A Prescription For Dr. UllrichThere's a saying: you never get over the first time you lose. It's the one you remember, regardless of how many victories come your way. Audi Motorsport's head honcho, Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, has felt the first real sting and, baby, it hurts. Considering Audi owns practically every sports prototype record of this decade and has run virtually unopposed, why should anyone shed a tear?
This season started out with the usual win at Sebring for the R10 diesel steamroller, but not with the same dominance of the previous six wins. The addition of Acura and a vastly improved Porsche RS Spyder made the supposedly lower class of LMP 2 the main show. Audi largely has the top slot of LMP 1 as a demonstration run between teammates-meaning overall victories were just a matter of showing up. However, that script is no longer being followed and it's not due to a sudden lack of competitiveness in the R10.
The American Le Mans Series and its sanctioning body has a notorious history of rule-tampering and, for the 2007 season, the LMP 2 cars have the edge over Audi on almost every circuit (with the exception of places such as Road America, where the R10 can stretch). The ALMS has made much of Porsche's return to the prototypes and also that a certain Mr. Penske is Weissach's entrant of choice. However, this is not a Penske-Porsche operation of the past. It's Roger's team, but there is far more Porsche input. And it shows. Penske branding is costing the Germans a lot of euros and they expect success.
Success is something the boys from Ingolstadt have become so accustomed to that it might be taken for granted. However, taking the checker should be reserved for the track, not the meeting room. Dr. Ullrich took his time in committing a full season of the R10 in the US and made it quite clear that he alone had the right to bring the team home, without consulting the board. Some in the Audi camp felt that ALMS CEO Scott Atherton, being a former Penske employee, had a bias. Ingolstadt also had to deal with the long-awaited debut of the Peugeot 908 as the much-hyped battle of the diesels at Le Mans was finally going to happen. One Audi insider commented that the Peugeot was at least a true measure of competition, unlike the situation in the ALMS.
Audi has been the dominant force in sports prototype racing since its first fully realized season in 2000. Most of the team who hit these shores back then are still gainfully employed today. A big family of sorts, but it all stems from the top and the viewpoint of Herr Doktor. The first-generation R8 was subject to restrictions over the seasons that rendered it barely competitive. Now the R10 diesel is getting whacked by its cousin from Stuttgart, and Ingolstadt can't do much about it. The score in overall wins in the ALMS, as of this writing, was two for Audi and five for Porsche; LMP 2 over LMP 1, not good for the series from the viewpoint of many. Either dump the classes altogether or get some clarity. Audi is in this to win and win overall, not just the class. So what's the solution, other than whining?
Relax, Dr. Ullrich, I have the perfect prescription for your blues. Take a page out of your past, current and future competition's book. Prof. Ernst Fuhrmann was head of Porsche AG during what is best described as the firm's most tenuous time. Back in the '70s, there were family feuds, oil embargoes, gas shortages and sluggish sales. So what did Fuhrmann do? Give the world a turbo 911 priced at a premium for that era
The good prof was a motor man and his four-cam design kept Porsches competitive for over a decade. That changed when the company could no longer afford to build pure prototypes and any future racecars had to be production-based. Hence the 934, followed by the world-class 935. To say that Porsche and its customers owned FIA Group 5 and IMSA over other challengers would be an understatement. Few manufacturers bothered to challenge and looked to battle elsewhere.
In Germany, this meant the under-2.0-liter class; BMW and Ford were having some great races and press coverage was intense. The over-2.0-liter cars (i.e. 935) were largely ignored and when Fuhrmann learned that only the lower class would be televised in an upcoming round at the Norisring, he'd heard enough. Instead of getting mad, he got even, and decided that Porsche would take on BMW and Ford. The car that came out of a hastily called meeting was to later be known simply as 'The Baby.'
Against objections from many of his engineers, Fuhrmann prevailed, and within two months of being conceived, The Baby hit the track. A one-off, lightweight, 1.4-liter flat-six with a healthy KKK auspuffer and an appearance that said: "I am a 935 on a diet" was built strictly to prove a point. This was not a marketing exercise but an engineering one.
The Baby's first race showed that the rushed schedule and lack of testing was an obvious disappointment, as driver Jacky Ickx could only qualify in 13th. He managed to get up to the top six, but retired with heat exhaustion. The next round was the curtain raiser for the German Grand Prix and this time The Baby was ready for the romper room. Ickx put it on pole, by more than a couple of seconds, then drove off into the distance, lapping most of the field and finishing up almost a minute in front of a werks Ford.
Prof. Fuhrmann, having made his point, ordered The Baby to head straight for the Porsche Museum in Zuffenhausen.
So Dr. Ullrich, you have the talent, you have the parts, stop waiting for others to join you in the supposed 'top' class of the ALMS. Call a meeting and quietly build an LMP 2 'Baby.' Racing history could use another hero like Ernst Fuhrmann.