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The Audi Story, Part 1: The Birth of Vorsprung durch Racing

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Audi quattro claiming victory in the World Rally Championship for Manufacturers, 1982
Credit: Audi Motorsport

Audi has been a staple in the motorsport world since the start of the 1900s, when motorsport was refining itself into the sport we all know and love today. Since 1906, Audi’s could be found racing in different categories and under different banners, bringing mountains of success to the four-ringed brand. But the story of Audi’s racing heritage really begins in 1978, with the Audi quattro dashing onto the scenes and really showing the manufacturer meant business.

In 1969, Auto Union – an amalgamation of four German automobile manufacturers founded in 1932 – and NSU – German manufacturer of automobiles, motorcycles and pedal cycles founded in 1873 – were acquired by the Volkswagen Group and merged to create the Audi brand that we know and love today. This moment marked the start of Audi Motorsport, rich with the successes of their predecessors Auto Union and NSU, but ready to start taking victories in their own rights.

The Audi quattro was a car like no other, a defining moment that the German brand was serious about racing under the Audi banner and were not taking part for a gimmick. With the merger came the establishment of the Audi Sport department that would run and manage all motorsport commitments for the brand. It took the team three years to prepare, but it was three years well spent. On debut, the Audi quattro took to the Monte Carlo Rally, 1981, and driver Hannu Mikkola managed to overtake Lancia Stratos, a driver who has started the first stage a minute ahead of Mikkola. But it was the second race of the World Rally Championship that showed just how competitive the quattro was when Mikkola took the marques first Rally victory at the Swedish Rally.

The original Audi quattro racing in the snow at the Rally Monte Carlo
Credit: Audi Motorsport

1981 was a historic year for Audi Sport in rallying; Mikkola finished their first championship third with second driver Michele Mouton taking eighth in the overall standings and becoming the first woman to ever win a rally at the Rallye Sanremo. The team finished fifth in the overall manufacturer standings with three rally victories and four podium appearances, already with their eyes set on the top step.

1982 brought joy and heartbreak to the Audi Sport rally programme, with the elation of securing their first Manufacturers’ Rally Championship but narrowly missing out on the Drivers’ title with Mouton. Mouton secured three rally victories throughout the season, but bad luck struck in the penultimate rally of the year, causing her to lose a minute to her championship rival due to repairs and lost the Drivers’ Championship by 12 points. It was the emerging of success for Audi, however, for in comparison to their three wins and four podium appearances from one year earlier, they finished the 1982 season as Manufacturer Champions by 12 points, with seven victories and 12 podium appearances.

The next two years of rallying brought more successes to the German marque, with 1983 delivering their first Drivers’ Championship for Mikkola and 1984 seeing them once again take first place in the Manufacturers’ Championship. Within the space of four years, Audi had entered the rallying fray and shown they were not only capable of building a competitive racing machine but a dominant one. The quattro still remains to this day one of Audi’s most successful race cars, and became the foundation of their further racing developments.

Audi Quattro racing to Audi's second Rally Manufacturers' Championship 1984
Credit: Audi Motorsport

By 1986, 23 World Championship Rallies had been won by Audi quattros, with four titles secured for drivers and the team. Audi had also moved to the USA to take on the Pike Peaks hill climb which they successful won three times in a row, snatching a record time of sub 11 minutes in the hands of Walter Rohrl. With all these successes in their pocket, the German marque turned its sights to circuit racing, and developed the Audi 200 quattro in 1988 to take part in the Trans-Am Series. They continued to develop their circuit-racing car, turning their attention to this new vein of racing, moving through the Audi 90 quattro IMSA-GTO in 1989 to land on the Audi V8 quattro in 1990. The DTM era for Audi started in 1990 where, just as they had in rallying, they started as they intended to go on, securing two championship titles in their first two years with the new V8.

Successes came fast and thick for Audi during the 90s, with the Audi A4 coming as a dominant force in the Super Touring Car competition for production-based cars. It took two championship titles in 1990/91, following this up with victories of the same championship in seven different countries during 1996. This successes paved the way for Audi to climb the sportscar ladder, establishing themselves as a team that came into new championships with news cars and a taste for champagne, more often than not fighting for wins during their first year of a new discipline.

Come back to TheCheckeredFlag tomorrow for our second instalment of The Audi Story: The Dominant 2000s.

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The Checkered Flag’s correspondent for the FIA World Endurance Championship. Working in motorsport as a hobby and as a professional, Alice is a freelance digital communications manager, video editor and graphic designer at OrbitSphere. She also runs and manages her own YouTube channel - Circuit The World - with videos on gaming, travel, motorsports and reviews.
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