x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

No rain on Audi's parade

Not even very wet weather could dampen the spirits of the crowd gathered to celebrate the brand's 100th birthday.


Surrounded by the green patchwork of the Bavarian countryside, with quaint rural houses and historic buildings melding into modern apartment blocks, Ingolstadt does not feel like a typical factory town. There is no grim industrial realism here. Instead, the Audi factory sits in the middle of an affluent town, not far from Munich, the Bavarian capital. Munich makes it abundantly clear it is the home of BMW with arty Beemer advertisements screening on the airport luggage carousels and a massive model of a BMW grille growling engine noises at passers-by after they've collected their suitcases, but Ingolstadt is all about Audi. Even the dented estate car that pulls the ball-collecting machine at the plush golf club's driving range is a mesh-covered Audi A4. Thirty-thousand people are employed at the factory, a significant proportion of the population of 121,800, and on the night of July 17, it seemed they were all on hand to celebrate Audi's centenary. A street-facing open area, the Audi Piazza, attached to the factory became an outdoor concert venue with popular German band Die Fantastischen Vier playing to an enthusiastic crowd. Literally translated as "The Fantastic Four", the band is best described as a German version of the Beastie Boys and they took to a heavily Audi-branded stage backed by a 60-piece orchestra. This turned out to be no bad thing.

While they rapped and rocked in German, the performance was interspersed with samples that have a more global appeal - the sounds of Destiny's Child and a hint of Rage Against The Machine, sung on helium, worked better than one might fear. The crowd went wild and by the next morning, fans had posted videos of the concert on YouTube. With just 15 minutes of the concert to go, the band and orchestra had to suddenly pack up after a light, atmospheric drizzle turned into a violent downpour and the expensive equipment and instruments needed shelter.

The following day, the celebrations continued in Ingolstadt, as did the rain. This time, there was no need for musical accompaniment as 100 years worth of engines provided the soundtrack for the day's proceedings. With much precision, different groups of cars from different eras of the company's history appeared on the Donauring, Ingolstadt's street circuit. The groups included classic cars from an Audi club, rally cars from the 1980s, DTM German touring car and STW Super Touring Car racers and early F1 cars and they made multiple appearances on the circuit on a timed-to-the-minute schedule. The 1980s rally cars and the classics inspired the loudest cheers from the crowd but there were also plenty of admirers for the modern machines, namely the Audi R8 and R10 TDI that were victorious at Le Mans and the Audi R15 TDI prototype, which made its public debut at the birthday celebrations.

A family crowd was attracted to the day, with plenty of children and dogs milling around, as well as grown-up car lovers lining the circuit for the parades, undeterred by the gloomy weather. Between parades, the cars were in a marquee where everyone could get up close to the cars, as well as a few well-known drivers. Walter Rohrl, one the rally world's greats and a two-time winner of the World Rally Championship, took to the circuit in the Audi quattro S1 'Pikes Peak' in which he achieved great success in 1987. When he wasn't driving the circuit, he was treated like a rock star and mobbed by rally obsessives. In the car park, a rare 1980s Audi quattro Roadstar was spotted, resplendent in red with Rohrl's autograph in silver ink on the steering wheel.

Scotland's Allan McNish, an Audi Le Mans driver since 2000, a two-time Le Mans winner and former Toyota F1 driver, drove a Le Mans competition car as well as an Auto Union Type D with twin supercharger. "Audi Racing is a business, just like any other racing team, but they think differently and it is set apart from others by the passion of the people," says McNish. "and they have always been innovators - they were the first to take diesel to Le Mans, to make that technology work."

McNish is also quick to praise the hands-on involvement of management in Audi's racing. "During the Le Mans programme, senior people from Audi were in the garage, not drinking champagne in the hospitality tents - not many big manufacturers do that," he says. While he has no immediate plans to race Audis in the UAE, McNish says the Middle East will continue to be more important in motorsport, especially with the forthcoming Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

"There are events like the Dubai 24-hour race, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi Grand Prix - it is building up quite well," he says, adding that he would be interested in a sports car series in the Gulf. Having worked under the management of Richard Cregan, general manager for Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management, in his time at Toyota, McNish says the capital's first Grand Prix is in very safe hands. "People don't appreciate how difficult his job is and he has a short track to make it successful rather than a long period to cultivate local talent, but if anyone can do it, he can."

Dr Theophil Hey, meanwhile, is a racing driver of a far more genteel persuasion. The proud owner of an immaculate red 1963 DKW F12 modified two-door saloon, the four rings of Audi proudly shining from the grille. Dr Hey, a 67-year-old family medical doctor, has owned the car since 2004 and says the car is a part of him. "It is like my clothes," he says. "I am complete when I am in my car." Complete with a roll cage, the DKW has been gutted inside so it only contains one seat. "It is fantastic to drive, for me it's not hard, it is a pleasure," he says, demonstrating the four-speed manual transmission operated by a gear-stick on the steering column.

Dr Hey started racing in 1961 as a 19-year-old. "It was an open two-seater car and it was a hill climb," he recalls. The DKW, with a top speed of 170kph, has been driven on most major European tracks, such as Nürburgring as well as Ingolstadt's Donauring, in classic car races. It was lovingly transported by trailer to Ingolstadt from Dr Hey's hometown near Hanover, some 560km away. "I got an invitation from Audi, it's necessary to go, I told my wife," he laughs. "She is as interested in cars as a woman normally is."

Not all cars on show were from the Audi factories. As the distinctive splutter-and-purr of 1980s rally cars cut through the air, Wolfgang Jagle was talking enthusiastically about his two-seater Fiat 508. He was invited by Audi to bring his red machine along to the Audi celebrations because it won the first race in 1949 on the Donauring circuit, with Josef Kulze at the wheel. "My family is well-known with the Audi people, that is why we were invited," says Jagle as he fastidiously polished rain water off the bonnet.

The 508 has been owned by the Jagle family since 1952 and three years ago it was restored to its former glory, right down to the red leather seats. By the end of the day, there were still plenty of people milling around the marquee, wanting to be photographed with everything from the latest R8 to the old classics such as the pretty white NSU Wankel Spider and the Type C and Type D Silver Arrows racers from the 1930s. The simple layout of the Silver Arrows with just a couple of dials, a giant steering wheel, three pedals and a gearstick showed just how far top level racing cars have progressed since the early days.

The enthusiasm for Audi in Ingolstadt was obvious - and not surprising as the factory is the lifeblood of this pretty pocket of Germany. Excellently maintained Audis of all ages could be seen parked all over the town, as well as those that took part in the parades. Audi reported a 12.3 per cent global sales increase at the end of last year and while there has been a Q1 profit drop this year, the company still had plenty to celebrate at the 100th birthday event.

Allan McNish sums up the many facets of the Audi business. "The racing team is focused on testing and development which is the less glamorous side of things, but it is still important - and I get to blast one of the most technically advanced cars on the race track for a living," he says. "Oh, and they make a nice road car too." glewis@thenational.ae