September 29, 2001

Fifteen Minutes with Len Hunt

At various events and shows throughout the year the AudiWorld staff gets the opportunity to spend time with Audi of America management, including VP Len Hunt. Earlier this year we put aside casual conversation and conducted a formal interview.

AW - First off, congratulations on hitting the numbers for last year.

LH - Yeah, well that was big for us. You know 74,061 in '85 was the high mark, now with 80,372, which is 21 percent growth for us.

It was a great year, and not only in volumes. I am going to mention Canada as well, where we sold 4,000 cars. And of course, we won the American Le Mans series, we won LeMans itself, first second and third, and came in second in the GT Championship as well. It was just terrific. It was one of those glorious years.

AW - Well, it seems like you have a lot of very exciting things going on with the new A4 coming out for the European Market. That's obviously a very key car for Audi as the original really paved the rebirth for Audi in America.

LH - It did, and that's part of the real position. It's one of the major factors, and there were many, that were accountable for Audi's resurgence, but one of the main ones was the Audi A4. It's an interesting fact that every year, right after the launch (of the A4) it has increased in volume.

Would you believe that its (A4) all-time high record sales month was March 2001? Full in the face of the runout, this thing is all over the internet, we're launching it, everybody knows about the new A4, the X-type had been launched in Geneva, yet we still go and bag a record month. It's just an amazing story.

AW - Well with the introduction of the A4, and looking at the increased number of sales for the North American market, is Audi considering models within a model with the A4 such as an A4 coupe, A4 convertible etc.?

LH - I think it is pretty wide knowledge that the cabriolet is strongly under consideration. The answer to your question is yes. Nothing is really ever confirmed at this early stage. However, if you look back over the six generations of the car, the Audi 80 through the A4, there have been highlights with coupes and convertibles. That strategy will once again be looked at.

AW - You mention the Cabriolet, is the coupe a contender as well as far as consideration?

LH - Well, consideration certainly. As I've said before, nothing has been approved yet, but it is certainly under consideration. So it is a range of cars, especially when you start to consider the S-models.

AW - Have you driven the new car?

LH - I have yes, and I'll tell you, the sweet spot for me was driving a 3-liter manual quattro. Boy did I enjoy it. I had my sales director with me, Russ Hill. We were like a couple of little boys. We were on the twisty roads around the back of Ingolstadt and you couldn't get us out of the car.

It's got a lovely throaty roar. Of course it is a whole new engine. The torque characteristics of the 3.0 are very, very tuned towards America. It's just such an exciting drive. It all comes together. It was like driving a 2.7T almost. It was very exciting because that engine is 220 horsepower, obviously 30 off of the 2.7T, but it makes up for it with its different configuration. It is normally aspirated and not turbocharged, so it has a different drive characteristic. I'm really looking forward to it.

Of course it is a Cosworth derived engine, so therefore, this performance thing is still strong in the car. That's why it is going to be great for me today to have the privilege of launching the car in North America with my favorite racing cars as my backdrop.

AW - Speaking of racecars, yesterday it was mentioned during the Audi press conference how the R8s would sort of competing with each other, not just the two independent cars, but also the two factory cars.

LH - That's the key thing really. It's a little bit fanatic from m point of view. Because we won the American LeMans series, one of the two factory cars that gets entered, is entered as Audi Sport North America. So that is our car.

However, they are both Team Joest. Plus, in fairness, when Team Joest comes over to America, they are Audi Sport North America. It is one in the same. The interesting thing is one could say that they are all Audi R8s, so the only differentiation is the team. But I think this is worth building up, because you've got literally 4 teams of independent technicians and 4 teams literally running LeMans against one another. You have Team Joest, and half of Team Joest running as Audi Sport North America, Champion Racing and Johansson. And I tell you; any one of them could win. And then you've got the Bentleys.

AW - We hear that's a strong runner this year.

LH - I hear it's first time out of the pen; it was only a second off our time. From where they are coming, myself being British, I think it's absolutely fabulous that the Bentley Boys are back in town. It's fabulous for LeMans, fabulous for us, fabulous for everybody.

To see a Bentley, after they won in the '20's, for anyone interested in motorsport, to see a Bentley back at LeMans brings a tear to your eye.

AW - Speaking of motorsport, Audi being competitive and moving on to F1, there have been a lot of rumors lately that several manufacturers are looking at going with another series depending on what Bernie decides to do. Is there any interest in getting involved with F1 or this other possible series?

LH - That's the big question. At the moment, we came into sports car racing because it is kind of our tradition being closed wheel. It gave us the opportunity for us to do what we're good at and showcase our technology. These cars do that extremely well.

We were very impressed with Don Panoz's principals and what he is doing. I will always support and agree with Don Panoz's principals in motorsport. I think he has done a very good job.

We are having a lot of fun in the American Le Mans series. We're seeing the expansion of our R8, which one-day will talk about this car like a Porsche 962. They will also say how certain other parties are not going the Formula 1 route.

These are big parties. Chrysler, coming up at Donington, will be launching their car. There is GM, with the Riley and Scott Cadillac. There are lots of rumors about that, like maybe a new team or a new car. Bentley is coming in.

I like the resurgence of sports car racing. Formula 1 to me does not hold the same attractions. It's huge money for a company to get into. It seems very tightly controlled. And then you look at what people take away from Formula 1. It's "Michael Schumacher, Michael Schumacher, Ferrari, McLaren, Hakinen, .... Oh and this young boy Juan Pablo Montoya got a bit of a thing, but what was he driving?"

Well actually he was driving a BMW, and that didn't really come out that strongly. I watched the race from Brazil and I thought, if I had been BMW, I'd have been a bit disappointed by all of that.

I think you can spend a huge amount of money. It tends to focus on the drivers heavily. It's pretty closed at the moment with the way it is run, and you can unfortunately have the experience that Jaguar did.

It's so pleasing for us, that we see a couple of Jaguar drivers coming our way in the series, like Johnny Herbert. Now he's going to be driving for Champion at Le Mans. I think that's quite nice actually, because that's kind of where Jaguar's roots were, in Le Mans and sports car racing. It seems kind of an odd dichotomy.

That's a long answer to a relatively simple question, but I hope not at the moment, no. We work very closely with Audi in Ingolstadt on developing a five-year strategy for motorsport, and you've got to keep all strategies open. For the moment, it is not in the cards.

AW - So with the R8, for this season (2001) and next season, are there still plans to continue the program?

LH - Well we always set a kind of three-year program. You know, we came blitzing in with the first year, this is the year of defending the titles... who knows? As a car, the thing that has pleased me the most is again one of Don Panoz's principals. We've got to get cars that privateers are capable of buying, capable of racing and capable of winning.

You can look at some of the guys who are coming into the series, with big names like Johansson, Alboreto who won Sebring, Andy Wallace. In the four Audis that will be racing at Le Mans, each one will have an ex-Formula 1 driver in them; Johnny Herbert, Michele Alboreto, Emanuelle Pirro and Stephen Johansson.

It's kind of nice in a way. These cars can win. They can win in good hands and a good team. It's good. And we get a lot of press out of it on Speedvision. It helps our marketing with its six TV commercials off the back of it. We like it and our customers certainly see it.

AW - It also leads to being able to identify all the way down to your passenger cars, correct?

LH - The strategy is solid, because these cars showcase technology. In fact some people argue that these cars are as sophisticated as a Formula 1 car. Also, take the Speedvision GT series with the S4. You can go and buy that car in the showroom. It's there. Obviously the interior is a bit different, and the engine is a bit different, but there it is.

We were surprised. We turned up at Sebring, saw the Speedvision Championship start up and there were other S4s in the field. There was an Imola Yellow one, there's a silver one, and guys are coming up to me saying, "Len, we're driving an S4."

It's kind of where Porsche used to be many years ago, coming in, grass roots racing, seen it with the big stuff. And, there are cars for the man in the street to buy and there are cars for the enthusiast to watch racing.

I was with ten of the New York Dealers last night, some of the biggest dealers in the country, and a couple of them came up and said, "Len, just keep going on the racing. It's terrific!" They all race on Sunday, buy on Monday. It's proven and it works.

AW - With the A8, is the W12 happening in the US?

LH - Not really. We looked at it, and it would be very minutely numbered. The S8 is small enough numbers and that is going well. We would only do 400-600 of those. We only sell 2,500 A8s all together. There's been a major revitalization since we added the long wheelbase model.

We had a normal wheelbase, and then split it and added a long wheelbase and a normal wheelbase S8. That has worked very well. Our dealers love it. Our customers love it. It's been very nice for us and has revitalized the A8. The 12-cylinder is not something we could consider due to homologation costs.

AW - Well you know who drives an A8 long wheelbase? Don Panoz.

LH - Oh of course he does. And his wife drives an A6 4.2 if I am not mistaken. We have a very close relationship with Don. He's a great guy.

AW - How do you see the series (ALMS)?

LH - Well, I don't know what the series would be like actually at the moment, just at this moment, without Audi. I am convinced with the other people coming into it, it is going to hot up. I'm sure we'll see Bentley in there one day, Chrysler is coming into it and the domestics are coming in.

Even BMW, although they pulled out the prototypes, has got a full factory team on the Schnitzer team with the prototype drivers on the V8 M3 GT car. It came in 3rd at Sebring, which I thought was a pretty powerful performance straight out of the box. So BMW are pushing in there, though it must be BMW of North America who is doing it, because the main effort from BMW AG is Formula 1. But they are still there running around in the American LeMans Series, and I think that is terrific.

AW - Len, thank you. We appreciate it and we appreciate your time.

LH - Guys, it's always pleasure.