Audi Sport boss: ‘In the future, we’ll make a car that is raw’

This year, Stephan Winkelmann left Lamborghini to head up Audi’s Quattro division. Only his job title changed immediately, because the team responsible for the R8 and RS models was renamed Audi Sport. We chat to him about what this means, and what we can expect from fast Audis in the future…

TG: So ‘Audi Sport’ is the big news, a name change from Quattro. Is it a change of mentality as well?

SW: It’s a bit early to say so, but motorsport is the DNA of Audi Sport. So it was an easy pick. And in my opinion a company which shares its name with the four-wheel-drive system which is famous for Audi was a bit misleading. I think this is the right move.

We always have to think about if we want to do an RS model with every Audi that comes to the market. Or if we want to go more for exclusivity.

On the one hand there’s volumes, visibility, maybe faster return on investment, but with the risk that you overexpose the brand. Audi Sport should have value as a ‘lighthouse’ for the rest of the range. Given this, I think exclusivity is the way to go.

You have very characterful five- and ten-cylinder engines. What sort of life do they have in them?

We are currently very good with higher rev engines, but we have to start thinking about what is coming next. Sustainability, as sad as it might be for the car enthusiast or the performance car enthusiast, has to be in place and we have to reinvent ourselves.

In the future it will not be “is there a sustainable sports car or not?”, but “I’m only going to buy a sports car if it’s also sustainable”. This is a must in the future so we have to think about it, and we have to look what we can do to redefine sportiness with sustainable cars.

And sustainability is a very wide range of opportunities. We have to be sure about what we’re going to do, and where we are going to put our money. And there’s not a lot of that, something I’m used to from my previous job!

Are you led by Audi in what you should make an RS product, or is that your decision?

Today there are cars like the RS6 Avant, which for everybody is the definition of an RS model. But it’s a very European car, and we’re looking at making global products.

So we have to rethink these things, also. It’s not that I’m saying that we are going to stop doing what we do best, but we have to think twice where we are investing in the future.

Audi, yes, they have to approve what we propose, because they are our mother company and therefore they have the right to say yes or no. But first of all we have to be clear in what we want in terms of strategy.

The RS6 will survive, though, surely?

Everything has to be thought about, but for me the RS6 is amazing. I love it, I drive it, I drove it also when I was in charge of Lamborghini. It was my daily car. I am a big fan of it.

If you’re going more global with the products, does that mean more SUVs?

SUVs are a growing segment, also in the sport car segment. And it’s also, frankly speaking, an approach which is maybe easier for making people understand that sportiness can also be something different. And with an SUV the weight is not as important as for a car like an R8.

In the future if you’re going to have an R8, which is not as capable as the R8 of today – perhaps around the corners it’s not as quick –  maybe you have to explain it to people a bit more. In terms of the cars of the future, they have to be compared within the future, not within what we are doing today.

The Porsche 911 R is an example of a very analogue sports car. Do you have a place for a rival?

It’s always a temptation. But the 911 is more than a car. It’s a brand, it has fifty-plus years of history. So whatever they do is successful. But I know it from my previous job that a manual gearbox is for very few people. For us, it’s important that we invest in something which is promising success but also looking forward.

I can imagine, for example, that we’re going with the mainstream with most of the cars in one direction, but at one point in the future we make a car which is raw. Raw and very basic in terms of technology, a car which is giving you the last kick for the last time, maybe in the history of the automotive business.

But you have always to check and balance if you have one euro to put down or one pound, where do you put this money? But this is clear. This is one of the things which is now close to my heart. But also to the people working together with me. I’m not the only one. And it has to be something in the region of a two-seater.

How does life at Audi compare to Lamborghini?

I would say that the daily meetings and double-checks are higher than in a company which was also located far away. All the functions here have a double-link to Audi. It’s clear because the base car is developed in Audi for the Audi ‘A’ models. So for us we have to be really involved in the early phase when there’s the white piece of paper. This is paramount for the cost and also for the success of the cars.

Are there opportunities for Audi Sport in other racing disciplines?

Yeah, for sure, you have to see what new trends are coming up in racing. People tend to have a time of attention which is shorter than a minute, usually. So if you have races which are very long this is very difficult to watch on TV. The viewer side is what is interesting: how can you satisfy them?

With the R8 there is opportunity in more than one segment. So the GT3 is one of them, but there can be much more and we are looking into that. One idea can be a one-make race series. This is something which is good for getting awareness, and for the family feeling of a brand. I experienced this first with Lamborghini. We never expected the success with that [the Super Trofeo series].

The latest RS3 has 400bhp, which is quite a lot for a small saloon car. Are there still power wars between RS, AMG and M Division?

We have to focus on what we want and why we are doing it. What I learned in my time in the car business – we talked about it earlier today, it’s almost twenty-four years – is that you have to really have a vision and to focus on what you want to do next. Then you will be a leader and not one who is always looking right and left. Because by the time you look right and left, the other ones are in front of you.

Finally, we’re all fascinated by the beard. Is it new facial hair for your new job?

No, I also had it last year! I had it last year for three months. It’s always during the summer because then I get lazy, too lazy to shave. It has nothing to do with my new life!