AudiWorld Interviews Audi of America Executive VP Johan de Nysschen (Part I)

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July 9, 2006

By: Jason Teller

In March Audi used ALMS’ kickoff race at Sebring to debut its historic R10 TDI racecar. Unsurprisingly, the manufacturer went out of its way to help media attendees experience and enjoy the benefits of diesel technology over the race weekend. Audi-invited press representatives shuttled themselves back and forth to the racetrack in TDI-powered Q7’s and A6’s, while spokespeople from Audi’s TDI development partners Bosch and Shell were abundantly available for discussion. The brand new R10, of course, also did its part by pacing the field to the checkered flag in the grueling 12-hour race. Quoting a Radio Le Mans announcer from race day, “Audi’s TDI technology was clearly the star at Sebring in 2006!”

With Audi’s enormous investment in racing and the debut of such a progressive motorsport technology, the timing was perfect to sit down with Audi of America boss Johan de Nysschen to discuss Audi’s involvement in motorsport, the business side of racing and the future benefits of diesel technology to the American consumer. de Nysschen was clearly enthusiastic about Audi’s opportunities and spoke openly about diesel’s positioning in the United States. We found out more about why Audi is so passionate about racing and what it really means to the average Audi owner (or prospective owner).

Of course a few months have passed since the R10 took Sebring by storm and Audi has now also recorded what will presumably be the first of many Le Mans victories with the R10. While coverage of the Sebring victory was at the time reasonable, it could hardly compare to the worldwide stage of the most famous endurance race of all time. Brand enthusiasts, racing aficionados and the more common owner alike have probably all now heard what Audi has accomplished with a diesel racecar.

Audi’s victory at “Circuit des 24 Heures” certainly does nothing to diminish the content of our interview from Sebring, nor does it change the fact that the slow march towards the general acceptance of diesel passenger vehicles in the United States has begun in earnest.

Part I of the interview, which focuses primarily on why Audi races, starts below. Part II will follow a few days later and includes in-depth information on Audi’s diesel strategy in the United States. We hope you enjoy this largely unedited March 2006 interview with Audi of America’s top executive.

AW: We are interested in more of the story regarding the tie-in between the racing and your business. We love motorsports; we are all fans. It is exhilarating. But you’re not just doing it because it is fun to come to Sebring and watch the cars…

JdN: Are you sure?

AW: Well that would be a scoop if that were true…

JdN: Boys never grow up; our toys just become more expensive!

AW: It is pretty amazing to be here – but back to how you tie business and motorsport together. A simple first question: why is Audi involved in motorsports?

JdN: Motorsports is big business. It’s an expensive venture…and certainly the fun element is there. We’re enthusiasts and that’s why we’re in the car business after all. Nobody pursues a career in the motor industry or even plays a role as an investor in the motor industry because it is the absolute most lucrative business around. We’re there because we are fans. And motorsport is the ultimate expression of the technical capability of an organization.

For Audi we are an engineering-driven organization. One of the cornerstones of our brand is technical innovation and leadership and the cliche is absolutely true: motorsport breeds technical success and technical innovation. It provides a forum whereby our top engineers are challenged and they have to pursue unusual avenues to find technical solutions to problems that ultimately do find their way through to production models.

A good example of that is our FSI technology. Very topical. It was developed for our Le Mans project. It was crucial for Le Mans because you need power and you need good fuel consumption. Both of those obviously have pretty useful application in the real world of the private motorist. The fact that on top of that it provides cleaner emissions, which Audi as a good corporate citizen is interested in, was even more attractive.

Another example is our DSG transmission which actually was pioneered with the original Audi S1 quattro rallye car. Today with more advances in electronic control units we can actually bring it at an affordable price and with the required level of sophistication because of course shifts have to be smooth and seamless for the consumer. Nobody would accept the kind of gearbox noise and abrupt gear changes we had with the rallye cars we had 20 years ago. But with better control units and better technology we were able to commercialize that as well.

But it is not only in those areas. It is a lot to do with pushing our engineers to meet new challenges…letting them think outside the box in terms of finding alternative solutions to the problems they are faced with. It raises the game. For a car company that is proud of our heritage and is proud of our reputation of being leaders in the field of technical innovation, motorsports helps us keep moving along that path.

AW: That is an interesting way of answering because you said the technical needs raise the game and keep the engineers challenged. We wanted to ask about specific technologies that were put in the racecars in order to trickle down into consumer applications…but it is almost as if you are saying Audi identifies the problems and then tell the engineers to solve them and “have fun” and then whatever comes out of that may trickle down. How would you answer the question about racing as a specific trickle-down platform?

JdN: I think I’ve touched on the areas where the technical advances that we make in our racing program do make it through in to production. Also there are many technologies you’ll see today even in the diesel car but which are not yet incorporated in the production cars, but which ultimately may find their way there in terms of a real consumer benefit and therefore a practical application of the technology.

But that is of course not the only reason we race. Audi is a brand that is very proud of our motorsport heritage – it goes back you know to our founding years. The positioning of Audi is of a “driver’s car”, a sophisticated, high luxury, precision made performance car is a very important defining element of what represents the brand with the four rings. And motorsport is a very tangible expression of that philosophy. You know you can create an advertising image that is built on the pure marketing message and the commercialization and the hype. And it either has substance or it is just and empty box. I believe that our participation in motorsport with proven success to build our credentials adds substance to the marketing message and adds substance to our credentials and somehow gives credibility to our brand claim…as being a brand which is premium, sophisticated, high level, luxurious, but also sporty. The high performance element – you can’t underline it too heavily with your motorsport success and participation.

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