The DTM world is not that exciting for the folk in Formula 1, but in recent days there have been some goings-on that could have some impact in Grand Prix racing. These relate to an incident a month ago when the DTM visited the Red Bull Ring. Mercedes driver Robert Wickens was running in sixth place and was busy blocking Audi’s Timo Scheider, in an effort to allow his own team-mate Pascal Wehrlein to catch up with them. Wickens then engineered a manoeuvre that resulted in Wehrlein being able to sneak through and pass both of them at the same time, leaving Scheider behind the two Mercs. At this point a voice came on Scheider’s radio and said “Schrieb ihn raus!”, which when translated from German means “Take him off!” The driver obeyed the order, presumably recognising the voice on the other end of the radio as being someone who should be obeyed. He duly bumped into Wickens and punted him into Wehrlein and the two Mercedes went off, Scheider took the place… However, this was rather an upsetting thing for Mercedes and there were duly complaints and the stewards investigated and it emerged that the words had been spoken by Audi motorsport boss Wolfgang Ullrich. This was not cricket. Ullrich eventually confirmed that he had said the words, but used the unlikely defence that he was unaware that his radio was transmitting to the drivers and that he had said the words in a passionate moment, never for one minute ever dreaming that such a dastardly act would come to pass. It was a pretty lame defence and the stewards recognised this and passed the incident on to the DMSB, Germany’s national sporting authority, asking them to look into the behaviour of those involved. Audi was found guilty of “unsportsmanlike behaviour”, fined €200,000 and has had its manufacturer points from the race taken away. Scheider was banned from competing in the Moscow DTM race, while Ullrich has been banned from the DTM pitlane for the rest of the season.
So what does all of this have to do with Formula 1?
Well, on the surface, not a lot. Wehrlein is the blue-eyed boy at Mercedes and there is talk that he will go to a Mercedes-engined team in F1 next year, but this is not the point of interest.
Ullrich was 65 years old last week (and probably had a rotten birthday). Sixty-five is retirement age in lots of countries and the Red Bull Ring incident casts a dark shadow over the achievements during his 21 and a half years in charge of Audi Sport. This has included 13 Le Mans victories. Now, with a rampant Porsche in WEC, a new boss at the top of the Volkswagen Group, Audi’s sporting future is anything but settled. The departure of Ullrich – which would be entirely understandable in the circumstances – would open the way for new ideas and there are more than a few people at Audi who have watched the Mercedes efforts in F1 and think that their company should be in Grand Prix racing, reviving the old rivalry between Mercedes and AutoUnion (Audi’s forefather). If Ullrich is shovelled out of the way as a result of this faux pas in DTM, things could change in Ingolstadt.
Let us not forget that while all this is going on, Red Bull Racing is whining and griping about having to go on using Renault F1 engines for 2016. There is a contract in place, but it is clear that Red Bull does not think Renault is going to improve much next year and Dietrich Mateschitz is grumbling that F1 is no fun at all when you are not winning. Bernie Ecclestone and the suits who follow in his wake are worried that Red Bull might walk away and so is busy trying to talk Mercedes into giving Red Bull its race-winning engines. In the longer term that makes little sense. Some argue that the people who drink Red Bull will all instantly be convinced that Mercedes is cool and will hang up their skateboards, turn their caps the right way round and go and buy themselves a $75,000 Mercedes. The downside is a little more realistic. If someone sticks a Mercedes engine in a Red Bull, there is a serious worry that Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg might get beaten and that would make whoever agreed to the deal look like a real drongo. Whereupon the Great Moustache from Stuttgart will descend, boots flailing, because it will obviously not have been his idea.
The option is for someone to sneak in to Audi and point out the patently obvious: there is a topline F1 team begging for engines, who will help finance engine development. Audi might like doing things in-house, but this is a gift horse and you don’t need to be a dentist to see the potential. Later on, when they have found their feet, perhaps they can launch an Audi factory team, but the key thing now would be to gain a foothold. Audi is certainly in a position to handle such a project. They have plenty of hybrid experience and it would be amazing if the company had not played around a little with some of the F1 ideas in recent years. They also have a chap called Stefano Domenicali working at Ingolstadt and he knows a thing or two about making F1 teams work. He has a very useful contact book and could easily manage an Audi F1 engine programme. Could it be done in time for 2017? Possibly… that rather depends on what machinery they have at Ingolstadt. It is the kind of brave move that a man close to retirement would not embark upon, but if the man close to retirement is no longer there and there is a 52-year-old Audi boss who might one day want to run the whole VW empire, one can see that nothing is impossible.
This is all speculation, of course, but someone in Ingolstadt must be thinking along these lines…