Furious Five - Audi 90 quattro IMSA GTO
By the late 1980's German luxury manufacturer Audi was starting to make an impression on the global car market. The company had seen a glorious time as technological powerhouse Auto Union in during the 1930's, sweeping the early Grand Prix stage with their monstrous mid-engined racers. But after the horrors of war little was left of the original giant. All that remained was a tiny corporation manufacturing front wheel drive, two stroke compact cars. After a brief stint under the wings of Mercedes-Benz starting in 1958, Audi was sold to Volkswagen in 1966.
Through the purchase Audi helped Volkswagen into a new water-cooled age, and gained funding for more daring projects. In 1980 one of these projects materialized in the advanced Audi quattro. being the first four wheel drive rally car and the first to combine such a drivetrain with a turbocharged engine, the car was a huge leap for Audi. Driven by the quattro's spectacular success on the global rally stage, Audi was propelled into the eyes of the world.
In a similar fashion to their early Grand Prix exploits, Audi's rallying effort was cut short by outside forces. A series of fatal crashes caused the Group B category to collapse in on itself. The big fire breathing quattro was condemned to the rally cross circuit, and Audi had to find a different hobby. As a stopgap the company quickly fashioned some Group A versions of the 80, Coupe and 200, allowing the Audi name to stay relevant while the corporate big wigs thought up a different strategy.
After some deliberation the decision was made to focus any and all motorsport efforts on the lucrative American market. Audi had had secured a relatively comfortable position in Europe, but had never attempted to get a foothold on the other side of the Atlantic. If the brand wanted to expand further, the American scene was a key area. After after slagging off the old quattro to Pikes Peak a few times and setting a few records, Audi was bored of the rallying world. Their next challenge was to try and promote their four wheel drive system as an tarmac performance feature. To make this dream a reality they decided to enter Trans Am with an unusual design, the chunky 200 sedan.
The 200 Trans Am proved to be an outrageous success on the Trans Am circuit, easily winning them the 1988 title. The car was so successful in fact, the Trans Am quickly banned the use of four wheel drive and non-American engines at the end of the season. But Audi wanted more, much more. So for 1989 plans were drawn up to conquer the other major American racing series: the IMSA Camel GT Championship. Audi knew the International Motor Sport Association's rulebook was a damn side more forgiving than Trans Am's, which allowed to to go exuberantly bananas with the new design.
Contrary to the still road car based 200, the new machine would have to have exactly nothing to do with anything in Audi's showroom. With this in mind the company;s top engineers set out designing a steel tube frame chassis. The car was then fitted with an adapted version of the famous quattro drivetrain, mated to the 2.2L turbocharged straight 5 engine from the S1 Pikes Peak. After a bit more fiddling by the Audi mechanics, the power was bumped to a scarcely believable 720 horsepower and 720 nm (531 lbs ft) of torque. The exceptional grunt was forced to all four wheels courtesy of a 6-speed manual transmission, making for slightly exciting shifts.
Right away the engineers encountered an all too familiar problem. The quattro drive system had been set up with the engine mounted longitudinally. This made locating the transmission and driveshafts much easier, and provided improved space in the cabin. From a practical, consumer-minded point of view this was a brilliant idea, but made much less sense in the world of motorsport. The location of the engine placed most of the weight in front of the front wheels, which caused terrible understeer.
Audi tried to work around the problem by modifying the power differential between the front and the rear axle. A handy assist came from the pages of the IMSA rule book. The rules allowed Audi to and fit some of the widest tires known to man. The only restriction were on total vehicle width, and whatever the room there was available in the wheels wells. As a result the car sat on 355 section tires on all four corners, as required by the IMSA's regulations. The tube frame special was then draped with a fiberglass silhouette loosely based on the new Audi 90 compact, complete with a massive widebody and a funky double layered spoiler. All in all the new monster weighed just 1207 kg (2661 lbs).
The 90's turbocharged insanity would have to measure up to an assorted array of V8 American muscle. Tube frame specials of Chevrolet's Camaro and Corvette, Pontiac's Firebird and Mercury's Cougar XR-7 presented themselves as the cars to beat. Also in the mix was Nissan's turbocharged 300ZX and Porsche's 944 Turbo.
Despite their flash success in Trans Am , Audi was in no mood to become complacent. The only way they could improve the brands image more was by winning. To achieve this they brought in 1982 World Rally Champion Walter Röhrl (GER), one of the stars of the Group B program. Röhrl was joined by former Formula 1 driver Hans-Joachim Stuck (GER), Indycar star Scott Goodyear (CAN), and sportscar legend Hurley Haywood, by then a 2-time Le Mans and 5-time Daytona 24 winner.
The IMSA-season started with the grueling 24 Hours of Daytona, but Audi chose not to attend this round. The 90 IMSA GTO had been built to dominate sprint races with outright speed, which made Audi fear it lacked the reliability for a drawn out endurance event.
As a result the exotic weapon didn't show its face until the second round, the 45 Minutes Miami. Aud of America fielded two cars for Haywood and Stuck. The pair did well in qualifying with Hans-Joachim Stuck managing 2nd behind Pete Halsmer (USA) and his Mercury. Hurley Haywood was stuck in 5th. The race itself turned into disaster quickly, with Haywood crashing out on lap 11. Hans-Joachim Stuck completed 8 more before his engine crushed its transmission.
After skipping the Sebring 12 Hours, Audi arrived at Summit Point, West Virginia. There Haywood improved to 4th, with Stuck still in 2nd, bested again by Pete Halsmer. The Audi pair turned things around on race day however, scoring a confident 1-2 finish in front of the otherwise dominant Roush Mercury's.
At the Mid-Ohio 200 Kilometers the Audi team was displaced by the surging Cunningham Nissan's, with Steve Millen (NZ) stealing second from Hans-Joachim Stuck and John Morton (USA) displacing Hurley Haywood to 6th. Nissan's effort was in vain however, as Stuck still took the checkered flag. Haywood finished down in 5th.
Going into against their better judgment, Audi entered the 500km of Mosport. The event was some 200 kilometers longer than a standard race, which would put the 90's questionable reliability to the test. Audi's fears were confirmed by disappointing results. Hans Joachim Stuck was out after 20 laps with a steering issue. Hurley Haywood / Scott Goodyear suffered an oil leak, and were also out.
The Miller High Life 500 at Road America saw a better result. Stuck was joined by Röhrl, with Haywood continuing his partnership with Goodyear. In that order the cars lined up 2nd and 3rd in GTO, behind Steve Millen's 300ZX. The Stuck / Röhrl car again encountered trouble, with a crash on lap 18. the sister car managed to hold on, and finished 2nd Steve Millen's storming Nissan.
With the endurance rounds over for now the team reverted to using just Stuck and Haywood. At the Portland 1.5 Hours Hurley Haywood surprisingly out qualified Stuck, scoring 3rd to Stuck's 5th. Haywood succumbed to mechanical woes on lap 33 however, while Stuck finished second behind Pete Halsmer.
Stuck and Haywood were 2nd and 3rd on the grid for the Camel Grand Prix of Heartland Park Topeka. After two hours of hard racing they appeared on the finish line in another perfect 1-2 formation. Stuck took his second victory of the season, and secured some valuable points.
Pete Halsmer's qualifying prowess continued to overpower Hans-Joachim Stuck, who was again second on the grid in San Antonio, Texas. His team mate followed in 4th place. Their order would not change during the race, with Stuck bested by Mercury's Wally Dallenbach Jr. (USA) and Haywood trailing Steve Millen.
At Sears Point both Audi's locked out the front of the grid, allowing Stuck to take his third victory. Haywood again made it a 1-2, showing that Audi was on their way to conquering the series.
Another endurance event was panned at Watkins Glen. Audi were hoping to take a much better result this time, as outright success had still eluded them in the longer format. The qualifying session yielded good results once more, with Stuck / Röhrl 1st and Haywood / Goodyear 3rd. The 90 showed massive improvement by making taking another 1-2 finish at an event their car wasn't really designed for. The teething problems with the complex machine had apparently been solved.
At Lime Rock Park the cars again qualified favorably in 2nd (Stuck) and 4th (Haywood). Again the Audi team showed its emerging dominance, with Stuck winning for the 5th time. Haywood also racked up some good points with another podium position in 3rd.
At Laguna Seca the 90 IMSA GTO faced a peculiar new enemy. Fresh from Europe's GT scene came a Ferrari F40 LM, entered by Ferrari France. At the wheel was none other than Jean Alesi (FRA), one year before his Formula 1 debut. Alesi gave Stuck a real run for his money, placing 2nd on the grid behind the tall German. Haywood meanwhile found himself down in 7th.
In the end not even Jean Alesi in the best ever Ferrari could withstand the pressure from Audi's turbocharged maniac, and had to settle for third behind Hurley Haywood. Stuck once again recorded a victory.
The final round of the season took place at Del Mar, California. The temporary street circuit suited the grippy four wheel drive Audi's perfectly, and Stuck again took pole. Hurley Haywood was down in 5th. The Audi's looked set for a solid result, but both dropped out with mechanical issues.
The end result mattered little to Audi, as Hans Joachim Stuck had taken the drivers title with ease. Audi's refusal to run at Daytona and Sebring meant it missed out on the constructors title, but the brand had enjoyed more than enough attention over the season. Audi's plan to thoroughly establish their reputation in the US had worked perfectly. In response IMSA, like Trans Am, banned the use of four wheel drive. Once again Audi had been forced out of competition for being far too dominant.
The Audi 90 quattro IMSA GTO was the ferocious conclusion of Audi's five cylinder racing exploits. In a format without any real technical restrictions, the mad machine was free to throw out insane amounts of power. This vicious force combined with the grip and traction of the ruthlessly efficient quattro four wheel drive system blew any and all competition out of the water.
The car did little for the longevity of Audi's American racing effort, but gave the brand plenty of publicity and notoriety. It scared the American establishment into banning it, and became an infamous demon in IMSA lore. Its mission had been accomplished.