The end of an era: at age 67, Audi’s longstanding head of motorsport, Wolfgang Ullrich, is going to retire. Join us for a brief look back at a unique career
Ullrich was head of motorsport at Audi for 23 years before handing over the reins to his successor, Dieter Gass, at the beginning of the 2017 season: 23 years in which Ullrich led the four rings from one success to another in motorsport.
In November 1993 the native of Vienna took over the reins of Audi Sport. Due to the difficult economic conditions at the time Audi’s motorsport programme was on shaky ground. Ullrich, nevertheless, was ultimately given the green light for starting with super touring cars in Germany and Italy on a relatively small scale. As a result, he experienced his first race as head of sport at Monza in April 1994, the first victory at Vallelunga a week later and, at the end of the season, the first ‘Superturismo’ championship title as well.
The ban imposed on quattro indirectly prompted Audi to venture the major step from circuit racing with production-based cars into the prototype category. Following the super touring car era, the brand tackled the challenge of endurance racing with the 24 Hours of Le Mans as its ‘crown jewel’. In 1999, its first race at Le Mans, the marque instantly achieved a podium, followed by its first victory a year later. The Audi R8 dominated the sportscar scene from 2000 to 2005, celebrating 63 victories in 80 racing commitments during this period. From 2001 on a TFSI engine was used in these events. Today, the combination of turbocharging and direct injection is standard technology in Audi production cars.
The Audi R10 TDI, the first diesel-powered racing car to triumph in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, was arguably the boldest project to have been tackled under Wolfgang Ullrich’s direction. When Audi approached the suppliers with this idea they responded with scepticism, but eventually recognised the potential of the project and helped to make motorsport history. The squad not only had to get the V12 engine off the ground but also develop a car that met the unique requirements of the TDI engine. Even today Ullrich refers to the feat of having developed this concept to the level of being in contention for victory within a short space of time as ‘a dream come true’.
With the Audi R18 e-tron quattro Audi in 2012 achieved another milestone under the direction of Wolfgang Ullrich. It was the first hybrid racing car to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans – an amazing three times in succession. Audi’s 13th and, for the time being, last triumph at Le Mans in 2014 against extremely powerful competition from Porsche and Toyota tasted particularly sweet.
In parallel to the sports prototype programme Audi under the direction of Wolfgang Ullrich in the 2014 season returned to the DTM with a factory-backed commitment following a twelve-year absence. This meant that at Audi Sport two major projects were being run simultaneously for the first time – and with success. In 2004 Mattias Ekström in the Audi A4 DTM instantly became champion, followed in 2007, 2008 and 2009 by the first hat-trick in DTM history. Even after the introduction of a new generation of DTM racing cars in the 2012 season Audi remained the manufacturer to be beaten in the DTM. In the Ullrich era Audi won 60 DTM races and six driver titles, but the withdrawal of all cars at Barcelona in 2007 following unfair attacks by competitors and the ‘push him out’ incident at Spielberg in 2015 will always be associated with him as well.
Audi’s motorsport programme rested on the two pillars of sports prototypes and the DTM up until the 2008 season. In 2009 customer racing was added as a third pillar. Audi, for the first time, developed a racing car specifically for customer sport commitments: the Audi R8 LMS GT3. The Audi Sport customer racing organisation was built up under the direction of Wolfgang Ullrich before today’s Audi Sport GmbH assumed responsibility for the project.
By establishing the Competence Center Motorsport in Neuburg an der Donau Wolfgang Ullrich may have created something of even greater importance than by achieving the many victories at Le Mans or in the DTM. He invested 20 years of work in making the motorsport department future-proof and creating perfect working conditions for the staff. In winter 2014-2015 the squad moved from the former supermarket on Roderstraße in Ingolstadt into a new modern facility in Neuburg. There his successor, Dieter Gass, has optimum prerequisites for continuing Audi’s success story in motorsport.
For 23 years and two months Wolfgang Ullrich was head of motorsport at Audi. In 566 factory-backed commitments during this period he celebrated 209 victories, 13 of them in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, eleven in the 12-hour race at Sebring and nine in the ‘Petit Le Mans’ at Road Atlanta. 31 driver titles in super touring car racing, in the DTM and in the sports prototype category are credited to him. 57 campaigners were Audi factory drivers during Wolfgang Ullrich’s era and he was responsible for 18 new developments of racing cars – an impressive tally.