The Audi-to-F1 story that just won't go away

Audi LMP1

Despite a denial from Audi, rumours of the German marque jumping from Le Mans into F1 keep circling, and for some very good reasons.

If you believe press statements in motorsport, then the latest round of the Audi-to-F1 rumours are dead in the water.

“There is no decision that we are going in that direction,” Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, the head of Audi motorsport, told Autosport this week when questioned on the subject.

When pushed on the hiring of Stefano Domenicali, the ex-Ferrari team principal, Ullrich only offered an evasive response: “Yes, he has joined Audi, but we haven't said yet what his job will be; no, he will not be involved in motorsport.”

So there we go, the story is dead. Everyone go about their daily business without a worry. Except, it isn't that simple and often such statements of fact are more about not revealing the hand being played.

To fully understand the business situation at Audi would require deciphering the complex ownership relationship between Porsche and Audi (the manufacturers), Volkswagen Group (their parent company), and Porsche SE (the holding company with majority control of Volkswagen Group).

In its simplest terms, Audi doesn't really control its own fate. With the reintroduction of Porsche to the LMP1 class, the internal ownership structure could mean that Audi are all but forced out from competing to avoid from fighting with their sister brand. Dr. Ullrich can say that no decision has been made, but he does not deny that the conversations have happened.

There is nothing left for Audi to achieve in Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship. They came into the sport and revolutionised the top flight of prototype racing, winning the marquee Le Mans 24 Hours race 13 times in the last 16 years. Their revolutionary diesel hybrid systems have provided a wealth of trickle down technology for road cars, and despite losing out to Toyota over the shorter 6 hour races which make up the bulk of the WEC calendar, in the longer blue ribbon events they've been largely untouchable.

However, while rumours from inside Volkswagen Group about the Audi brand being retired from the WEC to allow the focus to go to Porsche are currently no more than internal political hearsay, there can be no denying that the hiring of Domenicali is a move that heavily points towards F1.

There can surely be no truth to Audi saying that Domenicali won't be involved in the motorsport branch of Audi. The Italian worked for a single year as a clerk in the Ferrari office, and from 1992 until earlier this year then worked for their various sporting operations. It would be an act of sheer incompetence by Audi to stick somebody with that amount of racing experience outside of their motorsport programme - and Audi are far from incompetent.

Most importantly, though, in the global marketing battle between the three big German brands of Audi, BMW, and Mercedes, the latter's recent success in F1 has given them a clear edge. Audi may get the headlines in the month of June for Le Mans, but for the rest of the year it's Mercedes' involvement in F1 which is putting them front-and-centre in the news.

Think how many times this year you've read the world 'Mercedes' over 'Audi'. If you wanted a sexy sports saloon – the speciality of both brands – would you want one from the diesel technology savvy Le Mans winners, or one from the faster Formula One World Champions? How many of the drivers in this year's winning Audi car would you recognise over Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in an advert? While DTM may still rule marketing inside of Germany, globally Mercedes have leapfrogged Audi in a major way with their 2014 performance.

There are some silly rumours circulating – Fernando Alonso will take a sabbatical in the WEC before returning to F1 with them in 2016, or Red Bull are about to ditch Renault in favour of getting into bed with Audi. This doesn't mean, though, that there is no merit in the core idea of Audi coming to F1.

Despite Dr. Ullrich's most recent public denial that Audi are about to jump, it's the only move that makes sense for the German manufacturer. There is nothing left for them to prove in endurance racing, they've hired one of the most experienced F1 team principals going, and they're being left behind in the global marketing race by Mercedes.

There has been talk of Audi joining F1 on behalf of the Volkswagen Group for many years. However, for the first time, it seems to make total sense.