Audi Customer Racing chief Romolo Liebchen (right) being interviewed at Daytona, 2014Enlarge Photo
Daytona is, by most standards, a rather quiet little beach town, superficially a third of a century or more past its prime. But for many Americans, and more than a few Europeans, it’s also a holy place—a point of pilgrimage for the Church of Speed.
One such European is Romolo Liebchen, the head of Audi’s Customer Racing program, the man at the leading edge of the wave of R8 LMS cars on the grid at the Rolex 24 this weekend.
Despite a bit of a kerfuffle with some ride height and wing endplate issues that bumped the third-place-qualified #46 Fall Line R8 to the back of the grid—and briefly put the pole position of the #48 Paul Miller Racing crew in jeopardy—Liebchen remains an ardent fan of Daytona, a fandom he’s maintained since childhood.
“Daytona for me is the last big place we do this … one day I would like to see Audi win this race. Before [Daytona], we did many other big races, it started with Le Mans, and then the Nürburgring, Spa, the other big places, and Daytona was missing. The race has so much character, compared to all the rest, it’s absolutely a must,” said Liebchen.
Although Liebchen clearly has a deep appreciation for the history of Daytona, and has long wanted to see his brand take the green (and checkered) flag at the historic roval, there are differences from the usual European endurance race. Liebchen explains, “The atmosphere is, very different, because of the facility. These big grand stands we don’t have, except a little bit at the Lausitzring; this is different. But also the fans, they are different with the way they celebrate the race weekend, with their big coaches, and they are very relaxed. It’s a good atmosphere.”
The racing, however, is familiar, and Liebchen is happy with the merger of Grand Am and ALMS to form the new TUDOR SportsCar Championship. “I would say it’s a step forward to create a good future,” said Liebchen, “because in the end, it cannot be good to always be in competition with two race series doing almost the same thing. For the spectators, for the teams, to have to choose between events, it’s very difficult. Now with this situation, life becomes much easier. And I think you can also see the potential for more cars, with this grid—we had another potential Audi R8 for Daytona, but ran out of spaces on the grid.”
With the race about to get underway, Audi is well-positioned to take on the coming 24 hours, but it will face strong competition in the GTD class from Ferrari, Aston Martin, Viper, and, of course, Audi’s own Volkswagen Group cousin, Porsche. But is the rivalry really noticeable here, or is that mostly left for Le Mans?
“I would say everybody is doing their thing,” Liebchen answered. “The competition [between brands] is more intense at Le Mans, because here everything is based on the customer racing program. You have to sell cars, you have to find and support customers, and that’s the main purpose—of course, with the intention to be successful.”
So how is the customer racing program going for Audi, apart from the obviously large grid here at Daytona? Does the ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ formula still hold to move production cars? Or is the goal simply to sell more racing cars to team owners? For Audi, says Liebchen, “It’s both. It’s win on Sunday, sell on Monday, definitely, especially in our case, because the race car is so close to the road car—more than 50% of the parts in the car are the same you find in the road car… That’s the reason our customer racing program is under Quattro GmbH, because the racing program is so closely linked to the road car. The next thing, in our case, we are making smaller steps to increase the number of race cars in the hands of customers.”