every year since, most recently being crowned champions in 2016 after winning Rally Spain. The report carried by Motorsport-Total says that it is highly likely that Volkswagen will end their commitment to the World Rally Championship at the end of the 2017 season of rallying at the latest. It is reported that the possibility of an earlier exit is unlikely, since the team has already progressed far into the development and testing of their new car for the upcoming season of motorsport. However, the possibility that they might exit the sport sometime at the end of the 2016 season is not being ruled out.
Volkswagen Motorsport had declared, in June 2014, their intent to compete in the World Rally Championship until 2019. However, Motorsport-Total has also mentioned in their report that when they asked a Volkswagen representative at the Wales Rally GB if this was still the case, they were told that it might not be. The spokesperson declared instead that the Volkswagen Group was going through difficult times, and that it was impossible to see into the future.
Will we be surprised to see Volkswagen exit the World Rally Championship? Well, no. The timing of it all might be just right, given that they will get to go out on a high note, having dominated the sport for the past few years. And, there’s another little trend that we’ve observed as far as the exit of top team management goes.
Back in November 2015, Audi extended their motorsport boss, Dr Wolfgang Ullrich’s contract till 2017. Ullrich, who turned 65 in 2015, is one of the few members of the Volkswagen Group who were allowed to stay past their official retirement age, possibly to oversee the end of the team’s LMP1 project, and be part of the initial shift in direction towards the WEC.
Meanwhile, in April 2016 it was announced that Leena Gade, Audi’s Le Mans winning motorsport engineer, would leave the team after the 2016 edition of the big race, moving onto a role with Bentley. Gade’s departure is something that Audi might have avoided, if their WEC exit hadn’t already been planned.
Similarly, Volkwagen’s motorsport director, Jost Capito, who had been a large part of the team’s success, and could very likely have played a critical role in how the team performed in the 2017 season (when WRC’s new rules come into play) announced he was leaving the team, switching to McLaren’s Formula 1 programme, back in January 2016. Capito’s last rally with the team was in August, and he took over as CEO of McLaren in September this year, being replaced by Sven Smeets at Volkswagen.
Just as Gade’s mid-season exit could have been a sign of things to come at Audi, Capito’s mid-season departure could also signal an end of things as they are at Volkswagen. For now, though, there is no official news on the team’s commitment to motorsport, or possible exit. Signs, however, seem to point to an exit. We will have to wait and watch.