Inside Audi’s secret racing stash
As it pulls out of endurance racing, step inside Audi's race car retirement home
Hanging from the fringes of an industrial estate at Audi’s Ingolstadt headquarters sits an unassuming, corrugated-clad building. There’s no address on the door, no doorbell, and one-way windows.
To get in you must use an American-style phone box. There you’ll speak to a man, who, once vetted, will buzz you in through three borderline-bulletproof doors.
This is Audi’s hush-hush hangar, something the German firm is very keen to keep a secret. It contains Audi’s entire back catalogue, with 600 rare, often priceless cars spread over many floors. Even Top Gear isn’t permitted to see everything, but thanks to a lot of arm-twisting we’ve been granted access to just one floor. Level 2.
Thankfully Level 2 contains the best stuff: motorsport. Some of the most legendary, revolutionary race cars to ever grace the planet, all wonderfully covered in crap from their last race and parked up as if in an NCP.
Silver Arrows, Alpine trials winners, Le Mans legends, rally revolutionaries, Pikes Peak punishers and touring car champs, they’re all here. And all have some pretty juicy stories behind them.
So click forward to discover how Audi has dominated or changed pretty much every single type of motorsport it’s ever entered. Oh, and some very pretty pictures.
Words and Pictures: Rowan HorncastleAdvertisement - Page continues below
This, in the big book of Audi motorsport history, is Genesis. The 1914 Audi 14/35 hp, Type C ‘Alpine Victor’.
One man took Audi into motorsport. August Horch, a man with such an obsession with going fast that he got kicked out of his own, eponymous company for spending too much on racing.
Not one to give up, August went off and set up another company, Audi – the Latin translation of Horch. Now, this isn’t the same Audi that you know today, which came after an amalgamation of four companies – Horch, Wanderer, DKW and Audi – after the war. But the 14/35hp was the first Audi race car.
With its button-down leather seats, rear-only brakes and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang horn, it’s a long way off of the new Audi R18 e-tron.
It competed in the Österreichische Alpenfahrt (the Austrian Alpine Rally), an endurance reliability race. This was one of the toughest forms of motorsport of the era. Competitors would cross the mountains between Austria, Croatia, Slovenia and Italy as quickly as possible and, in theory, without having to ever open the bonnet. If they did, they’d be marked down.
Horch’s 35bhp Type C turned out to be incredibly fast and reliable, winning the trial three times on the trot from 1912 to 1914. In an early instance of the ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ mantra, this Type C helped previously little-known Horch sell a whole bunch of cars as Audi.
The 1930s saw one of the most exciting periods of motorsport ever: the era of the Silver Arrows.
Needing some public exposure for the new merger of Saxony's four automotive companies (Audi, DKW, Horch and Wander), the newly-formed Auto Union wanted a way of promoting itself to a post-depression public. So it headed for the very highest level: Grand Prix racing.
Just like this year’s F1 season, 1934 saw a big regulation shift. There was a crippling 750kg weight limit introduced, meaning the Adrian Neweys of the era had to find ingenious, lightweight solutions, rather than rely on monstrously heavy, powerful engines.
Auto Union decided to opt for a mid-engine layout, thus paving the way for just about every successful Grand Prix racer since.
What you see above are two Type Cs and a Type D. The Type C has a 6.0-litre, 16-cylinder, 520hp engine wedged behind the seats. And when wrapped in slippery body work, was good for silly, silly speeds. See, after battling it out on track, these equivalent F1 cars of the era would swap downforce for low-drag bodywork, and head out onto the roads in a bid to become the fastest cars on the planet.
A fierce battle raged between Mercedes Benz and Auto Union. In 1937, Merc held the record, a dizzying 168mph. Looking to beat it, Audi turned the Type C’s engine up to 560bhp and stuck in on the autobahn for a v-max run.
Popular Bernd Rosemeyer was at the wheel and beat the record on his pass. But on the second run, disaster struck as at 273mph: a side-wind caught the car, sending the Auto Union Type C Streamliner into the trees. Not wearing a seatbelt, Rosemeyer was flung for the car and killed instantly. It spelled the end of Auto Union’s record-breaking attempts.
But on the track, a new three-litre, twelve-cylinder supercharged engine was dropped into the delightful Type D. Before it could truly prove its worth, World War Two broke out, ended the era of the Silver Arrows, and arguably, one of the most exciting eras of GP racing ever.Advertisement - Page continues below
All of these cars you see here have a story. Good ones at that. Most of them are to do with winning.
One quarter of the Saxony’s four pre-unified companies, DKW, was the first manufacturer to put a front-wheel-drive car in mass production. What you see on the left is a DKW Formula Junior. It’s from 1957, and has a diddy 1000cc, three-cylinder engine tucked behind the front axle and tuned to 90bhp.
Simple as it sounds, this front wheel drive set up was a landmark step in cars. As was the car next to it, the victorious Quattro 200 from Rally Kenya. The landmark? Four-wheel drive. When Audi entered rallying in 1980, it changed the game forever.
Audi’s four-wheel drivetrain was first designed for military use, but it didn’t take the company long to figure out where else it might work. Why not use this better traction in motorsport? The first racer to adopt 4WD was a cautiously-developed version of the original Ur-quattro.
With a 2,144cc five-cylinder turbocharged engine hanging out the front, it developed a healthy 340bhp (compared to the standard 200bhp). But the secret ingredient was the ability to feed all that power to all four-wheels.
In the 1981 Monte Carlo version, the quattro was clocked accelerating from 0 to 60mph in 5.9 seconds on a dry road, roughly in line with its competitors. However, on the right tyres it could the same sprint on snow in 8.3 seconds, something the competition couldn’t fathom. Game changed.
If you imagine the words Audi and rally, the first image to shoot into your head might just be the crazy Audi S1, off the ground, spitting flames, in the maddest of all rally categories: Group B.
Above is the Olympus Rally-winning S1 piloted by Audi legend Stig Blomqvist. The Sport Quattro S1 was developed for homologation specifically for Group B rallying in 1984, and sold as a production car in limited numbers, making the road-going version very expensive now.
The S1, and Group B, pushed the boundaries of possibility. Its body shell was carbon kevlar, it would spit flames like Spyro, and its track width – combined with its short wheelbase and monster turbo boost – made it incredibly twitchy and drifty. Hard to drive, epic to watch.
This drew in seas of fans who’d flood the stages, standing the middle of the road before jumping away at the last minute. Such brinksmanship was what that ended this incredible era of rallying, and Audi’s dominance of it.
During a stage of Portuguese Rally in 1986, national champion Joaquim Santos hit a crest while attempting to avoid a group of fans. Santos lost control of his Ford RS200, sliding off the road and into the hoards of spectators. Thirty one people were injured, and three killed. All the top teams immediately pulled out of the rally.
Later that year, Audi left rallying completely, bringing an end to the first six “quattro years”. The mighty team of Michèle Mouton, Hannu Mikkola, Stig Blomqvist and Walter Röhrl had created an unprecedented legacy, winning 23 world championship heats between them, and bringing four titles back to base in Ingolstadt.Advertisement - Page continues below
What nobody ever saw hit a rally stage was this, the Audi Group S Prototype. A big, fat-winged white elephant in a room that Audi didn’t want you to know about.
By the time Group B was in full swing, Audi was actually under serious threat from its mid-engined rivals. Peugeot’s 205 Turbo 16 and Lancia’s Delta S4 were both better balanced and more nimble than the Quattro, which, with its big five-cylinder up front, was a lot more susceptible to understeer.
In response, Audi cooked this 1000bhp, mid-engined rally prototype. With its massive wing and curvaceous front, it looks like the result of drunken night between an old Group C Le Mans car and a Pikes Peak racer.
Developed by the Audi Sport team without the bosses back in Ingolstadt knowing anything about it, this is proper skunkworks shed fodder. In fact, the engineers took the project out of Germany to a facility in Desna in the Czech Republic so no one at Audi could go sniffing, with the prototypes shipped in anonymous containers.
But when the car was ready they needed to test it. A secret track was booked out of the way of prying eyes, but the team discovered the press and their long lenses had been tipped off. So rally god Walter Röhrl decided to do a test session… on an unclosed public road.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, he got stopped by the police, who pulled over Rohrl and his futuristic 1000bhp mid-engine monster for a chat.
The rozzers wanted to take pictures of the car, but knowing how much of a secret it was, Walter begged them not to. The police agreed, but only if Walter would let them witness a proper race start. Obviously, he obliged.
But pictures of the secret prototype cars spread round the world and eventually onto the Audi bosses’ boardroom table. They wasn’t very happy and demanded that all the cars were destroyed in front of them. Which they were, apart from the car above (with only 12km on the clock) that was hidden away. Until now.Advertisement - Page continues below
Even though Audi withdrew from rally in 1987, it still needed to show Quattro had a purpose. So they took it to one of the most unhinged races in the world: Pikes Peak.
There are no rules in the Unlimited class at the Colorado hill climb, so Walter Röhrl's 600hp, 1000kg S1 Rally car fitted the bill perfectly.
In 1987, the two-time rally world champ went (mostly sideways) through 156 turns to the 4,301 metre summit of the legendary American course in this, recording a record breaking time of 10:47.85.
In 1988 Audi wanted to prove its their four-wheel-drive system wasn’t just for the loose stuff. It could could work on track too. So the team used their Group B experience to develop a production-based racing car for the US’s Trans-Am race series.
Using the framework and chassis of a road-going 200, the 550bhp Trans-Am (above) was initially the laughing stock of the grid. With its tiny 2.1 litre turbocharged engine it looked pitiful up against the big American 7.0-litre V8s.
But, just as in rallying, traction proved key. The 200 won eight races that season, bagging Hurley Haywood the 1988 Trans-Am Drivers Championship.
Inspired by their Trans-Am success, the next year Audi headed to the less restrictive IMSA ‘GTO’ championship. They entered the most sofa-chewing car they’d ever-produced: the wide-bodied ‘B3’90.
Donning a space-frame chassis, carbon fibre cloak and making 720bhp at 8600rpm from a 2.1-litre, five-cylinder, the 90 made an unique sound harmonised by wailing wastegate chatter.
Even though it frequently dominated in the wet, the GTO couldn’t repeat the success of its Trans-Am brother. It won seven of the thirteen IMSA races, but Audi lost the championship to Roush Racing after sitting out the two endurance races – Daytona and Sebring – at the start of 1989 season.
Pulling out of America, Audi returned home for a crack at touring cars in the DTM in 1990. It decided its weapon of choice would be the V8 quattro, colloquially known as the ‘chauffeur’s car’.
However, once again, Audi had the last laugh as Hans-Joachim Stuck took the DTM title home in the car’s first season. Like rallying, Audi hired a super group of drivers – Stuck, Biela, Jelinski and Haupt – for its 1991 campaign, with Biela once again securing the championship. This made Audi the first manufacturer in the history of the DTM to defend its title successfully.
In 1992 a new set of regulations were introduced to reduce costs, so the V8 was out and a new two-litre formula was in. Audi exited DTM to focus instead on national touring car championships with its 272bhp Audi 80 quattro.
In 1995 Audi Sport hit the UK touring car scene with its new A4. With four-wheel drive, Audi won the first four ToCA races with ease… so the rulemakers introduced a weight penalty to offset the advantage of Quattro.
Later, 4WD was completely outlawed (the car on the far left is front-wheel-drive, hence the lack of ‘Quattro’ badging on the grille and windscreen) which destroyed the A4’s dominance.
Just like rallying, when Audi applied its technical wisdom to touring cars, it left the competition miles behind: in the 1996 season, Audis took national titles in seven countries. An absolute whitewash.
Here’s the touring car equivalent of Audi’s secret Group S rally prototype, made for the 2.5-litre Group S class. This was to compete against the likes of the Lotus Omega 2.5 and the Mercedes 190 Evo II.
Only three were built, and all received specially designed V6 engines. They were taken for testing at Lauzering, received the green light to go racing but never made it to a starting grid. Two of the three cars survived, while the one above hasn’t turned a wheel since that test session back in 1993. Shame.
You may think these cars have nothing in common. They do. On the left is a DKW touring sedan, which ruled racing from 1963 -69 – just like the Le Mans prototypes sitting next to it have done in the current era.
Leaving a lot of room under that DKW bonnet is a 95bhp, two-stroke engine. Even so, during the 1966 six-hour race on Nurburgring, the DKW was timed through Nordschleife’s fearsome Foxhole at 130mph. Which must’ve felt… bracing.
In recent years, Audi’s motorsport fame has been firmly centred on endurance racing.
Twelve wins in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 12-hour race at Sebring, nine American Le Mans Series titles, and now also World Endurance Champions: no other automobile manufacturer has shaped the sports-prototype scene in the last decade like Audi. In fact, the team has only failed to win five of the 16 Le Mans it has entered.
It started with Audi Sport boss Wolfgang Ullrich evaluating the endurance programme in 1998, a session that spawned a new racing car, the R8.
It’s the one third from the right above, powered by a 3,600cc twin-turbo V8 petrol engine and has 610bhp. But it wasn’t a winner from the off: when Audi tackled Le Mans for the first time in 1999, they could only scramble third and fourth at La Sarthe.
The next year the domination began. In 2000, Audi ended with a one-two-three victory, followed by a one-two the year after. A one-two-three victory after that. And a first, third and fourth places the year after that. You get the picture.
You wouldn’t think it, but drivers actually prefer open-top cars at Le Mans. Apart from the natual air-conditioning, visibility is improved in the rain, while scalping a coupe gives a 20-second advantage in the pits compared to the hardtop equivalent.
However, as incidents like the one Alan McNish experienced in 2011 prove, they aren’t as safe. That’s why now all top-flight LMP1 cars require the driver to have a roof over their head.
In 2006, Audi successfully shook up the racing rulebook once more with the R10 TDI, the first Le Mans prototype with a V12 diesel.
This efficient, brutally torquey motor allowed Audi to cross the line first and third in 2006, writing a new chapter in motor racing history. The R10 TDI won in 2007 and 2008, too, in the latter race stretching a lead of over four minutes after completing 381 laps of the circuit.
2009 brought an evolution in the shape the ten-cylinder diesel R15, which turned out to be just as successful. So has the R18 that leap-frogged the R15. That car pushes electrical power on the front wheels – bringing Quattro to the tarmac once again.
V6 TDI. One air restrictor in the middle. This is what an R18’s heart looks like, folks.
All different shapes and sizes, all genuine gamechangers.
This is Emanuele Pirro’s 80 quattro, entered into the Italian National series. It won the championship, obviously.
A lot of the cars in the shed are used at events like Goodwood Festival of Speed. Which means lots of spares are needed. Especially tyres for the ISMA GTO. Thanks to its 720bhp output, it has a horrible habit of leaving thick, rubbery lines on the road for the fans.