Thursday, July 4, 2013

Why Dürheimer Was Sacked by Audi, What Hackenberg Faces

These are nervous times at Audi. Two days before the 24 Hours of Le Mans, news broke of the departure of Wolfgang Dürheimer from the company’s board. The head of R&D had been in charge for less than a year, after he took over from the suddenly and controversially sacked Michael Dick. Dürheimer will “move to another position within the Volkswagen Group,” an official statement says.

One of the many remarkable aspects of the reshuffle is the absence of the usual protocol. Not only was Dürheimer moved out of his position after an unusually short time, the VW Group also did not bother to find and communicate a specified new role for him before his removal from Audi. His only defined role as of now is that he retains responsibility for Volkswagen Group motorsports, but it remains to be seen if he will carry any clout in this position going forward. Dürheimer did not show up in Le Mans, and his recent decision to relocate the Audi’s race-engine development center from Neckarsulm to Neuburg already has been cancelled.

Some observers say that Dürheimer’s departure is due to his alleged failure to create a bold electric-vehicle strategy. Indeed, he has not only expressed skepticism about the progress of battery technology, but he also killed plans to sell a production version of the R8 e-tron. High-ranking Volkswagen Group sources now indicate that Dürheimer was unable to handle the “complexity” of his job—a charge that won’t sit well with a man who’s previous headed Porsche’s R&D program and the Bentley and Bugatti brands. We’re told by others that the root of the problem is that Dürheimer’s matter-of-fact style, his critical analysis of the company and his highly process-driven management approach did not sit well with the brand’s sometimes experimental development culture. Audianer, as they call themselves, did not appreciate being lectured about how things were done at Porsche.

Dürheimer’s reluctance to embrace electric vehicles, like this R8 e-tron, has been mooted as one of the reasons for his departure.

Dürheimer’s position has been taken over by Ulrich Hackenberg, who had worked at Audi intermittently since the 1980s. Hackenberg has served as Volkswagen’s head of research and development since 2007; in addition to his new position at Audi, he now will oversee development coordination for the entire VW Group. Former Porsche executive Heinz-Jakob Neußer will succeed Hackenberg at Volkswagen.

Hackenberg is the master of cross-product and cross-brand platforms: In his time at Audi, he engineered the Group’s MLB architecture, and MQB while overseeing life at Volkswagen. In his new role, he can be expected to push for further commonality between the brands, at least under the skin.

All projects that are underway at Audi likely will undergo a review, and it’s not expected that the vehicles Dürheimer killed off will be resurrected. The R18 e-tron Quattro–derived Scorpion has been on halt for some time, even though Audi created several styling proposals. The R8 e-tron won’t be raised from the depths and ushered into production—at least not until Mercedes’ SLS AMG Electric Drive proves to be some sort of a sales success.

Rather than overturn the graves of Dürheimer’s projects, it’s more likely that the next generation of higher-volume cars will be subject to a thorough review. Atop this list is the A4, whose styling and features will be scrutinized to ensure it continues to grow in its role as one of the brand’s sales pillars. The aggressive-looking next-gen Q7 already has been delayed once at the request of chief designer Wolfgang Egger, and the ute’s design will be changed once more. Dürheimer had considered moving the next-gen A8 onto the Porsche-developed, rear-drive MSB architecture, which will be used by the next-gen Panamera and Bentley models. Such a suggestion received an icy response from Audi’s engineers, who pride themselves on their front- and all-wheel-drive heritage. We’d be surprised if Hackenberg continued down this path and expect to see the next-generation A8 make use of a variation of the MLB platform.

Despite falling under Audi’s umbrella, we don’t foresee major changes for Lamborghini or Ducati; they will continue in their current roles as the extravagant supercar brand and the high-performance motorcycle brand, respectively. Lamborghini’s position as a carbon-fiber center of competency within the VW Group could be further streamlined with increased efforts of the other Group brands to make use of the lightweight tech. And at Bentley, the new models initiated by —specifically, the SUV model previewed by the EXP 9 F concept—will continue to be pushed toward production. This project is being redesigned from the ground up by Bentley’s new chief designer Luc Donckerwolke.

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