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