The man who would be King – AUDI QUATTRO RALLY CAR MANUAL

‘We had reliable cars, but to me, as a German, it’s a German high school parking lot,’ remembered Ralf Friese, from Audi Tradition. ‘When the teachers go to lunch, it’s Audi 80 in weird colours - some Bahama beige or really crazy green with orange interiors. They’re not that stylish at the time. This is Audi: it’s a teacher’s car.’ All that would change dramatically with the arrival of one man: Ferdinand Piech..
Ferdinand Piech

The facial similarities between Ferdinand Piech and his grandfather Ferdinand Porsche are quite uncanny. Unlike his grandfather, however, you would never catch Piech in a heavy tweed suit and Homburg: his frame has always been rangier and more restless and his dress sense cutting edge.
For all his modern style, the younger man’s ambition and temperament have always been a chip off the old block. Years later, when looking back over his own illustrious career, Bob Lutz, the former CEO of General Motors, described Piech as a ‘mad genius’ but singled him out as the most influential of his peers, saying that he was: ‘Not a person I would particularly want to work for, I think. The autocrat’s autocrat. But certainly, personal idiosyncrasies aside, without question I think the greatest living product guy… a detailed, laser-like focus on product excellence and this absolute intolerance of mediocrity in the product.’
A chip off the old block indeed…
When he died, in 1951, Ferdinand Porsche left a vast legacy to his family including a wealth of engineering projects for which the tools and materials were not yet sufficiently advanced, a vast income from royalties on his Volkswagen design and a toxic rift between his daughter Louise’s family, the Piechs, and that of his son Ferry, the Porsches.
There was a silently drawn line between the ‘nameholders’ and the ‘non-nameholders’ through which young Ferdinand Piech gleefully crashed both as a child and as an adult. Nevertheless, the young scion was clearly a bright talent and, having written a thesis about 12-cylinder Formula 1 engines, he duly joined the family firm in the early 1960s.
At that time the first production Porsche, the 356, was 15 years old and Porsche had taken its eye off the ball in sports car racing for an expensive foray into Formula 1 that had borne little fruit. Porsche needed reinvigorating and Piech was more than willing to play his part as head of research and development by designing a new sports racing car.
He abandoned Porsche’s traditional box frame construction in favour of a tubular spaceframe, fitting it with a lightweight fibreglass body that was, for the first time, designed using a wind tunnel. The result was called the Porsche 906, and on its debut Piech’s car beat Ferrari for class honours in the 1966 Daytona 24 Hours.
With this success behind him, Piech decided to steer a course away from Porsche’s traditional hunting ground in the small capacity classes and aim for overall victories in the world’s great sports car events. The 906 begat the more powerful 907 and 908 models in 1967-68, and soon Porsche was at the sharp end of the grid, winning the 1968 International Cup for GT Cars and the 1969 World Championship for Makes.
Piech’s lust for horsepower went against the grain with those like his uncle Ferry, who had built the firm’s reputation on minimalism and from creating performance through engineering rather than brute force. But then so too did it go against the grain when Piech took a shine to his cousin Gerd Porsche’s wife Marlene and wooed her away from the ‘named’ side of the clan.
Meanwhile, 1969 saw Piech reveal the ultimate step in his quest for glory: the Porsche 917. With its ear-shattering flat-12 engine and titanium-rich construction, everything about the 917 was bigger, faster and more expensive than ever. It also grew riskier – the early 917s were ferociously unstable at speed, which is not something that drivers admire in a car that could sail past 240 mph. At the 1969 Le Mans 24 Hours, one car crashed fatally on the first lap. How much responsibility for John Woolfe’s demise was down to his enthusiasm was a moot point: the drivers were spooked and the Porsche family was worried.
The aerodynamic genius of young designer Norbert Singer produced the revised 917K for 1970, which took Porsche to its first outright victories at the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1970-71 and two successive world championship titles. From 1972, the big 917s were outlawed in Europe but Piech took the cars to America, added a turbocharger to the flat-12 and created a 1,000 horsepower beast that crushed the opposition in Can-Am racing.
For all of the 917’s successes, however, the Porsche family grew deeply concerned by Piech’s increasing expenditure. When the issue was raised, he accused the family of cowardice and declared himself to be a wild boar among domestic pigs.
It is said that this comment was the trigger that led, in 1972, to Ferry Porsche initiating Porsche’s transition from a private firm to a publicly held company. In so doing, the Porsche family – or rather the Piech family – would be constitutionally prevented from taking over the overall management of Porsche AG.
Almost as soon as the ink was dry on the legal documents, Ferdinand Piech turned his back on Porsche in disgust. Although he retained 10% of the holding company, Piech, like his grandfather before him, established his own independent design consultancy.
Piech’s first employer in exile was Daimler-Benz, where as a consultant he developed a new five-cylinder inline diesel engine, the OM617. The choice of five cylinders provided smoother, more refined power than the preceding four-cylinder engine, with none of the weight penalties of a six-cylinder. What’s more, it was fiendishly reliable, with many Piech-engined Mercedes seeing a million kilometres (620,000 miles) on their odometer.
The five-cylinder was a triumph but then Piech wound down his consultancy and accepted a salaried job as head of product development at Audi. With his track record and connections, he could have gone virtually anywhere for a job with more prestige, but by choosing a brand that had sat in the shadows of Mercedes, BMW, Volkswagen, Opel and Porsche for almost half a century, Piech decided to show the world what he was made of.
The first step came in 1976 when the second-generation Audi 100 was launched. It was more angular and stylish than its predecessor and it boasted a five-cylinder inline gasoline engine, sold with the promise of ‘six-cylinder power and four-cylinder economy’. The motoring press fell in love with the new car, its sonorous engine and with the way that the new man at the helm, Ferdinand Piech, presented himself and his army of technicians as cheerful, quirky German geniuses.
It was while enjoying the Audi 100’s enormously positive reception that Piech was confronted by Jorg Bensinger and his plan of developing a high-performance four-wheel-drive car. A year earlier, Porsche had taken the idea of turbocharging that Piech had introduced with the 917 and run with it: claiming more Le Mans wins and causing a sensation in the production sports car world when the 911 Turbo was unleashed in 1975.
A turbocharged GT car with four-wheel-drive could very well be a more user-friendly and efficient proposition than Porsche’s offering. Bensinger’s number-crunching showed that in theory a front-engined four-wheel drive car offered better directional stability and traction than a rear-engined rear-wheel-drive car – and with much more benevolent cornering behaviour.
It would cost a lot of money to develop. Furthermore, the unit cost of building a front-engined four-wheel drive would be vast next to the Porsche 911, which was effectively following the same cost-cutting platform as Ferdinand Porsche’s Volkswagen.
But cost never deterred Ferdinand Piech once he had a target. He also knew that motor sport was the best method yet devised for pushing research and development ahead, where change was forced through by the pace and ferocity of competition. What’s more, budgets could be subsidised by the manufacturer’s marketing spend and by recruiting corporate sponsorship.
It also wouldn’t hurt that the world would be watching. A four-wheel-drive GT car might just be the sword that Piech could wield to reclaim his throne. If it was, he would want the Porsches to see him coming.

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