THE MAN WITH THE PLAN

He made Lam­borgh­ini more Ger­man, and now he’s aim­ing to make Audi more Ital­ian – and give BMW a bloody nose while he’s at it

CAR (UK) - - Car Interactive - Words Phil McNa­mara |

There’s an ele­phant in the Audi Sport meet­ing room. Stephan Winkel­mann has been talk­ing for 20 min­utes when I make my first at­tempt to tackle the sub­ject that so many car en­thu­si­asts raise when talk turns to Audi. You know the one: RS cars may have en­gines that could get a Dream­liner air­borne and qual­ity to shame Fabergé, but they just haven’t han­dled sweetly enough. So I ven­ture this: ‘What’s your assess­ment of to­day’s RS range, good and not so good?’

‘I will not tell you what’s not good!’ re­sponds Audi Sport’s CEO, laugh­ing deeply. There are a lot of chuck­les and warmth when you talk to Stephan Winkel­mann, the Ger­man na­tional who grew up in Rome, learned the game at Fiat Auto, then ran Lam­borgh­ini. ‘There are things I like not as much as oth­ers. In gen­eral I think the prod­uct line-up is mag­nif­i­cent. We have the cars, and the en­gi­neers, the peo­ple work­ing in Audi Sport are en­thu­si­as­tic.’

That pre­vi­ous life – Lam­borgh­ini CEO for a decade – isn’t so far re­moved from Winkel­mann’s lat­est role, thanks to the shared hard­ware be­tween his new R8 flag­ship and the Lam­borgh­ini Hu­ra­can, their joint em­brace of GT3 rac­ing, and both or­gan­i­sa­tions’ po­si­tions be­neath the Audi group um­brella. And 15 months into his new role, the 52-year-old ex­ec­u­tive is do­ing what he did at Lam­borgh­ini: fine-tun­ing the or­gan­i­sa­tion, shap­ing the brand and its strat­egy, lay­ing out the prod­uct plan.

His first big move was to change the sub­sidiary’s name, from qu­at­tro GmbH to Audi Sport. ‘We had qu­at­tro as a name; qu­at­tro is, for me, an op­tion – one of the DNA of Audi AG, like the alu­minium frame, four-wheel drive, the five-cylin­der en­gine – but it was not rep­re­sent­ing what we needed to have,’ says Winkel­mann, his Ital­ian-ac­cented voice croaky in the early morn­ing. He opted for Audi Sport ‘which was bits and pieces ev­ery­where but mainly re­lated to car rac­ing’. And that, cru­cially, pro­vides a link to the cred­i­bil­ity and her­itage of the 1930s Auto Union era, 1980s rally and Pikes Peak land­marks, 1990s tour­ing car highs and 2000s Le Mans mo­nop­oly. Winkel­mann’s key era is, for the record, the ’80s: ‘The Ur-Qu­at­tro, the rally suc­cess, that was the car that made the change in per­cep­tions [about Audi].’

Audi Sport com­prises four ar­eas: the RS and R road cars; cus­tomer rac­ing; Ex­clu­sive, which lav­ishly trims top Audi mod­els; and the Col­lec­tion of ap­parel and mer­chan­dise. Also shar­ing this site in Neuburg an der Donau are the fac­tory rac­ing ef­forts – DTM and the start-up For­mula E team – but they fall un­der the re­mit of Di­eter Gass, head of mo­tor­sport.

The RS cars are Audi Sport’s bread and but­ter, and Winkel­mann and his team have a clearly defined view of the range’s fun­da­men­tals: sporty cars that you can drive ev­ery day, with comfort, qual­ity and safety. ‘I’m not look­ing for the best per­for­mance or high­est top speed, this is not in my opin­ion the DNA of the cars we have on the road to­day. I’m not look­ing into pimped-up cars, I’m not look­ing at cars which are just raw, I’m look­ing [for] a per­fect bal­ance.’

I ask about han­dling again. ‘We’ve of­ten crit­i­cised how RS cars re­spond: can you make the cars feel lighter, more dy­namic and en­gag­ing, more emo­tional?’

‘I can just talk about what we are do­ing now and what I see. The RS3 in com­par­i­son with the pre­de­ces­sor, it’s a car which is re­ally giv­ing you this sense of eas­i­ness and light­ness,’ an­swers the CEO. The lighter RS3 was the first new launch on Winkel­mann’s watch: it now sends at least 50% of its torque rear­wards and in ex­tremis 100%, and has a tail that’s happy to break trac­tion. ‘Does that mean you’re turn­ing up the fun?’

‘Yeah! Where it’s pos­si­ble, we do it! And for sure with cars in this seg­ment, the TT and the RS3, we surely did it and we want to do im­prove­ments wher­ever we can.’ En­cour­ag­ing – al­though Winkel­mann caveats that he will not over-prom­ise, as au­ton­o­mous tech­nol­ogy will in­escapably start to push up kerb­weights again. He re­peat­edly de­scribes Audi Sport as small – even though sales grew by al­most 20% last year to pass 20,000 units. Next up we ex­pect the RS5 cabri­o­let at Septem­ber’s Frank­furt show, but will an RS4 Avant or RS Q5 fol­low? Don’t think Winkel­mann is merely go­ing to copy and paste the old prod­uct plan. ‘We have her­itage in prod­ucts like the Avants. What is weak in my opin­ion, we are mov­ing too slow in seg­ments which are key for the fu­ture.’ In­evitably, that means RS SUVs. ‘I’m not hav­ing Q [mod­els] to­day. In the SUVs is where we need to go: we are putting our money there and they will come.’

This is a key part of the strat­egy, which will surely lead to more record sales. Winkel­mann be­lieves the re­liance on the ex­press-es­tate for­mula has stunted growth: he de­scribes Audi Sport as too Europe-cen­tric, with up to 60% of sales in its home con­ti­nent. Glob­al­i­sa­tion is crit­i­cal: the new chief wants to build on the RS’s foothold in North Amer­ica, and ex­pand in the Mid­dle East and Asia. Winkel­mann talks in front of a wall dec­o­rated with an out­line of the Ma­cau cir­cuit, but the Nür­bur­gring Nord­schleife map dom­i­nat­ing the show­room below mea­sures three times the size. How sym­bolic.

Two cars fill this area: a ‘trans­former’ that’s part R8 road car, part R8 LMS GT3 race car, and the RS3 LMS TCR built for in­ter­na­tional tour­ing car rac­ing. Audi has de­liv­ered more than 200 R8 rac­ers in the eight years since start­ing cam­paign­ing it, and won dozens of races. In con­trast, the ju­nior tour­ing car is the first ever RS racer, be­gin­ning its in­au­gu­ral year. I ask if he’s driven it. Winkel­mann jokes: ‘I drove the GT3, not this one: it’s too slow!’

An English team took de­liv­ery of the first TCR; it will com­pete in North Amer­ica and Asia too. ‘It’s a huge field so you can do a lot. And if we win, and the car’s shape is [mostly] dif­fer­ent from the oth­ers, this is giv­ing you the op­por­tu­nity to stand out from the crowd.’ Strate­gi­cally, Audi Sport fet­tled the sa­loon bodystyle popular in those mar­kets, rather than the Sport­back’s.

Cus­tomer rac­ing is a profit gen­er­a­tor and crit­i­cal mar­ket­ing tool. ‘We want to win. That’s why we are in mo­tor­sport, we are al­ways set­ting the bar higher for our­selves and com­pe­ti­tion is al­ways good. It gives you a lot of vis­i­bil­ity in the so­cial me­dia, it gives you Audi Sport cars and race cars. GT rac­ing is very close to the street-le­gal cars: im­me­di­ately recog­nis­ing what you have on the4

There’s a clear sig­nal that there will be a rear-drive R8 at a lower price

race­track and what you sit in with a street-le­gal car is para­mount for suc­cess.’

While the R8 is a colos­sus in GT3, its road­go­ing ver­sion has not posted sim­i­lar com­mer­cial suc­cess: Porsche de­liv­ers more 911s in a good year than Audi man­aged in the R8 Mk1’s en­tire life cy­cle. Can Winkel­mann help the R8 achieve the sales its dy­namic bril­liance mer­its?

‘You put the fin­ger where it hurts! We are do­ing 3000-plus cars a year, there are not many mid-en­gined cars that are do­ing the same amount, and not be­ing a high-end su­per­sports car man­u­fac­turer – in these terms we’re do­ing a per­fect job. It’s clear that we are work­ing on the op­por­tu­ni­ties of hav­ing more de­riv­a­tives, where you can en­joy the dif­fer­ent types of driv­ing ap­proach.’

That’s a clear sig­nal that Winkel­mann will repli­cate what worked so well with the Hu­ra­can LP580-2: re­move the front-drive el­e­ment and drop the price. So I ask: ‘Does that mean not all R and RS cars have to be qu­at­tro?’

‘On the RS I think that we will al­ways con­tinue, there is no idea of cut­ting this. On the R8 I see that dif­fer­ently, as we did also at Lam­borgh­ini. With the R8 there is more than only the four-wheel drive sys­tem.’

Winkel­mann has three of­fices: one here in Neuburg, an­other at Neckar­sulm which houses some RS de­vel­op­ment and pro­duc­tion, and one in Audi’s In­gol­stadt HQ. That’s where he spends most work time, al­though he very much re­gards Italy as home. Sadly down­town Bologna is to­tally im­prac­ti­cal for keep­ing an Aven­ta­dor. That car is – so far – his ca­reer high­light. ‘This was the car which changed the life in Lam­borgh­ini [help­ing it bounce back from the fi­nan­cial cri­sis], we did it from scratch to launch, all the de­riv­a­tives.’

Af­ter more than a decade, wasn’t it a huge emo­tional wrench to leave Lam­borgh­ini? ‘Yes, it was,’ laughs Winkel­mann warmly, the emo­tion ap­par­ent in his voice. ‘It was a great time. If you have the op­por­tu­nity to do the job for a longer pe­riod of time than nor­mal in the in­dus­try, you cre­ate a bond be­tween you and the peo­ple; they’re not col­leagues, they’re friends. That’s what I miss the most.’

This is one of the few times I lose eye con­tact with the CEO as his gaze turns to the win­dows that look over the im­mac­u­lately spaced or­na­men­tal grass that bor­der the cus­tomer driv­ing cen­tre’s race­track. In the dis­tance, RS cars are slid­ing around the wet-han­dling cir­cuit, seem­ingly in silent slow mo­tion.

‘But you should not look back too much; you have to look for­ward, you live in the present,’ Winkel­mann states em­phat­i­cally.

So what learn­ings from Lam­borgh­ini will help drive Audi Sport for­ward?

‘Be­ing small is tough on the one side, but it also gives you a lot of dis­ci­pline. The dis­ci­pline I learned in Lam­borgh­ini I can [carry] over: if you’re small you have to con­stantly re­peat the same mes­sages be­cause oth­er­wise you re­ally lose fo­cus in front of the pub­lic and also in­ter­nally,’ says Winkel­mann. ‘It’s [tempt­ing to] change your mind of­ten be­cause this world is not easy to han­dle, there­fore it’s re­ally im­por­tant that you main­tain the prom­ises over the years.

‘What I also learned in a very pos­i­tive way: the peo­ple are mak­ing the difference. If you have the right peo­ple who are pas­sion­ate and look­ing in the same di­rec­tion – if you can make them run, then you will be suc­cess­ful.’

Pho­tog­ra­phy An­drew Shay­lor

Map of the ’Ring on the wall gives sub­lim­i­nal en­cour­age­ment to re­lent­lessly pool road and race DNA

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